Good Legislation or Bad?

E-mail Melanie Martella

Steven Chillrud, Greg O'Mullan and Wade McGillis are researchers at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and they've just written an opinion piece for the New York Times stating their objections to a proposed piece of legislation that would require all owners or users of chemical, biological, or radiological agents to register with the police.

Dealing with False Alarms
The article, "Sensor Deprivation", explains why the authors think this particular bill is a bad idea. Although the intent is to lessen the number of false alarms, the bill is worded in so vague a manner as to cover all environmental sensors. The researchers (and I happen to think that they're right) are concerned that if the bill is passed it may act to curtail the collection of environmental information.

I think that if you want to decrease false alarms it may make more sense to take a cold, hard, look at how alarms are handled now and to accept the fact that the number of false alarms will always dwarf the real ones. To quote Bruce Schneier, noted cryptographer and security expert, "It's a signal-to-noise issue. If you look at enough noise, you're going to find signal just by random chance. It's only signal that rises above random chance that's valuable." Terrorist attacks are extremely rare. If you're trying to find a needle in a haystack, most of the time you're just going to find hay.

In February 2007, Schneier wrote an article on police and security in which he discussed why there seem to be so many over-reactions. Someone sees something odd or unexpected, freaks out, reports it, and the next thing you know the bomb squad's on site. Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I used to live in the U.K. and finally moved stateside in 1987. The IRA had a brisk bombing campaign going on in the 80s and the population learned to keep a weather eye out for unattended bags and other such anomalies. I worry that this proposed bill is an example of what Schneier refers to as CYA security: a response designed to remove liability in the (very remote) case that something bad actually happens. Because of the nature of the problem (needle, haystack), I don't think this bill has any hope of lessening the number of false alarms. I also think the police departments have their hands plenty full right now and don't need the addition to their workloads.

I'd also hate to see anything curb environmental research efforts. Researchers are using a wider array of sensor types than ever before and they're using them in truly novel ways to garner information about the world we live in. What do you think?

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