Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dear DC Government: Lose the Anti-Terrorism Tag Lines in All Your Emails

by Bill Adler

Every message that originates from a District of Columbia, dc.gov email address contains this ominous reminder:
Preventing terrorism is everybody's business. If you SEE something, SAY something. Call the Metropolitan Police Department at (202) 727-9099 or email at SAR@DC.GOV to report suspicious activity or behavior that has already occurred. Call 911 to report in-progress threats or emergencies.
To learn more, visit http://www.mpdc.dc.gov/operationtipp.
While it's a good idea in theory for citizens to report suspicious activity, in practice it rarely turns out to be a good thing. Are average citizens really any good at being able to tell the difference between ordinary and suspicious behavior? According to the MPD's website, this activity can be suspicious: "Are you aware of anyone recording or monitoring activities, taking notes, using cameras, maps, binoculars, etc., in your neighborhood?" Birdwatchers and amateur photographers can look very suspicious. How can ordinary citizens tell when somebody's hobby is actually a terrorist cover? The answer is that untrained civilians can't (and the police often can't tell the difference either).

Keep in mind that the 9-11 terrorists did not conduct photographic surveillance prior to attacking the United States. That fact somehow got lost or distorted along the way. We're building a nation of suspicious-reporting citizens based on what? Not based on anything useful.

Passengers on an airplane reported another passenger for suspicious activity because of too many trips to the bathroom. Amtrak police arrested a photographer for suspicious activity because he was taking photos of trains for an Amtrak-sponsored photography contest.

Remember the white van that the Washington snipers were supposedly driving? The actual vehicle that everyone, especially law enforcement, should have been looking for turned out to be a Chevy Caprice. It's very easy to look for the wrong thing when it comes to suspicious activity

I'm not sure exactly how to segue into this, but I think it's relevant to point out that New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority trademarked the phrase in 2007 “If You See Something, Say Something." Not kidding. The MTA licenses its use. Is this about security or about marketing?

But never mind. Back to the reasons why this tag line on DC Government email's is a bad idea.

What happens when you hear the same warning over and over again, such as "Cigarettes can be hazardous to your heath," the warning that was on every cigarette package for decades? Repeating the same thing over and over again numbs people to the message. Repeating the same phrase turns that into an anti-warning. It become less than useless.

So, please, District of Columbia government, turn off that tag line. It's doing more harm than good.

1 comment: