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Homeland Security and the Rise of Social Media

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Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, are a growing factor in everything from marketing to politics, and Homeland Security is no exception. We see the rise of social media in several areas of professional concern:

  • Counterterrorism, in which we’re aware that terrorists increasingly use these technologies to reach out to potential recruits and communicate with operatives;
  • Emergency response, because social media are a fast and effective way to communicate information in a disaster situation;
  • Epidemic disease, in which people worldwide can report instances of disease outbreaks instantly, circumventing any effort their governments may make to contain the information.

Like any essential change in the way people communicate and get things done, social media have their drawbacks. First, it’s worth noting that only a small fraction of the world’s population uses them. Because this fraction tends to be young, well-informed, and activist, social media helped propel popular reactions in places like Iran and Egypt. Nonetheless, it will be a long time before social media catch up with Internet applications like e-mail and news sites, let alone with television, radio, and telephone communications.

Let’s look at some of the challenges Homeland Security professionals will need to consider as social media become more pervasive.

In the area of public security, there was an incident in Mexico in August 2011 in which two individuals, labeled the “Twitter Terrorists” in press reports, posted false information on Twitter and Facebook claiming that children had been abducted from a school in Veracruz by drug cartels. The posts allegedly led to traffic accidents as parents hurried to the school in a panic, and the two perpetrators were charged with terrorism.

The charges were later dropped, but the incident highlighted two important points. One was the degree to which people in Veracruz, an area hard-hit by narcoterror gangs, used social media for instant security-related information. Checking Twitter before leaving home, for example, allows residents to learn about gunfights or other hazards.

Another is the ease with which anyone could cause terror and even casualties by spreading false reports via Facebook or Twitter. As in this case, people might be injured in traffic or trampled at a public gathering based on such reports.

Epidemic disease, whether of natural origin or the result of WMD use, remains a fearsome threat to Homeland Security. In a November 3 article, Homeland Security Newswire explains that social media can sometimes lead to inaccurate information:

Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have proven useful in quickly disseminating information, and raising awareness during disasters or disease outbreaks, but these tools can also be a double-edged sword. 

Global health officials warn that social media sites often spread rumors or false information that are difficult to correct.

Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), said, “I can assure you that with the rise of social media, the background noises for rumors have become much louder and making it so much harder to detect the really important segments.”

Keji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director-general, echoed Chan’s thoughts pointing to rumors circulating around the Internet on how to build immunity against the H1N1 swine flu during the 2009-2010 outbreak.

One of the rumors which started was that if you increase your salt intake it can help,” Fukuda said.

According to Fukuda, the agency was forced to correct the rumor, using social media, because taking in too much salt can be dangerous.

Emergency response is another area where the dissemination of inaccurate information could be a problem. However, the benefit of quickly spreading helpful information during a disaster makes it an option to expand, not squelch. Agencies like FEMA are already using social media to inform residents of what’s happening and what to do, and individuals use them on a personal level.

According to an article at Mashable.com, there’s room to make this role more formal:

However, according to new research from the American Red Cross, the Congressional Management Foundation and other organizations, social media could stand to play a larger and more formal role in emergency response. In fact, almost half the respondents in a recent survey said they would use social media in the event of a disaster to let relatives and friends know they were safe.

Students of Homeland Security are sure to see social media technologies grow in prevalence and power. You’ll likely confront new forms of communication yet to be imagined, so it’s worth considering how to make best use of these technologies in the public interest.

Graphic credit:  Mashable.com

Written by Homeland Security

November 3, 2011 at 19:31

Natural Disasters: Why Will They Hit Us Harder?

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We’re used to thinking of natural disasters as random acts of nature, no greater or less in our own century than in earlier times. Some commentators believe the frequency of natural disasters has increased, but what’s certain is that they affect us more than ever before, despite our advances in predicting storms and measuring quakes.

Why? Because human populations are denser than ever before, so it’s likely that a disaster will strike a populated area. In the past, earthquakes and storms often hit regions with few towns or settlements, so death tolls were low.

Likewise, the level of infrastructure was lower in the past. Disasters now destroy not only farms, homes, houses of worship, and markets but also skyscrapers, factories, airports, and microwave towers. The financial cost has gone up along with the human cost. According to Erwann Michel-Kerjann, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in risk management, America is highly vulnerable to natural disasters. Writing in the Washington Post, Michel-Kerjann shows that the economic costs of natural disasters have doubled compared to a similar period 20 years ago:

The world has entered a new era of catastrophes. Economic losses from hurricanes, earthquakes and resulting tsunamis, floods, wildfires and other natural disasters increased from $528 billion (1981-1990) to more than $1.2 trillion over the period 2001-2010. The 9.0 earthquake and massive tsunami in Japan this past spring caused hundreds of billions of dollars of direct and indirect costs.

How about the idea that there have been more natural disasters in recent times? The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) studied this idea in a 2005 article. Here’s what UNEP had to say:

With growing population and infrastructures the world’s exposure to natural hazards is inevitably increasing. This is particularly true as the strongest population growth is located in coastal areas (with greater exposure to floods, cyclones and tidal waves). To make matters worse any land remaining available for urban growth is generally risk-prone, for instance flood plains or steep slopes subject to landslides. The statistics in this graphic reveal an exponential increase in disasters. This raises several questions. Is the increase due to a significant improvement in access to information? What part does population growth and infrastructure development play? Finally, is climate change behind the increasing frequency of natural hazards?

In late September 2011, funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was at the center of budget battles in Washington. While the situation was temporarily resolved, a fundamental challenge remains: as more Americans will be facing natural disasters in years to come, is there still a national consensus that disaster victims can count on Federal help?

Graphic courtesy of UNEP

With friends like these…..

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When reviewing a number of articles dealing with Homeland Security, I came upon a recent NY Times article (LINK) which was an interesting demonstration of how sometimes the US confuses itself and can’t focus on Homeland Security with one voice.

The article was discussing Nassir Al-Rifahe, who was a member of the Iraqi National Congress, having worked for years to topple Saddam Hussein before being granted political asylum in the United States in 1997. For the last 10 years, Mr. Rifahe has been living in the US as a refugee, and the Department of Homeland Security has refused to grant his application for a green card.

To remind my readers, the Iraqi National Congress (INC) was an umbrella Iraqi opposition group led by Ahmed Chalabi. It received millions of dollars in funding from the United States government following the first Gulf War, with the goal of overthrowing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Why is this happening to Mr. Rifahe, you ask?

Well, according to the New York Times article, “Under a sweeping section of federal immigration law, the government considers Mr. Rifahe to have engaged in terrorist-related activity, making him ineligible to live here permanently. That the group Mr. Rifahe worked for was once supported by the United States and tried to overthrow Saddam Hussein matters little.

At issue is a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which was bolstered after the Sept. 11 attacks by the Patriot Act and other legislation to prevent terrorists from entering the United States.

As currently worded, the act defines a terrorist group as any organization with two or more people that has engaged in a range of violent activities against persons or property. This would include groups that take up arms against a government. Simply belonging to such an organization, which does not have to be officially designated by the United States as terrorist, or providing “material support” are grounds for being barred from this country.

The law makes no distinction for groups or governments that Washington views favorably.

I personally don’t see any benefit from this law being so broad as to prevent the US government from assisting individuals who are being labeled as terrorists even when they did not engage in terrorist activities or worked for a US funded group which was doing the bidding of the US Government.

What do you think?

What is Homeland Security?

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According to the “National Strategy for Homeland Security,” the definition of homeland security is “a concerted national effort to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, reduce America’s vulnerability to terrorism, and minimize the damage and recover from attacks that do occur.”[1]

Homeland security is a relatively new field of study which is constantly evolving and working to define itself. Prior to the Al Qaida sponsored terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, “Homeland Security” as a profession did not exist. It came into existence because of the shocking horror of the 9/11 terrorist attack which altered peoples perception of their own security, the world, and the government’s ability to protect the nation from attacks on US soil.

After 9/11, the United States created a Department of Homeland Security. This grew out of the government’s frustration with trying to unite a number of agencies and government organizations into one capable, centralized organization.

While the terrorist attack of 9/11 called into being the Homeland Security enterprise, its long-term existence is not dependent only on defending the US from terrorist attacks. Significant steps have been taken to implement a series of strategies to secure our nation not just against terrorist attacks, but also natural emergencies and hostile countries.

Because one of the government’s principal missions is protecting its people and homeland from attacks, the Homeland Security mission will always remain. Plans and programs to protect our way of life– and the critical infrastructure which makes our way of life possible– must be crafted and strengthened, all the while respecting our constitutional rights and freedoms and enabling the economy to prosper.

Many human and financial resources were spent on Homeland Security in the years after 9/11. Some were well spent, while in other cases money was wasted during the learning curve on how best to organize and secure our nation. Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, budgets are slimmer, but there remains a national consensus on the importance of funding Homeland Security agencies and activities. Today, the homeland security field is a multibillion-dollar business.

There is an acute national and international need for professionals who can think and operate in the Homeland Security field. These will be people who can contribute their expertise in one or more of the disciplines that comprise the field as a whole.