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Report: U.S. to issue terror alerts via Facebook, Twitter

Department of Homeland Security plans to replace color-coded alert system with new two-tiered approach and will issue some public alerts via Facebook and Twitter, the AP reports.

The Department of Homeland Security's notoriously perplexing color-coded alert system. Wikipedia

The Department of Homeland Security plans to replace its color-coded, five-level system of terrorism alerts with a new two-tiered approach later this month and will issue some public alerts via Facebook and Twitter, according to a report.

The Associated Press reported today that it had obtained a confidential, departmental document outlining the plan, which, though not yet finalized, is set to go into effect by April 27.

According to the AP, the new plan will ditch the notoriously perplexing, green-to-red, low-to-severe-risk system put in place in 2002 with a two-level system that labels threats as either "elevated" or "imminent."

The department is hoping to make the system more usable and accessible. And it seems to be responding, in part, to recommendations such as those made in a report issued in 2009 by the Homeland Security Advisory Council.

At that time, hacker Jeff Moss, organizer of the Defcon hacking conference and a then-new appointee to the advisory council, told CNET's Elinor Mills that the council had suggested, among other things, that Homeland Security:

  • Reduce the number of threat levels.
  • Localize warnings and include more details (without jeopardizing law-enforcement. efforts)
  • Automatically lower a status level if no terrorist activity had occurred.
  • Use various avenues, including social media, to spread the word.

Moss said at the time:

Let's say there's another [Hurricane] Katrina, a huge weather alert, or a terrorist attack, and you want to get the information out to everybody. Right now the only way to do that is to activate the whole emergency broadcast system or the emergency action system and have everybody's radio tell you--which they didn't even use during the World Trade Center attacks...

I have one of those emergency weather radios because we get a lot of storms [in Seattle], and my radio is constantly going off telling me about specific storms. [But] it doesn't go off when there's a terrorist attacking my country? I just turned it off and threw it away. It's useless.

So what if you could have a feed coming from DHS and other government agencies, say, to Twitter or Facebook or MySpace or whatever? And you subscribe to that channel or that feed? End users would know it's still the official word; it hasn't been modified or changed. There has to be some official ways of distributing this alert information in many different ways.

In criticizing the current style of alert, Moss asked, "How does it give [civilians] any actionable information? How should we change our behavior based on it?"

The AP report suggests that the department is trying to address such questions. The news service said that in addition to cutting the number of levels and tapping social media for alerts "when appropriate," the department plans to make its warnings more specific and to issue them to more-specific audiences. If, for example, a plot was discovered to hide bombs inside backpacks at airports, instead of issuing a blanket alert, DHS would limit the warning to airports and ask travelers to be extra vigilant in reporting unattended baggage.

The AP said the new "elevated" threat level "would warn of a credible threat against the U.S. It probably would not specify timing or targets, but it could reveal terrorist trends that intelligence officials believe should be shared in order to prevent an attack." And it said the "imminent" level would be reserved for a "credible, specific, and impending terrorist threat or an ongoing attack against the U.S."

Related links
• Q&A: Defcon's Jeff Moss on cybersecurity, government's role
• Pentagon, State Department OK social-network use

Both levels of alert would be called off if no terrorist activity ensued: the elevated level would expire after no more than 30 days, the imminent level after no more than 7. Both, however, could be extended if necessary.

Any public warnings issued using Facebook, Twitter, or other such outlets would first be communicated to federal, state, and local officials. And some might not be issued to the public at all, if doing so would undermine efforts to head off any attacks, the AP reported.

Again, though, the plan could be modified before its implementation. Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa told the AP, "The plan is not yet final, as we will continue to meet...with our partners to finalize a plan that meets everyone's needs."