April 19, 2007
Even prior the Virginia Tech shootings, I'd been thinking about 9/11 for some reason and about the combination of lousy preparation and corrective action that occurred before and after the event.
It was only a matter of time before something else happened that we could have prepared for, but wouldn't. With 9/11, it seemed like much of the effort was made to look busy. Most of the damage, both financial and physical, actually occurred as a result of boneheaded responses, not the initial attack. Now with the Virginia Tech massacre, there's a massive effort underway to make sure blame doesn't land on anyone still alive. We can anticipate renewed calls for gun control, campus weapons scanners, and restrictions on weapon access. These won't do much more than run up costs, reduce revenues, and make people who aren’t particularly competent look capable. If the goal were to waste money in an effort to make people feel less safe, then these would be good practices. But I think the goal should be to make people safer and that requires a more comprehensive, and probably much less expensive, solution. While you can't eliminate attacks like this, you certainly can reduce their effectiveness. So it's time to address two consistent mistakes in responding to these disasters. One is not making better use of the people at risk to help protect themselves. The other is losing track of what it is you are trying to actually prevent. Addressing both of these means people don't have to be targets -- they can actually become part of the solution. So often with security we live in a tactical, reactive world. There’s generally little time to analyze and react to a problem. 9/11 was a perfect example. All that was needed to prevent future attacks using airplanes as weapons was two things: hardened cockpit doors, and changing the policy that had pilots cooperating with hijackers. Few people appear to do good contingency planning, or if they do, they focus that planning on blame avoidance. I question that strategy from a competence standpoint, as well as its overall effectiveness. Blame always seems to find a home. Two hours after the attack, Virginia Tech sent a mass emailing. But it was clear students had no idea what it was they were supposed to do even if they got the email. Instead, students and faculty might have been sent text messages that a life-threatening problem exists, urging them to clear common areas, lock classroom doors, and report suspicious activity to a provided number or address. Better yet, an alarm system coupled with drills; one alarm means clear common areas, a second might mean sit down wherever you are and lock doors so that a running criminal or assailant can be seen and quickly targeted. Such a system, if kept simple and coupled with regular drills, could not only help with physical attacks like this one but with natural disasters like earthquakes and catastrophic storms. Whether it's a virus attack, DNS, or something more physical or deadly, there’s often someone in a position to provide timely notification or assist in mitigating the problem but almost never trained to help. They are more often treated like obstacles to overcome and, over and over again, it is really clear that doesn't work. With the broad variety of threats and security that never has sufficient budget or personnel, there's no way that we can afford to pass up any resource. Anticipate potential problems and, when practical, include the rest of the company in solutions that mitigate them. It is so much more satisfying to avoid a problem in the first place than it is to successfully push the blame for it on someone else. — Rob Enderle is President and Founder of Enderle Group . Special to Dark Reading.
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