An incentive program to catch terrorists?

Tom Bell suggests the following on today’s

…we need to spur white-hat security hackers with the prospect of profit and to guide their efforts into safe and useful channels. We need, in other words, to set up a bounty program that will reward both pretend terrorism and real security. Program participants who successfully hack the U.S. air security system would win money for their efforts. Unsuccessful hackers would have to pay the guards who catch them.

Here are my worries:

1. It will, in the long run, lead to the discovery of knowledge that is used by terrorists (Bell does discuss this, see the link).

2. Public anxiety, one of the biggest costs of terrorism, would rise appreciably. We would be constantly aware of our own vulnerability and we would become increasingly insecure. Isn’t that what the terrorists want? Terrorism as a phenomenon would receive more attention, perhaps to the benefit of terrorists. The 20-year-old who cracked security with box-cutters made the front pages.

3. Let’s say it worked. Would net terrorism decline? I’ve always wondered why terrorists have this obsession with planes, rather than stadiums, which would appear more vulnerable. Of course we could use the idea with stadiums as well, but overall substitutability may be high. And yes, this argument could be used against any safety measure (why not allow box-cutters again?), but still I think we are using up a good deal of society’s “ability to tolerate anxiety” on a single and not our only vulnerable spot.

4. Something else I can’t quite put my finger on. It relates to why it is so hard to use incentives successfully within a bureaucracy. And yes, the white-hat hackers would need to be embedded in a highly regulated and ordered bureaucracy, whether we like it or not. But can you imagine the FBI or CIA pulling this off successfully?

Still, ideas like this are worth thinking about. I certainly don’t have better proposals, and it is hard to believe that pecuniary incentives should have as low a role, in fighting terrorism, as they do today.


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