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Neil Seeman

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The Threat of Mass Naivete

Posted: 11/15/11 05:09 PM ET

The measure of success in the war on terror is the absence of a terrorist attack. So said Professor Loch K. Johnson of the University of Georgia in his keynote address at the 2011 CASIS International Conference on security and intelligence held Nov. 9-10 in Ottawa.

Is the lack of an attack the correct barometer of success? Do normal rules of return on investment from the business sector apply to the intelligence industry, where the cost of failure is incalculable?

This question, a dominant theme for the CASIS conference, came amid media reports that the head of Canada's spy review board had wired $200,000 in personal funds to a lobbyist to secure a US $120-million grant from Russia for infrastructure development in Sierra Leone. Whatever the outcome of this development, it is a reminder that the intelligence community is under ever-closer scrutiny. This, during a terrible economy, and when the security industry's job is to find a tireless enemy, isolate it and destroy it.

What we in the business world call value for money or return on investment eludes traditional measurement in the world of counter-intelligence. For, in that world, as CASIS President Alan Breakspear reminded attendees, "uncertainty will continue to haunt us."

I was honoured to speak at the CASIS conference this year. I'd been asked to consider how my work in real-time web analytics for health surveillance could help analyze emergent threats and radicalism.

Among the many global trends my colleagues and I monitor around the clock are the two Big Nasty Elephants of modernity -- terrorism and pandemic spread. These two challenges to mankind share a common set of unassailable facts: they will both recur; they will both kill on a wide scale; and, for reasons I do not understand, the public is naïve as to the inevitability of such events.

Consider comments by Reid Morden, former Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). Although he said Canadians are more aware of the terror threat than they were pre-9/11, Mr. Morden rated Canadians today at four out of 10 in terms of alertness to and engagement with terror issues.

"Public perception of where we are has lagged far behind where we are," he told the lunchtime crowd.

We have tracked similar public ignorance with respect to magnitude of risk in the context of the administration of the flu vaccine and the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. Our published data continue to show a shocking proportion of Canadians who believe the flu vaccine is unsafe, or that the MMR vaccine causes autism in young children.

Like vaccination, terror is what epidemiologists should consider to be a population health challenge. Better education about how we could suffer if we don't get vaccinated, especially those of us who are elderly, is essential to increasing vaccination rates and decreasing deaths from influenza. In the same light, better education about the vigilance which we must all show regarding the terror threat is a precondition to fighting what Norman Podhoretz has aptly called World War IV. In the fight on terror, as in pandemic preparedness, we will get sucker-punched if we're naive.

For example, our data from March 6 to May 14 of this year (and presented at the CASIS conference) show that support for the House of Saud stayed at roughly 80 per cent support every day (averaging at 82.6 per cent support) -- collected from a sample of 8,887 Saudi-based respondents. Yet all may not remain quiet on the Saudi front. How might Saudis react if an Anna Hazare-like activist charms millions of his fellow countrymen into protesting Saudi Arabia's recently passed anti-dissent legislation (minimum 10 years in jail for anyone who questions the word of the King or Crown Prince)?

Given the uncertainty that haunts us, how should we evaluate value for money in the war on terror?

There will be inflection points, or whiplash changes in public opinion, which forever change the spread of disease, in the case of a pandemic, or the metastasis of evil, in the case of terrorism. Both fights require more investment in the short run, not less, and they require the greatest investment in gathering cyber- and front-line intelligence on wherever the lethal virus may be gathering force.

Neil Seeman is CEO of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell, Senior Resident at Massey College in the University of Toronto, and Founder of the RIWI Corporation.