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11 October 2007

Counting the minutes

Those with even a passing interest in counterproliferation issues will no doubt be well aware of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist’s infamous Doomsday Clock. Tao Security examines the implications of using a clock to convey threat information, and in particular the implications of shifting what was originally designed as a publication art into a watch and warning mechanism.

Many of these lessons, we think, could be taken to heart by those seeking to implement an ever wider array of threat level displays for almost every new issue that arises in a multi-agency or cross-account context. Too many of these efforts seek to differentiate themselves by creating their own standards, hoping to be cited with the same frequency as the more recognized measures of warning.

However, all face the same questions of setting an initial baseline, and of calibrating the changing conditions to the consensus of expert judgment based on imperfect and often contradictory indicators. These by themselves are not intractable problems – in fact, they are quite familiar to those routinely engaged in the business of analysis. (Although many now pushing for new threat level measurements do not themselves come from the analytic tradition.)

What complicates these new efforts is the effective communication of these measurements – often done in color coded fashion (to mimic the DHS National Threat Advisory), or through some combination of alpha-numeric or word designators. These are displayed variously as bars, speedometers, and a variety of other graphical tricks pulled from simple spreadsheet charts so favoured by accountants. And we can think of few less productive ways to spend the valuable time of intelligence professionals than group debates over the exact shade of color, or font, of one of these new graphics.

Effective warning in intelligence is a difficult task that is as individual as the consumers that it serves. We think the clock model, and its counterparts of the speedometer and bar graph, deserves to be left to rest. In much the same way as the intelligence community has moved away from numeric designators for source reliability and accuracy and towards more descriptive paragraph summary formats, it is long past time to reconsider how warning conditions are conveyed to decision-makers in a more robust fashion which clearly brings across not only the underlying indicators but also the key changes which drive current judgments.

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