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Security Experts Doing the Math

WHEN WORD LEAKED through the media that DARPA was working on a “futures market” to predict acts of terrorism back in 2003, public condemnation was so swift and severe that the project was scrapped. That experience didn’t scare off the mathematics community, however. Other statistical and probability- based efforts to predict and thwart terrorism are being formulated at the Homeland Security Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) at the University of Southern California (USC). Here is an update:

CBRN. Two professors at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee maintain that acts of extreme terrorism can be viewed as probabilistic events, and such probabilities can be measured even if they seldom occur and are of extreme type.

Having sifted through 600 incidents of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks in search of the next large unconventional attack, the professors predict that a biological attack on the scale of the gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995—which killed 12 and sickened 5,000 people—“could occur by 2009,” according to a presentation on the topic. “By 2020, an attack of that magnitude could occur about every 2 ½ years,” say the professors.

The good news is that preemptive measures may be able to reduce that likelihood. For example, the professors are looking at whether approaches used to stop SARS from spreading could help stop a bioterror attack.

Buildings. In other recently presented research, Richard G. Little, the director of the Keston Institute for Infrastructure at USC, discusses a risk management approach to protecting urban buildings from vehicle bombs. In terms of protecting buildings, “There really hasn’t been much discussion of the cost-effectiveness of what we’ve been doing,” he says.

With that in mind, Little compared the cost of various types of safety regulations with the potential cost of mandating buildings to reduce their vulnerability to vehicle bombs. He posited a cost of $7 million to harden a 300,000 square foot facility and that these upgrades would on average save 50 lives.

Using these figures, requiring buildings to take such measures as increased standoff, window glazing, and stronger structural members would cost $0.8 million per life saved. “The costs aren’t trivial, but they are in line with other things we feel we should be protected from,” Little says.

For example, the cost per life saved by mandating head protection for motor vehicles is $700,000, the cost for requiring that aircraft seats be fire resistant is $1 million, and regulation providing asbestos protection for workers comes in at $5.5 million.

Yet Little doesn’t think sweeping regulation is the answer. The gross cost of equipping every conceivable target would be enormous. “My whole thrust is that we have to look rationally at urban security,” he says.

Theme parks. Other research coming out of CREATE is examining the potential economic impact namely, the cost of business interruption—of terrorism at major U.S. theme parks. The economic model behind this research assumes that an attacked park (or cluster of parks, such as Disney World) would close for a month, operate at 30 percent capacity for six months, and return to full operations in 18 months.

Modeling attacks on 13 theme park complexes, the researchers found direct economic impact ranging from about $12 billion to $14 billion and indirect impact ranging from $7 billion to $9 billion, assuming that fear of going to amusement parks spreads nationwide. Lower figures emerge if only localized avoidance of theme parks occurs or one takes into account the diversion of theme-park dollars to other attractions.