New DHS terror alert system arriving in wake of attacks

The Department of Homeland Security will release a new terror alert system aimed at being more trigger sensitive and informative to the public than the system currently in place.

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said Dec. 7 that the nation needs “a system that informs the public at large what [DHS is] seeing, even if what we are seeing could be self-evident to the public.”

DHS needs to do a better job of informing the public and “removing some of the mystery about the global terrorist threat,” Johnson said during a Defense One event in Washington.

The new system will be announced in the coming days, Johnson said.

In the wake of the Islamic State attacks in Paris and what experts are calling a radicalized attack in San Bernardino, California, DHS is taking the opportunity to revamp the system.

The United States currently uses the National Threat Advisory System (NTAS) to inform citizens of terrorist threats, however, the system has never actually been used.

Federal News Radio reported in October that DHS was reconsidering its use of NTAS since it has not issued a warning in its four years of existence.

The system’s Twitter handle, @NTASAlerts, gathered 23,500 followers without a single tweet. Its Facebook page is liked by 33,864 people, but its timeline has no posts.

Johnson said the system’s bar for what is considered a threat was set too high, which is why alerts were never triggered.

Before NTAS, DHS used a color-coded terror alert system, which critics called confusing and vague.

“The old color-coded system taught Americans to be scared, not prepared. Each and every time the threat level was raised, very rarely did the public know the reason, how to proceed, or for how long to be on alert,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, has said about the system.

“Going dark”

While DHS is revamping its alert system, Congress is trying to figure out a way to work around “dark platforms” that can be used to hide communications from the government.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) called for a national commission on security and technology challenges in the digital age to work on the issue.

“A legislative knee-jerk reaction could weaken internet protections and privacy for everyday Americans, while doing nothing puts American lives at risk and makes it easier for terrorists and criminals to escape justice. It is time for Congress to act because the White House has failed to bring all parties together — transparently — to find solutions,” McCaul said during his Dec. 7 State of Homeland Security Address in Washington.

When data is encrypted only the user of the device can decode the message. Apple’s iMessage automatically encrypts messages when they are sent and decodes them when the user receives them.

Software platforms like Tor connect whole communities in “dark spaces.”

Both the chairman and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee have called for dialogue to work on the going dark issue.

McCaul said there is  a tug-of-war between privacy and national security with the going dark issue, which is why the commission will bring together the technology sector, privacy and civil liberties groups, academics and the law enforcement community.

Congress is already in conference to reconcile a bill passed by both legislative houses that will allow companies to give cyber hacking information to the government legally.

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