Janet Napolitano Letter

March 1, 2012

Secretary Janet Napolitano
Department of Homeland Security
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Washington, D.C. 20528

Re: The prospect of an artificially generated stampede in NCAA Division I football stadiums

Secretary Napolitano:

In 1913, 73 people were crushed to death in the Italian Hall Disaster in Calumet, Michigan.  This event is generally regarded as the basis for placing reasonable limitations on the First Amendment.  Most refer to it as “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.”  Roughly a century later, allow me to pose a similar question.  Is it conceivable to text “fire” in a crowded stadium?  If a significant number of individuals received a text message conveying IMMINENT DANGER and/or the NEED TO IMMEDIATELY EVACUATE, the consequences could be catastrophic.  It would likely result in an artificially generated stampede.

Following the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, companies offering mass emergency text alerts became more commonplace.  Many of these companies offer SMS (short message service) systems to anyone willing to pay for them.  It’s just a matter of time before someone with a pernicious agenda opts to utilize this platform.  Furthermore, a perpetrator would probably seek maximum impact as it would likely be a one-time occurrence.

Now consider the prospect for two or more simultaneous stampedes.  National news outlets might unintentionally exacerbate the problem by providing breaking news updates.  With the prevalence of social media and instant cellular notifications, there could be a domino effect.  Anyone in the confines of a college football stadium would find themselves in a dangerous location.  The vulnerability of just two stadiums could expose all occupied stadiums to a stampede cascade effect.  Stadiums would be most at risk during the first two weeks of the season as the biggest programs often have consecutive home games.

While security and safety measures have been greatly enhanced in the last decade, there has never been a credible plan to safely evacuate a stadium in the event of a sudden panic.  Why?  Because it’s simply not logistically feasible.  We have already witnessed the evolution of flash mobs and the recent spread of dangerous viral text hoaxes.  The prospect of hacking and manipulating a campus text alert system or cellular service provider represents the gravest concern.  But it’s simply the mere existence and availability of lengthy lists of cell phone numbers corresponding to individuals (students, faculty and/or season ticket holders) in a confined location.  This, combined with the established level of trust placed in emergency SMS communication, represents the underlying problem.

While I doubt that I am the first person to conceive of this potential threat, I do suspect this is the first time you’ve heard about an artificially generated stampede.  Other than virally spread text hoaxes, I’ve seen nothing about deliberately transmitting false texts in an attempt to create a sudden, mass panic.  There seems to be no discussion of this asymmetric security issue in the public domain.  I am neither an expert in the field of wireless communication nor crowd dynamics.  However, if you connect the dots between large crowds and the potential misuse of SMS technology, I think you’ll agree that my concerns are justified.

Being a “whistle blower” for a hypothetical national security threat is not something I relish, but I cannot in good conscience remain silent.  So in accordance with the Department of Homeland Security’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, I have made a moral determination to send you this letter.  I implore you to research this issue and take preventative action.  And while this problem is well beyond my area of expertise, I do have some ideas regarding general awareness campaigns and possible countermeasures.  You are welcome to contact me to discuss this matter further.  Considering the serious nature of this issue, I have taken the liberty of copying this letter to the presidents of NCAA Division I universities with sizable football stadiums.

“There are risks and costs to a program of action, but they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.” – John F. Kennedy

Respectfully,

Eric Saferstein
45 Ridgewood Avenue
Wheeling, WV  26003
304-312-1395

cc: Chairman Julius Genachowski, Federal Communications Commission
Secretary Arne Duncan, Department of Education
NCAA Division I university leadership