Seeking nature's help may help develop more effective security systems

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London, May 21 (ANI): Security systems could be more effective if officials took a cue from how organisms deal with threats in the natural world, according to a new study by University of Arizona researchers.

Researchers are working with security and disaster management officials to help put some of their recommendations - such as decentralizing forces and forming alliances - into practice.

"Anytime you have the illusion of full security, you get adaptation. Terrorists figure out unexpected means of attack, hackers come up with new software to break through firewalls, and pathogens develop resistance to antibiotics," Nature quoted said Rafe Sagarin, the lead author of the opinion piece as saying.

Instead of relying on large, centralized bureaucracies that move slowly and often lag behind in addressing threats, the authors encourage officials to look to the natural world for principles that could prove less costly, more flexible and more effective at countering threats.

The security issues of modern human societies are analogous to those of many organisms, said the researchers.

In nature, risks are frequent, variable and uncertain. Over billions of years, organisms have evolved an enormous variety of methods to survive, grow and proliferate on a continually changing planet.

The key to their success is their ability to quickly adapt to rapidly changing threats, and change their structures, behaviours and interactions accordingly.

Unlike many security agencies or entities in the human world, the most adaptable and successful organisms avoid centralization.

Instead, they distribute tasks among decentralized, specialized groups of cells or individuals.

Sagarin pointed to the octopus' camouflaging strategy to illustrate this principle- Its networks of pigment cells, distributed all over its body, react to and match the colors of the surroundings, blending the animal into the background.

"We can learn something from the octopus about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The individual soldiers in the war zone are the most adaptable unit out there. They are in a better position to recognize and address an emerging threat in time than a centralized bureaucracy," said Sagarin, specifically with regard to the threat from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

The researchers noted that terrorist networks such as Al Qaida have recognized the advantages of this approach and operate a loose network of largely independent subgroups.

Another lesson could be learned by looking at how organisms deal with the constant threat from predators, according to the authors.

A key feature is the capacity to reduce uncertainty and turn it into an advantage.

Sagarin explained that hunting prey uses a lot of energy, which is why predators seek to ambush their prey.

As soon as the prey is aware of their presence and ready to engage in defence, a pursuit might no longer be worth it.

Ground squirrels, for example, use alarm signals when a predator is lurking nearby, not only to warn their peers, but also to make it known to the attacker its cover is blown.

Remarkably, ground squirrels use alarm signals that are very specific to the threat. If the predator is a mammal (which can hear), they utter alarm calls. If it is a snake (which cannot) they use tail-flagging to signal its presence.

The less specific an alarm call is, the less efficient it is in eliciting an appropriate response, the authors argue and point to the U.S. Homeland Security's threat advisory for national and international flights, which has remained at level orange (high) since August 2006.

This static, ambiguous and nonspecific system creates uncertainty or indifference among the population that it is meant to help protect.

Another principle often observed in nature is symbiosis, the formation of allies.

"Symbiosis is not always between friends," said Sagarin, pointing to the example of cleaner wrasses, small fish specializing in picking parasites off other marine animals, sometimes entering their mouths.

The clients could easily swallow the cleaner wrasse while it is going about its job.

"But they don't. It's a mutual beneficial relationship in which the larger fish provides the cleaner fish with a food source and protection, and the cleaner keeps it free from parasites in return," said Sagarin.

The authors noted that a lesson of how symbioses can successfully be applied in the human realm was demonstrated in Iraq in 2007, when Gen. David Petraeus's strategy to form alliances with local leaders - including those who had been hostile - resulted in more tip-offs about IEDs and fewer American casualties.

"One of the main lessons we learned is that issuing challenges is more effective than giving orders when there is a need to develop security measures," said Sagarin.

The study was published in the latest issue of the journal Nature. (ANI)

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