Homeland Security to issue terror alerts via Facebook, Twitter

The Department of Homeland Security's new National Terrorism Advisory System will use Facebook and Twitter to distribute alerts in some cases.

The Department of Homeland Security plans to use Facebook and Twitter to warn citizens about threats with its new National Terrorism Advisory System, set to launch on April 27, 2011. The social networks won't always be used, but they will play a role when the US government deems it necessary.

The messages will likely be similar to the emergency broadcast system warnings that go out over TV and radio. The US government might as well be take leverage Facebook and Twitter given that people are on them all day long.

The new program will have just two levels of warnings (elevated and imminent) and will replace the old five color-coded system (red – severe, orange – high, yellow – elevated, blue – guarded, and green – low), which was put in place following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The new terror warnings will each come with a stamped expiration date, according to a 19-page Homeland Security draft dated April 1, 2011, and cited by the Associated Press.

A step-by-step process will occur behind the scenes when the government believes terrorists might be threatening Americans. First, members of Congress will be notified, then counterterrorism officials in states and cities, then governors and mayors, and finally the public.

An elevated alert would warn of a credible threat against the US and would expire after 30 days. It would typically not specify timing or targets, but would instead reveal terrorist trends that intelligence officials believe should be shared in order to prevent an attack. An imminent alert would warn about a specific and impending terrorist threat or an ongoing attack against the US. That alert would expire after no more than seven days. Both types of warnings could be extended.

Homeland Security is still not sure how much information to release with the new warning system. Giving away too much information in the warnings will give the bad guys a heads-up, while not releasing enough information could mean citizens will be will not be able to react appropriately.

The color warnings that became one of the government's most visible anti-terrorism programs were criticized as too vague to be useful. The new advisory system is designed to be more specific, but it's still unclear how often notices will be issued. Some terror warnings may be withheld from the public if announcing a threat will risk exposing an intelligence operation or an ongoing investigation.