Notification Qverload

(No, that’s not a typo.)

There’s an infamous notification box from the dark days of Internet Explorer 6 that “warns” the user that they are “about to view pages over a secure connection” — in other words, they get a big security alert when they were about to do something secure.

The IE6 "you are about to view pages over a secure connection" alert, placed next to a screen from The Simpsons showing Homer demonstrating his "Everything's Okay" alarm.
“Corporate needs you to find the differences between this picture and this picture.”

The problem with this sort of thing should be obvious: it’s training people to either ignore alerts and notifications entirely, or overreact to each one they see. And while that’s more of a UI/UX problem, it’s one with some pretty major implications…both security and otherwise.

I bring this up because the same things happens outside the realm of the cybers, and usually on the “overreact to each one” side of that split. For example, this incident in Ohio:

On 2/15/2021 the Sheriff’s Office received a call from the Walmart Security Department in regards to suspicious activity in their parking lot involving a vehicle and two, what appear to be, males looking into vehicles and placing a single red rose under the windshield wipers of those vehicles…Although there have been several Facebook posts of similar instances that have happened in Ohio regarding Human Trafficking related techniques, it is unclear at this time if this incident is related to such type of crime.

A group of women stuck a bunch of roses under windshield wipers the day after Valentine’s, and a cop thought it meant a team of men engaged in human trafficking. Because of Facebook.

Let’s just set aside the fact that cops are using your grandmother’s Facebook shares as an intelligence source for a moment. Instead, let’s look at the actual though process (such as it is) that led to this. A Walmart manager saw security footage of people leaving roses under windshields in the parking lot on February 15th, the day after a lot of roses tend to get handed out. Said manager called the police. The police promptly decided that, based on the kind of Facebook posts that Snopes writes about (exactly the kind of post they write about, in fact), this had enough of a chance of being a human trafficking scheme that rather than do any further investigation they should throw up their own Facebook post and call it a day.

Better writers than me have spoken about how much of the “they’ll steal our Innocent White Girls and turn them into whores” rhetoric is…somewhat inaccurate, let’s just say. It’s the latest iteration of Satanic Panic, as anyone who had to cut ties with a relative who went down the QAnon rabbit hole and came up reeking of carrot wine could tell you. And like the original Satanic Panic, it makes it harder to investigate actual child abuse because the reports are getting flooded with “my kid’s biology teacher runs a D&D campaign at school” or “the pedophile cabal is leaving roses in windshield wipers at Walmart”. It even taints actual cases of child sexual abuse by making them seem too absurd to be real.

I’m not going to get into the motives on why someone would convince themselves that Trump is still President, and Biden’s just lying about it from a sound stage in Dulce or whatever. I’ll just say that this is just going to make it even more dangerous to encourage people to overreact to normal events…in other words, the very existence of an “Everything’s Okay” alarm guarantees that everything will not, in fact, be okay.