The Department of Homeland Security is seriously considering the use of social media networks like Facebook and Twitter to send out terror alerts to the public. The civilians will have to be 'friended' on Facebook or 'follow' a user on Twitter to get the alert information.

The draft plan says before an official alert is issued, intelligence sharing among multiple federal, state and local agencies, including the FBI, the National Counter-terrorism Center and the White House need to be beefed up. In case the threat is serious, a Homeland Security official will hold a meeting of a special counter-terrorism advisory board, before sending out the alert, reports said.

This requires the department to revise its existing color code alert system in less than a month's time. The new system will have two color codes implying elevated or imminent risk instead of the existing five color code system. The plan is yet to be finalized. In the existing security alert system there are five color codes which connote various alert situations ranging from Low, Guarded terror threats to Elevated, High, and Severe terror threats.

Hacker Jeff Moss, organizer of the Defcon hacking conference and a new appointee to the advisory council said in his interview with a CNET recently that the country is on Elevated and High risk, that is, yellow and orange respectively. It has never gone to the lowest codes. It has been on Severe only once on Aug. 10, 2006, amid a disrupted Al-Qaeda plot targeting trans-Atlantic flights. Therefore, it wouldn't be unwise to scrap three codes from the existing code system to just two, he says.

There are pros and cons for the five color coded alert system. They have a system in place which describes what actions to be taken in each situation. But civilians are not aware of what action to be taken based on the color codes. This may require a revision but does not herald full change in the coding system, he said.

Another recommendation made by Jeff Moss was to make the system more localized and geography-specific. If there is a threat in one particular place, warning should be localized and not spread over.

Defending the use of social networking sites, he said: Let's say there's another Katrina, a huge weather alert, or a terrorist attack, and you want to get the information out to everybody. Right now the only way to do that is to activate the whole emergency broadcast system or the emergency action system and have everybody's radio tell you--which they didn't even use during the World Trade Center attacks. I have one of those emergency weather radios because we get a lot of storms [in Seattle], and my radio is constantly going off telling me about specific storms. [But] it doesn't go off when there's a terrorist attacking my country? I just turned it off and threw it away. It's useless.

So what if you could have a feed coming from DHS and other government agencies, say, to Twitter or Facebook or MySpace or whatever? And you subscribe to that channel or that feed? End users would know it's still the official word; it hasn't been modified or changed. There has to be some official ways of distributing this alert information in many different ways, he said.