Security Through Obscurity
Sometimes security through obscurity works:
Yes, the New York Police Department provided an escort, but during more than eight hours on Saturday, one of the great hoards of coins and currency on the planet, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, was utterly unalarmed as it was bumped through potholes, squeezed by double-parked cars and slowed by tunnel-bound traffic during the trip to its fortresslike new vault a mile to the north.
In the end, the move did not become a caper movie.
"The idea was to make this as inconspicuous as possible," said Ute Wartenberg Kagan, executive director of the American Numismatic Society. "It had to resemble a totally ordinary office move."
Society staff members were pledged to secrecy about the timing of the move, and "we didn't tell our movers what the cargo was until the morning of," said James McVeigh, operations manager of Time Moving and Storage Inc. of Manhattan, referring to the crew of 20 workers.
From my book Beyond Fear, pp. 211-12:
At 3,106 carats, a little under a pound and a half, the Cullinan Diamond was the largest uncut diamond ever discovered. It was extracted from the earth at the Premier Mine, near Pretoria, South Africa, in 1905. Appreciating the literal enormity of the find, the Transvaal government bought the diamond as a gift for King Edward VII. Transporting the stone to England was a huge security problem, of course, and there was much debate on how best to do it. Detectives were sent from London to guard it on its journey. News leaked that a certain steamer was carrying it, and the presence of the detectives confirmed this. But the diamond on that steamer was a fake. Only a few people knew of the real plan; they packed the Cullinan in a small box, stuck a three-shilling stamp on it, and sent it to England anonymously by unregistered parcel post.
This is a favorite story of mine. Not only can we analyze the complex security system intended to transport the diamond from continent to continent--the huge number of trusted people involved, making secrecy impossible; the involved series of steps with their associated seams, giving almost any organized gang numerous opportunities to pull off a theft--but we can contrast it with the sheer beautiful simplicity of the actual transportation plan. Whoever came up with it was really thinking -- and thinking originally, boldly, and audaciously.
This kind of counterintuitive security is common in the world of gemstones. On 47th Street in New York, in Antwerp, in London: People walk around all the time with millions of dollars' worth of gems in their pockets. The gemstone industry has formal guidelines: If the value of the package is under a specific amount, use the U.S. Mail. If it is over that amount but under another amount, use Federal Express. The Cullinan was again transported incognito; the British Royal Navy escorted an empty box across the North Sea to Amsterdam -- where the diamond would be cut -- while famed diamond cutter Abraham Asscher actually carried it in his pocket from London via train and night ferry to Amsterdam.
Posted on June 18, 2008 at 1:13 PM • 45 Comments