Olympic Security

By Bruce Schneier
The Sydney Morning Herald
August 26, 2004

If you're watching the Olympic games on television, you've already seen the unprecedented security surrounding the 2004 Games. You're seen shots of guards and soldiers, and gunboats and frogmen patrolling the harbors.

But there's a lot more security behind the scenes. Olympic press materials state that there is a system of 1250 infrared and high-resolution surveillance cameras mounted on concrete poles. Additional surveillance data is collected from sensors on 12 patrol boats, 4000 vehicles, 9 helicopters, four mobile command centres, and a blimp.

It's not only images; microphones collect conversations, speech-recognition software converts them to text, and then sophisticated pattern-matching software looks for suspicious patterns. A total of 70,000 people are involved in Olympic security, about seven per athlete or one for every 76 spectators.

The Greek government has reportedly spent $US1.5 billion on security during the Olympics. But aside from the impressive-looking guards and statistics, was the money well-spent? In many ways, Olympic security is a harbinger of what life could be like in the US. If the Olympics are going to be a security test bed, it's worth exploring how well the security actually worked.

Unfortunately, that's not easy to do. We have press materials, but the security details remain secret. We know, for example, that SAIC developed the massive electronic surveillance system, but we have to take their word for it that it actually works. Now SAIC is no slouch; they were one of the contractors that built the NSA's ECHELON electronics eavesdropping system, and presumably have some tricks up their sleeves. But how well does it detect suspicious conversations or objects, and how often does it produce false alarms? We have no idea.

But while we can't examine the inner workings of Olympic security, we do have some glimpses of security in action.

A reporter from the Sunday Mirror, a newspaper in Britain, reported all sorts of problems. First, he got a job as a driver with a British contractor. He provided no references, underwent no formal interview or background check, and was immediately given access to the main stadium. He found that his van was never thoroughly searched, and that he could have brought in anything. He was able to plant three packages that were designed to look like bombs, all of which went undetected during security sweeps. He was able to get within 60 feet of dozens of heads of state during last Friday's opening ceremonies.

In a separate incident, a man wearing a tutu and clown shoes managed to climb a diving board, dive into the water, and swim around for several minutes before officials pulled him out. He claimed that he wanted to send a message to his wife, but the name of an online gambling website printed on his chest implies a more commercial motive.

These two incidents are anecdotal, but they illustrate an important point about security at this kind of event: it's pretty much impossible to stop a lone operator intent on making mischief. It doesn't matter how many cameras and listening devices you've installed. It doesn't matter how many badge checkers and gun-toting security personnel you've hired. It doesn't matter how many billions of dollars you've spent.

A lone gunman or a lone bomber can always find a crowd of people.

This is not to say that guards and cameras are useless, only that they have their limits. Money spent on them rapidly reaches the point of diminishing returns, and after that more is just wasteful.

Far more effective would be to spend most of that $US1.5 billion on intelligence and on emergency response. Intelligence is an invaluable tool against terrorism, and it works regardless of what the terrorists are plotting even if the plots have nothing to do with the Olympics. Emergency response is no less valuable, and it too works regardless of what the terrorists manage to pull off.

I don't expect anything to happen this year at the Olympics. As a result, major security contractors will tout that result as proof that $US1.5 billion was well-spent on security. What it really shows is how quickly $US1.5 billion can be wasted on security. After the Olympics are over and everyone goes home, the world will be no safer for spending all the money. That's a shame, because that $1.5 billion could have bought the world a lot of security if spent properly.

earlier essay: U.S. "No-Fly" List Curtails Liberties
later essay: How Long Can the Country Stay Scared?
categories: Terrorism
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Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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