Outside View: Security at the World Series

By Bruce Schneier
UPI
October 22, 2004

The World Series is no stranger to security. Fans try to sneak into the ballpark without tickets or with counterfeit tickets. Often foods and alcohol are prohibited from being brought into the ballpark, to enforce the monopoly of the high-priced concessions.

Violence is always a risk: both small fights and larger-scale riots that result from fans from both teams being in such close proximity -- like the one that almost happened during the sixth game of the American League Championship Series.

Today, the new risk is terrorism. Security at the Olympics cost $1.5 billion. Some $50 million each was spent at the Democratic and Republican conventions on security. There has been no public statement about the security bill for the World Series, but it's reasonable to assume it will be impressive.

In our fervor to defend ourselves, it's important that we spend our money wisely. Much of what people think of as security against terrorism doesn't actually make us safer. Even in a world of high-tech security, the most important solution is the guy watching to keep beer bottles from being thrown onto the field.

Generally, security measures that defend specific targets are wasteful, because they can be avoided simply by switching targets. If we completely defend the World Series from attack and the terrorists bomb a crowded shopping mall instead, little has been gained.

Even so, some high-profile locations, like national monuments and symbolic buildings and some high-profile events, like political conventions and championship sporting events, warrant additional security. What additional measures make sense?

Identification checks don't make sense. Everyone has an ID. Even the 9/11 terrorists had IDs. What we want is to somehow check intention; is the person going to do something bad? But we can't do that, so we check IDs instead. It's a complete waste of time and money and does absolutely nothing to make us safer.

Automatic face recognition systems don't work. Computers that automatically pick terrorists out of crowds are great movie plot devices, but don't work in the real world. We don't have a comprehensive photographic database of known terrorists. Even worse, the face recognition technology is so faulty that it often can't make the matches even when we do have decent photographs. We tried it at the 2001 Super Bowl; it was a failure.

Airport-like attendee screening doesn't work. The terrorists who took over the Russian school sneaked their weapons in long before their attack. And screening fans is only a small part of the solution. There are simply too many people, vehicles and supplies moving in and out of a ballpark regularly. This kind of security failed at the Olympics, as reporters proved again and again that they could sneak all sorts of things into the stadiums undetected.

What does work is people: smart security officials watching the crowds. It's called "behavior recognition," and it requires trained personnel looking for suspicious behavior. Does someone look out of place? Is he nervous and not watching the game? Is he not cheering, hissing, booing and waving like a sports fan would?

This is what good policemen do all the time. It's what Israeli airport security does. It works because instead of relying on checkpoints that can be bypassed, it relies on the human ability to notice something that just doesn't feel right. It's intuition, and it's far more effective than computerized security solutions.

Will this result in perfect security? Of course not. No security measures are guaranteed; all we can do is reduce the odds. And the best way to do that is to pay attention. A few hundred plainclothes policemen, walking around the stadium and watching for anything suspicious, will provide more security against terrorism than almost anything else we can reasonably do.

And the best thing about policemen is that they're adaptable. They can deal with terrorist threats, and they can deal with more common security issues, too.

Most of the threats at the World Series have nothing to do with terrorism; unruly or violent fans are a much more common problem. And more likely than a complex 9/11-like plot is a lone terrorist with a gun, a bomb, or something that will cause panic. But luckily, the security measures ballparks have already put in place to protect against the former also help protect against the latter.

earlier essay: Bigger Brother
later essay: The Security of Checks and Balances
categories: Privacy and Surveillance, Terrorism
back to Essays and Op Eds

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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