We Are All Security Customers

National security is a hot political topic right now, as both presidential candidates are asking us to decide which one of them is better fit to secure the country.

Many large and expensive government programs—the CAPPS II airline profiling system, the US-VISIT program that fingerprints foreigners entering our country, and the various data-mining programs in research and development—take as a given the need for more security.

At the end of 2005, when many provisions of the controversial Patriot Act expire, we will again be asked to sacrifice certain liberties for security, as many legislators seek to make those provisions permanent.

As a security professional, I see a vital component missing from the debate. It’s important to discuss different security measures, and determine which ones will be most effective. But that’s only half of the equation; it’s just as important to discuss the costs. Security is always a trade-off, and herein lies the real question: “Is this security countermeasure worth it?”

As Americans, and as citizens of the world, we need to think of ourselves as security consumers. Just as a smart consumer looks for the best value for his dollar, we need to do the same. Many of the countermeasures being proposed and implemented cost billions. Others cost in other ways: convenience, privacy, civil liberties, fundamental freedoms, greater danger of other threats. As consumers, we need to get the most security we can for what we spend.

The invasion of Iraq, for example, is presented as an important move for national security. It may be true, but it’s only half of the argument. Invading Iraq has cost the United States enormously. The monetary bill is more than $100 billion, and the cost is still rising. The cost in American lives is more than 600, and the number is still rising. The cost in world opinion is considerable. There’s a question that needs to be addressed: “Was this the best way to spend all of that? As security consumers, did we get the most security we could have for that $100 billion, those lives, and those other things?”

If it was, then we did the right thing. But if it wasn’t, then we made a mistake. Even though a free Iraq is a good thing in the abstract, we would have been smarter spending our money, and lives and good will, in the world elsewhere.

That’s the proper analysis, and it’s the way everyone thinks when making personal security choices. Even people who say that we must do everything possible to prevent another Sept. 11 don’t advocate permanently grounding every aircraft in this country. Even though that would be an effective countermeasure, it’s ridiculous. It’s not worth it. Giving up commercial aviation is far too large a price to pay for the increase in security that it would buy. Only a foolish security consumer would do something like that.

We need to bring the same analysis to bear when thinking about other security countermeasures. Is the added security from the CAPPS-II airline profiling system worth the billions of dollars it will cost, both in dollars and in the systematic stigmatization of certain classes of Americans? Would we be smarter to spend our money on hiring Arabic translators within the FBI and the CIA, or on emergency response capabilities in our cities and towns?

As security consumers, we get to make this choice. America doesn’t have infinite money or freedoms. If we’re going to spend them to get security, we should act like smart consumers and get the most security we can.

The efficacy of a security countermeasure is important, but it’s never the only consideration. Almost none of the people reading this essay wear bulletproof vests. It’s not because they don’t work—in fact they do—but because most people don’t believe that wearing the vest is worth the cost. It’s not worth the money, or the inconvenience, or the lack of style. The risk of being shot is low. As security consumers, we don’t believe that a bulletproof vest is a good security trade-off.

Similarly, much of what is being proposed as national security is a bad security trade-off. It’s not worth it, and as consumers we’re getting ripped off.

Being a smart security consumer is hard, just as being a good citizen is hard. Why? Because both require thoughtful consideration of trade-offs and alternatives. But in this election year, it is vitally important. We need to learn about the issues. We need to turn to experts who are nonpartisan—who are not trying to get elected or stay elected. We need to become informed. Otherwise it’s no different than walking into a car dealership without knowing anything about the different models and prices—we’re going to get ripped off.

Categories: Airline Travel, National Security Policy

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.