Take Stop-and-Scan with a Grain of Salt

Security Has Become a For-Profit Business

This is an edited version of a longer essay.

It’s a new day for the New York Police Department, with technology increasingly informing the way cops do their jobs. With innovation come new possibilities, but also new concerns.

For one, the NYPD is testing a security apparatus that uses terahertz radiation to detect guns under clothing from a distance. As Police Commissioner Ray Kelly explained back in January, “If something is obstructing the flow of that radiation, for example a weapon, the device will highlight that object.”

Ignore, for a moment, the glaring constitutional concerns, which make the stop-and-frisk debate pale in comparison: virtual strip-searching, evasion of probable cause, potential profiling. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union are all over those, even though their opposition probably won’t make a difference. We’re scared of terrorism and crime (even as the risks decrease), and when we’re scared, we’re willing to give up all sorts of freedoms to assuage our fears. Often, the courts go along.

A more pressing question is the effectiveness of technologies that are supposed to make us safer. These include the NYPD’s Domain Awareness System, developed by Microsoft, which aims to integrate tons of data to alert cops about crime. Other innovations are also surely in the pipeline.

But are we being sold a bill of goods?

Press reports celebrate the gun-detection machine. We see images from the camera that pretty clearly show a gun outlined under someone’s clothing.

From that, we can imagine how this technology can spot gun-toting criminals as they enter government buildings or terrorize neighborhoods. Given the right inputs, we construct these stories in our heads. The technology seems like a no-brainer, we conclude.

The reality is that we reach these conclusions much in the same way that we decide that, say, drinking Mountain Dew makes you look cool. Let’s not forget: These are the products of for-profit companies, pushed by vendors looking to make sales. As such, they’re marketed no less aggressively than deodorant.

Those images of criminals with concealed weapons were carefully created both to demonstrate maximum effectiveness and push our fear buttons.

Companies deliberately craft stories of their own prowess, both through advertising and placement on television and in movies, where police are often shown using high-powered tools to catch high-value targets with minimum complication.

The truth is that many of these technologies are nowhere near as reliable as claimed. They end up costing us gazillions of dollars and open the door for abuse. Of course, the vendors hope that by the time we realize this, they’re too embedded in our security culture to be removed.

The current poster child for this sort of morass is the airport full-body scanner. Rushed into airports after underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab nearly blew up a jet in 2009, they made us feel better—even though they don’t work very well and, ironically, wouldn’t have caught Abdulmutallab.

Both the Transportation Security Administration and vendors repeatedly lied about their effectiveness, whether they stored images and how safe they were. In January, finally, backscatter X-ray scanners were removed from airports because the company that made them couldn’t sufficiently blur the images so they didn’t show travelers naked.

Another example is closed-circuit television cameras. These have been marketed as a technological solution to crime and understaffed police and security organizations.

London, for example, is rife with them, and New York has plenty of its own. To many, it seems apparent that they make us safer, despite cries of Big Brother. The problem is that in study after study, researchers have concluded that they don’t.

It’s not that these technologies are useless. But they’re expensive, and none is the panacea it’s made out to be. Maybe there’s use for a terahertz radar. But we should not forget that a profit motive is at work, too.

Categories: Business of Security, Economics of Security, Privacy and Surveillance

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.