Entries Tagged "security theater"

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Details on the British Terrorist Arrest

Details are emerging:

  • There was some serious cash flow from someone, presumably someone abroad.
  • There was no imminent threat.
  • However, the threat was real. And it seems pretty clear that it would have bypassed all existing airport security systems.
  • The conspirators were radicalized by the war in Iraq, although it is impossible to say whether they would have been otherwise radicalized without it.
  • They were caught through police work, not through any broad surveillance, and were under surveillance for more than a year.

What pisses me off most is the second item. By arresting the conspirators early, the police squandered the chance to learn more about the network and arrest more of them — and to present a less flimsy case. There have been many news reports detailing how the U.S. pressured the UK government to make the arrests sooner, possibly out of political motivations. (And then Scotland Yard got annoyed at the U.S. leaking plot details to the press, hampering their case.)

My initial comments on the arrest are here. I still think that all of the new airline security measures are an overreaction (This essay makes the same point, as well as describing a 1995 terrorist plot that was remarkably similar in both materials and modus operandi — and didn’t result in a complete ban on liquids.)

As I said on a radio interview a couple of weeks ago: “We ban guns and knives, and the terrorists use box cutters. We ban box cutters and corkscrews, and they hide explosives in their shoes. We screen shoes, and the terrorists use liquids. We ban liquids, and the terrorist will use something else. It’s not a fair game, because the terrorists get to see our security measures before they plan their attack.” And it’s not a game we can win. So let’s stop playing, and play a game we actually can win. The real lesson of the London arrests is that investigation and intelligence work.

EDITED TO ADD (8/29): Seems this URL is unavailable in the U.K. See the comments for ways to bypass the block.

Posted on August 29, 2006 at 7:20 AMView Comments

Stupid Security Awards Nominations Open

Get your nominations in.

The “Stupid Security Awards” aim to highlight the absurdities of the security industry. Privacy International’s director, Simon Davies, said his group had taken the initiative because of “innumerable” security initiatives around the world that had absolutely no genuine security benefit. The awards were first staged in 2003 and attracted over 5,000 nominations. This will be the second competition in the series.

“The situation has become ridiculous” said Mr Davies. “Security has become the smokescreen for incompetent and robotic managers the world over”.

Unworkable security practices and illusory security measures do nothing to help issues of real public concern. They only hinder the public, intrude unnecessary into our private lives and often reduce us to the status of cattle.

[…]

Privacy International is calling for nominations to name and shame the worst offenders. The competition closes on October 31st 2006. The award categories are:

  • Most Egregiously Stupid Award
  • Most Inexplicably Stupid Award
  • Most Annoyingly Stupid Award
  • Most Flagrantly Intrusive Award
  • Most Stupidly Counter Productive Award

The competition will be judged by an international panel of well-known security experts, public policy specialists, privacy advocates and journalists.

Posted on August 28, 2006 at 7:39 AMView Comments

Last Week's Terrorism Arrests

Hours-long waits in the security line. Ridiculous prohibitions on what you can carry onboard. Last week’s foiling of a major terrorist plot and the subsequent airport security graphically illustrates the difference between effective security and security theater.

None of the airplane security measures implemented because of 9/11 — no-fly lists, secondary screening, prohibitions against pocket knives and corkscrews — had anything to do with last week’s arrests. And they wouldn’t have prevented the planned attacks, had the terrorists not been arrested. A national ID card wouldn’t have made a difference, either.

Instead, the arrests are a victory for old-fashioned intelligence and investigation. Details are still secret, but police in at least two countries were watching the terrorists for a long time. They followed leads, figured out who was talking to whom, and slowly pieced together both the network and the plot.

The new airplane security measures focus on that plot, because authorities believe they have not captured everyone involved. It’s reasonable to assume that a few lone plotters, knowing their compatriots are in jail and fearing their own arrest, would try to finish the job on their own. The authorities are not being public with the details — much of the “explosive liquid” story doesn’t hang together — but the excessive security measures seem prudent.

But only temporarily. Banning box cutters since 9/11, or taking off our shoes since Richard Reid, has not made us any safer. And a long-term prohibition against liquid carry-ons won’t make us safer, either. It’s not just that there are ways around the rules, it’s that focusing on tactics is a losing proposition.

It’s easy to defend against what the terrorists planned last time, but it’s shortsighted. If we spend billions fielding liquid-analysis machines in airports and the terrorists use solid explosives, we’ve wasted our money. If they target shopping malls, we’ve wasted our money. Focusing on tactics simply forces the terrorists to make a minor modification in their plans. There are too many targets — stadiums, schools, theaters, churches, the long line of densely packed people before airport security — and too many ways to kill people.

Security measures that require us to guess correctly don’t work, because invariably we will guess wrong. It’s not security, it’s security theater: measures designed to make us feel safer but not actually safer.

Airport security is the last line of defense, and not a very good one at that. Sure, it’ll catch the sloppy and the stupid — and that’s a good enough reason not to do away with it entirely — but it won’t catch a well-planned plot. We can’t keep weapons out of prisons; we can’t possibly keep them off airplanes.

The goal of a terrorist is to cause terror. Last week’s arrests demonstrate how real security doesn’t focus on possible terrorist tactics, but on the terrorists themselves. It’s a victory for intelligence and investigation, and a dramatic demonstration of how investments in these areas pay off.

And if you want to know what you can do to help? Don’t be terrorized. They terrorize more of us if they kill some of us, but the dead are beside the point. If we give in to fear, the terrorists achieve their goal even if they were arrested. If we refuse to be terrorized, then they lose — even if their attacks succeed.

This op ed appeared today in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

EDITED TO ADD (8/13): The Department of Homeland Security declares an entire state of matter a security risk. And here’s a good commentary on being scared.

Posted on August 13, 2006 at 8:15 AMView Comments

Bank Bans Cell Phones

Not because they’re annoying, but as a security measure:

Cell phones have been banned inside the five branches of the First National Bank in the Chicago area, to enhance security.

Even using a cell phone in the bank’s lobby may result in the person being asked to leave the premises.

“We ban cell phone use in the lobby because you don’t know what people are doing,” Ralph Oster, a senior vice president, told the Chicago Tribune. Cell phone cameras are also a worry.

Oster said there have been holdups in which bandits were on the phone with lookouts outside while committing bank robberies.

“You’re trying to stop that communication,” he says.

Banks in Mexico City banned call phones in May and Citizens Financial Bank of Munster, Ind., asks customers to turn off their cell phones.

West Suburban Bank, based in Lombard, Ill., barred customers wearing hats in January but has not moved to silence cell phones.

This is just plain dumb. It’s easy to get around the ban: a Bluetooth earpiece is inconspicuous enough. Or a couple of earbuds that look like an iPod. Or an SMS device. It only has to work at the beginning. After all, once you start actually robbing the bank, a ban isn’t going to deter you from using your cell phone.

Posted on August 4, 2006 at 3:11 PMView Comments

Ben Franklin on the Feeling of Security

Today is Ben Franklin’s 300th birthday. Among many other discoveries and inventions, Franklin worked out a way of protecting buildings from lightning strikes, by providing a conducting path to ground — outside a building — from one or more pointed rods high atop the structure. People tried this, and it worked. Franklin became a celebrity, not just among “electricians,” but among the general public.

An article in this month’s issue of Physics Today has a great 1769 quote by Franklin about lightning rods, and the reality vs. the feeling of security:

Those who calculate chances may perhaps find that not one death (or the destruction of one house) in a hundred thousand happens from that cause, and that therefore it is scarce worth while to be at any expense to guard against it. But in all countries there are particular situations of buildings more exposed than others to such accidents, and there are minds so strongly impressed with the apprehension of them, as to be very unhappy every time a little thunder is within their hearing; it may therefore be well to render this little piece of new knowledge as general and well understood as possible, since to make us safe is not all its advantage, it is some to make us easy. And as the stroke it secures us from might have chanced perhaps but once in our lives, while it may relieve us a hundred times from those painful apprehensions, the latter may possibly on the whole contribute more to the happiness of mankind than the former.

Posted on January 17, 2006 at 7:52 AMView Comments

Australian Minister's Sensible Comments on Airline Security Sparks Outcry

I’m the first to admit that I don’t know anything about Australian politics. I don’t know who Amanda Vanstone is, what she stands for, and what other things she’s said about any other topic.

But I happen to think she’s right about airline security:

In a wide-ranging speech to Adelaide Rotarians, Senator Vanstone dismissed many commonwealth security measures as essentially ineffective. “To be tactful about these things, a lot of what we do is to make people feel better as opposed to actually achieve an outcome,” Senator Vanstone said.

And:

During her Adelaide speech, Senator Vanstone implied the use of plastic cutlery on planes to thwart terrorism was foolhardy.

Implied? I’ll say it outright. It’s stupid. For all its faults, I’m always pleased when Northwest Airlines gives me a real metal knife, and I am always annoyed when American Airlines still gives me a plastic one.

“Has it ever occurred to you that you just smash your wine glass and jump at someone, grab the top of their head and put it in their carotid artery and ask anything?” Senator Vanstone told her audience of about 100 Rotarians. “And believe me, you will have their attention. I think of this every time I see more money for the security agencies.”

The Immigration Minister also told of a grisly conversation with Mr Howard during a discussion on increased spending on national security.

Senator Vanstone said: “I asked him if I was able to get on a plane with an HB pencil, which you are able to, and I further asked him if I went down and came and grabbed him by the front of the head and stabbed the HB pencil into your eyeball and wiggled it around down to your brain area, do you think you’d be focusing? He’s thinking, she’s gone mad again.”

Okay, so maybe that was a bit graphic for the Rotarians. But her comments are basically right, and don’t deserve this kind of response:

“(Her) extraordinary outburst that airport security was a sham to make the public feel good has made a mockery of the Howard Government’s credibility in this important area of counter-terrorism,” Mr Bevis said yesterday. “And for Amanda Vanstone to once again put her foot in her mouth while John Howard is overseas for serious talks on terrorism is appalling. She should apologise and quit, or if the Prime Minister can’t shut her up he should sack her.”

But Mr. Bevis, airport security is largely a sham to make the public feel better about flying. And if your Prime Minister doesn’t know that, then you should worry about how serious his talks will be.

Vanstone has been defending herself:

Vanstone rejected calls from the Labor Party opposition for her resignation over the comments they said trivialised an important issue, saying she was not ridiculing security measures.

“If the day has come when a minister can’t say what every other Australian says and that is that plastic knives drive us crazy, I think we’re in desperate straits,” the minister told commercial radio on Monday.

Vanstone said she did not believe the security measures should be scrapped.

“What I have said is that putting a plastic knife on a plane doesn’t necessarily make you very much safer. Bear in mind there are other things that are on planes,” she said.

“People should not feel that because plastic knives are there, the world has dramatically changed — because there are still HB pencils.”

Plastic knives on airplanes drive me crazy too, and they don’t do anything to improve our security against terrorism. I know nothing about Vanstone and her policies, but she has this one right.

Posted on November 22, 2005 at 1:41 PMView Comments

Cameras in the New York City Subways

New York City is spending $212 million on surveillance technology: 1,000 video cameras and 3,000 motion sensors for the city’s subways, bridges, and tunnels.

Why? Why, given that cameras didn’t stop the London train bombings? Why, when there is no evidence that cameras are effectice at reducing either terrorism and crime, and every reason to believe that they are ineffective?

One reason is that it’s the “movie plot threat” of the moment. (You can hear the echos of the movie plots when you read the various quotes in the news stories.) The terrorists bombed a subway in London, so we need to defend our subways. The other reason is that New York City officials are erring on the side of caution. If nothing happens, then it was only money. But if something does happen, they won’t keep their jobs unless they can show they did everything possible. And technological solutions just make everyone feel better.

If I had $212 million to spend to defend against terrorism in the U.S., I would not spend it on cameras in the New York City subways. If I had $212 million to defend New York City against terrorism, I would not spend it on cameras in the subways. This is nothing more than security theater against a movie plot threat.

On the plus side, the money will also go for a new radio communications system for subway police, and will enable cell phone service in underground stations, but not tunnels.

Posted on August 24, 2005 at 1:10 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.