Entries Tagged "security theater"

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Evading Airport Security

The news is reporting about Evan Booth, who builds weaponry out of items you can buy after airport security. It’s clever stuff.

It’s not new, though. People have been explaining how to evade airport security for years.

Back in 2006, I — and others — explained how to print your own boarding pass and evade the photo-ID check, a trick that still seems to work. In 2008, I demonstrated carrying two large bottles of liquid through airport security. Here’s a paper about stabbing people with stuff you can take through airport security. And here’s a German video of someone building a bomb out of components he snuck through a full-body scanner. There’s lots more if you start poking around the Internet.

So, what’s the moral here? It’s not like the terrorists don’t know about these tricks. They’re no surprise to the TSA, either. If airport security is so porous, why aren’t there more terrorist attacks? Why aren’t the terrorists using these, and other, techniques to attack planes every month?

I think the answer is simple: airplane terrorism isn’t a big risk. There are very few actual terrorists, and plots are much more difficult to execute than the tactics of the attack itself. It’s the same reason why I don’t care very much about the various TSA mistakes that are regularly reported.

Posted on December 4, 2013 at 6:28 AMView Comments

Security at Sports Stadiums

Lots of sports stadiums have instituted Draconian new rules. Here are the rules for St. Louis Rams games:

Fans will be able to carry the following style and size bag, package, or container at stadium plaza areas, stadium gates, or when approaching queue lines of fans awaiting entry into the stadium:

  • Bags that are clear plastic, vinyl or PVC and do not exceed 12” x 6” x 12.” (Official NFL team logo clear plastic tote bags are available through club merchandise outlets or at nflshop.com), or
  • One-gallon clear plastic freezer bag (Ziploc bag or similar).
  • Small clutch bags, approximately the size of a hand, with or without a handle or strap, may be carried into the stadium along with one of the clear bag options.
  • An exception will be made for medically necessary items after proper inspection at a gate designated for this purpose.

Prohibited items include, but are not limited to: purses larger than a clutch bag, coolers, briefcases, backpacks, fanny packs, cinch bags, luggage of any kind, seat cushions, computer bags and camera bags or any bag larger than the permissible size.

Of course you’re supposed to think this is about terrorism. My guess is that this is to help protect the security of the profits at the concession stands.

Posted on August 12, 2013 at 6:29 AMView Comments

Neighborhood Security: Feeling vs. Reality

Research on why some neighborhoods feel safer:

Salesses and collaborators Katja Schechtner and César A. Hidalgo built an online comparison tool using Google Street View images to identify these often unseen triggers of our perception of place. Have enough people compare paired images of streets in New York or Boston, for instance, for the scenes that look more “safe” or “upper-class,” and eventually some patterns start to emerge.

“We found images with trash in it, and took the trash out, and we noticed a 30 percent increase in perception of safety,” Salesses says. “It’s surprising that something that easy had that large an effect.”

This also means some fairly cost-effective government interventions ­– collecting trash — could have a significant impact on how safe people feel in a neighborhood. “It’s like bringing a data source to something that’s always been subjective,” Salesses says.

I’ve written about the feeling and reality of security, and how they’re different. (That’s also the subject of this TEDx talk.) Yes, it’s security theater: things that make a neighborhood feel safer rather than actually safer. But when the neighborhood is actually safer than people think it is, this sort of security theater has value.

Original paper.

EDITED TO ADD (8/14): Two related links.

Posted on July 30, 2013 at 1:44 PMView Comments

More Links on the Boston Terrorist Attacks

Max Abrahms has two sensible essays.

Probably the ultimate in security theater: Williams-Sonoma stops selling pressure cookers in the Boston area “out of respect.” They say it’s temporary. (I bought a Williams-Sonoma pressure cooker last Christmas; I wonder if I’m now on a list.)

A tragedy: Sunil Tripathi, whom Reddit and other sites wrongly identified as one of the bombers, was found dead in the Providence River. I hope it’s not a suicide.

And worst of all, New York Mayor Bloomberg scares me more than the terrorists ever could:

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Monday the country’s interpretation of the Constitution will “have to change” to allow for greater security to stave off future attacks.

“The people who are worried about privacy have a legitimate worry,” Mr. Bloomberg said during a press conference in Midtown. “But we live in a complex world where you’re going to have to have a level of security greater than you did back in the olden days, if you will. And our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution, I think, have to change.”

Terrorism’s effectiveness doesn’t come from the terrorist acts; it comes from our reactions to it. We need leaders who aren’t terrorized.

EDITED TO ADD (4/29): Only indirectly related, but the Kentucky Derby is banning “removable lens cameras” for security reasons.

EDITED TO ADD (4/29): And a totally unscientific CNN opinion poll: 57% say no to: “Is it justifiable to violate certain civil liberties in the name of national security?”

EDITED TO ADD (4/29): It seems that Sunil Tripathi died well before the Boston bombing. So while his family was certainly affected by the false accusations, he wasn’t.

EDITED TO ADD (4/29): On the difference between mass murder and terrorism:

What the United States means by terrorist violence is, in large part, “public violence some weirdo had the gall to carry out using a weapon other than a gun.”

EDITED TO ADD (5/14): On fear fatigue — and a good modeling of how to be indomitable. On the surprising dearth of terrorists. Why emergency medical response has improved since 9/11. What if the Boston bombers had been shooters instead. More on Williams-Sonoma: Shortly thereafter, they released a statement apologizing to anyone who might be offended. Don’t be terrorized. “The new terrorism” — from 2011 (in five parts, and this is the first one). This is kind of wordy, but it’s an interesting essay on the nature of fear…and cats. Glenn Greenwald on reactions to the bombing. How a 20-year-old Saudi victim of the bombing was instantly, and baselessly, converted by the US media and government into a “suspect.” Four effective responses to terrorism. People being terrorized. On not letting the bad guys win. Resilience. More resilience Why terrorism works. Data shows that terrorism has declined. Mass hysteria as a terrorist weapon.

Posted on April 29, 2013 at 10:27 AMView Comments

Book Review: Against Security

Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger, by Harvey Molotch, Princeton University Press, 278 pages, $35.

Security is both a feeling and a reality, and the two are different things. People can feel secure when they’re actually not, and they can be secure even when they believe otherwise.

This discord explains much of what passes for our national discourse on security policy. Security measures often are nothing more than security theater, making people feel safer without actually increasing their protection.

A lot of psychological research has tried to make sense out of security, fear, risk, and safety. But however fascinating the academic literature is, it often misses the broader social dynamics. New York University’s Harvey Molotch helpfully brings a sociologist’s perspective to the subject in his new book Against Security.

Molotch delves deeply into a few examples and uses them to derive general principles. He starts Against Security with a mundane topic: the security of public restrooms. It’s a setting he knows better than most, having authored Toilet: The Public Restroom and the Politics of Sharing (New York University Press) in 2010. It turns out the toilet is not a bad place to begin a discussion of the sociology of security.

People fear various things in public restrooms: crime, disease, embarrassment. Different cultures either ignore those fears or address them in culture-specific ways. Many public lavatories, for example, have no-touch flushing mechanisms, no-touch sinks, no-touch towel dispensers, and even no-touch doors, while some Japanese commodes play prerecorded sounds of water running, to better disguise the embarrassing tinkle.

Restrooms have also been places where, historically and in some locations, people could do drugs or engage in gay sex. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) was arrested in 2007 for soliciting sex in the bathroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, suggesting that such behavior is not a thing of the past. To combat these risks, the managers of some bathrooms—men’s rooms in American bus stations, in particular—have taken to removing the doors from the toilet stalls, forcing everyone to defecate in public to ensure that no one does anything untoward (or unsafe) behind closed doors.

Subsequent chapters discuss security in subways, at airports, and on airplanes; at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan; and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Each of these chapters is an interesting sociological discussion of both the feeling and reality of security, and all of them make for fascinating reading. Molotch has clearly done his homework, conducting interviews on the ground, asking questions designed to elicit surprising information.

Molotch demonstrates how complex and interdependent the factors that comprise security are. Sometimes we implement security measures against one threat, only to magnify another. He points out that more people have died in car crashes since 9/11 because they were afraid to fly—or because they didn’t want to deal with airport security—than died during the terrorist attacks. Or to take a more prosaic example, special “high-entry” subway turn­stiles make it much harder for people to sneak in for a free ride but also make platform evacuations much slower in the case of an emergency.

The common thread in Against Security is that effective security comes less from the top down and more from the bottom up. Molotch’s subtitle telegraphs this conclusion: “How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger.” It’s the word ambiguous that’s important here. When we don’t know what sort of threats we want to defend against, it makes sense to give the people closest to whatever is happening the authority and the flexibility to do what is necessary. In many of Molotch’s anecdotes and examples, the authority figure—a subway train driver, a policeman—has to break existing rules to provide the security needed in a particular situation. Many security failures are exacerbated by a reflexive adherence to regulations.

Molotch is absolutely right to home in on this kind of individual initiative and resilience as a critical source of true security. Current U.S. security policy is overly focused on specific threats. We defend individual buildings and monuments. We defend airplanes against certain terrorist tactics: shoe bombs, liquid bombs, underwear bombs. These measures have limited value because the number of potential terrorist tactics and targets is much greater than the ones we have recently observed. Does it really make sense to spend a gazillion dollars just to force terrorists to switch tactics? Or drive to a different target? In the face of modern society’s ambiguous dangers, it is flexibility that makes security effective.

We get much more bang for our security dollar by not trying to guess what terrorists are going to do next. Investigation, intelligence, and emergency response are where we should be spending our money. That doesn’t mean mass surveillance of everyone or the entrapment of incompetent terrorist wannabes; it means tracking down leads—the sort of thing that caught the 2006 U.K. liquid bombers. They chose their tactic specifically to evade established airport security at the time, but they were arrested in their London apartments well before they got to the airport on the strength of other kinds of intelligence.

In his review of Against Security in Times Higher Education, aviation security expert Omar Malik takes issue with the book’s seeming trivialization of the airplane threat and Molotch’s failure to discuss terrorist tactics. “Nor does he touch on the multitude of objects and materials that can be turned into weapons,” Malik laments. But this is precisely the point. Our fears of terrorism are wildly out of proportion to the actual threat, and an analysis of various movie-plot threats does nothing to make us safer.

In addition to urging people to be more reasonable about potential threats, Molotch makes a strong case for optimism and kindness. Treating every air traveler as a potential terrorist and every Hurricane Katrina refugee as a potential looter is dehumanizing. Molotch argues that we do better as a society when we trust and respect people more. Yes, the occasional bad thing will happen, but 1) it happens less often, and is less damaging, than you probably think, and 2) individuals naturally organize to defend each other. This is what happened during the evacuation of the Twin Towers and in the aftermath of Katrina before official security took over. Those in charge often do a worse job than the common people on the ground.

While that message will please skeptics of authority, Molotch sees a role for government as well. In fact, many of his lessons are primarily aimed at government agencies, to help them design and implement more effective security systems. His final chapter is invaluable on that score, discussing how we should focus on nurturing the good in most people—by giving them the ability and freedom to self-organize in the event of a security disaster, for example—rather than focusing solely on the evil of the very few. It is a hopeful yet realistic message for an irrationally anxious time. Whether those government agencies will listen is another question entirely.

This review was originally published at reason.com.

Posted on December 14, 2012 at 12:24 PMView Comments

Security Theater in American Diplomatic Missions

I noticed this in an article about how increased security and a general risk aversion is harming US diplomatic missions:

“Barbara Bodine, who was the U.S. ambassador to Yemen during the Qaeda bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, told me she believes that much of the security American diplomats are forced to travel with is counterproductive. “There’s this idea that if we just throw more security guys at the problem, it will go away,” she said. “These huge convoys they force you to travel in, with a bristling personal security detail, give you the illusion of security, not real security. They just draw a lot of attention and make you a target. It’s better to fly under the radar.”

It’s a good article overall.

Posted on November 19, 2012 at 5:41 AMView Comments

Security at the 9/11 WTC Memorial

There’s a lot:

Advance tickets are required to enter this public, outdoor memorial. To book them, you’re obliged to provide your home address, email address, and phone number, and the full names of everyone in your party. It is “strongly recommended” that you print your tickets at home, which is where you must leave explosives, large bags, hand soap, glass bottles, rope, and bubbles. Also, “personal wheeled vehicles” not limited to bicycles, skateboards, and scooters, and anything else deemed inappropriate. Anyone age 13 or older must carry photo ID, to be displayed “when required and/or requested.”

Once at the memorial you must go through a metal detector and your belongings must be X-rayed. Officers will inspect your ticket­that invulnerable document you nearly left on your printer — at least five times. One will draw a blue line on it; 40 yards (and around a dozen security cameras) later, another officer will shout at you if your ticket and its blue line are not visible.

I’m one of the people commenting on whether this all makes sense.

I especially appreciated the last paragraph:

The Sept. 11 memorial’s designers hoped the plaza would be “a living part” of the city — integrated into its fabric and usable “on a daily basis.” I thought that sounded nice, so I asked Schneier one last question. Let’s say we dismantled all the security and let the Sept. 11 memorial be a memorial like any other: a place where citizens and travelers could visit spontaneously, on their own contemplative terms, day or night, subject only to capacity limits until the site is complete. What single measure would most guarantee their safety? I was thinking about cameras and a high-tech control center, “flower pot”-style vehicle barriers, maybe even snipers poised on nearby roofs. Schneier’s answer? Seat belts. On the drive to New York, or in your taxi downtown, buckle up, he warned. It’s dangerous out there.

Posted on September 11, 2012 at 6:45 AMView Comments

$200 for a Fake Security System

This is pretty funny:

  • Moving red laser beams scare away potential intruders
  • Laser beams move along floor and wall 180 degrees
  • Easy to install, 110v comes on automatically w/timer

Watch the video. This is not an alarm, and it doesn’t do anything other than the laser light show. But, as the product advertisement says, “perception can be an excellent deterrent to crime.” Although this only works if the product isn’t very successful — or widely known.

Posted on August 17, 2012 at 6:39 AMView Comments

Overreaction and Overly Specific Reactions to Rare Risks

Horrific events, such as the massacre in Aurora, can be catalysts for social and political change. Sometimes it seems that they’re the only catalyst; recall how drastically our policies toward terrorism changed after 9/11 despite how moribund they were before.

The problem is that fear can cloud our reasoning, causing us to overreact and to overly focus on the specifics. And the key is to steer our desire for change in that time of fear.

Our brains aren’t very good at probability and risk analysis. We tend to exaggerate spectacular, strange and rare events, and downplay ordinary, familiar and common ones. We think rare risks are more common than they are. We fear them more than probability indicates we should.

There is a lot of psychological research that tries to explain this, but one of the key findings is this: People tend to base risk analysis more on stories than on data. Stories engage us at a much more visceral level, especially stories that are vivid, exciting or personally involving.

If a friend tells you about getting mugged in a foreign country, that story is more likely to affect how safe you feel traveling to that country than reading a page of abstract crime statistics will.

Novelty plus dread plus a good story equals overreaction.

And who are the major storytellers these days? Television and the Internet. So when news programs and sites endlessly repeat the story from Aurora, with interviews with those in the theater, interviews with the families, and commentary by anyone who has a point to make, we start to think this is something to fear, rather than a rare event that almost never happens and isn’t worth worrying about. In other words, reading five stories about the same event feels somewhat like five separate events, and that skews our perceptions.

We see the effects of this all the time.

It’s strangers by whom we fear being murdered, kidnapped, raped and assaulted, when it’s far more likely that any perpetrator of such offenses is a relative or a friend. We worry about airplane crashes and rampaging shooters instead of automobile crashes and domestic violence — both of which are far more common and far, far more deadly.

Our greatest recent overreaction to a rare event was our response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I remember then-Attorney General John Ashcroft giving a speech in Minnesota — where I live — in 2003 in which he claimed that the fact there were no new terrorist attacks since 9/11 was proof that his policies were working. I remember thinking: “There were no terrorist attacks in the two years preceding 9/11, and you didn’t have any policies. What does that prove?”

What it proves is that terrorist attacks are very rare, and perhaps our national response wasn’t worth the enormous expense, loss of liberty, attacks on our Constitution and damage to our credibility on the world stage. Still, overreacting was the natural thing for us to do. Yes, it was security theater and not real security, but it made many of us feel safer.

The rarity of events such as the Aurora massacre doesn’t mean we should ignore any lessons it might teach us. Because people overreact to rare events, they’re useful catalysts for social introspection and policy change. The key here is to focus not on the details of the particular event but on the broader issues common to all similar events.

Installing metal detectors at movie theaters doesn’t make sense — there’s no reason to think the next crazy gunman will choose a movie theater as his venue, and how effectively would a metal detector deter a lone gunman anyway? — but understanding the reasons why the United States has so many gun deaths compared with other countries does. The particular motivations of alleged killer James Holmes aren’t relevant — the next gunman will have different motivations — but the general state of mental health care in the United States is.

Even with this, the most important lesson of the Aurora massacre is how rare these events actually are. Our brains are primed to believe that movie theaters are more dangerous than they used to be, but they’re not. The riskiest part of the evening is still the car ride to and from the movie theater, and even that’s very safe.

But wear a seat belt all the same.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com, and is an update of this essay.

EDITED TO ADD: I almost added that Holmes wouldn’t have been stopped by a metal detector. He walked into the theater unarmed and left through a back door, which he propped open so he could return armed. And while there was talk about installing metal detectors in movie theaters, I have not heard of any theater actually doing so. But AMC movie theaters have announced a “no masks or costumes policy” as a security measure.

Posted on August 3, 2012 at 6:03 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.