Friday, 26 November 2010

Security theatre versus terror TV

Bruce Schneier (via Farnam Street) makes the by-now-unoriginal observation* that:
...we pick a defense, and then the terrorists look at our defense and pick an attack designed to get around it. Our security measures only work if we happen to guess the plot correctly. If we get it wrong, we’ve wasted our money. This isn’t security; it’s security theater.
Probably true. But then, terrorism isn't exactly "real" either: by design, it's a theatrical exercise too. Or perhaps a reality TV show.

The clue is in the name - terrorism isn't designed to kill people, it's designed to make them scared. Thus, if we design this game for terrorists to play, they can win it just by smuggling a bomb through the security measures, regardless of whether it goes off.

Notice that all the recently-discovered terrorist plots - the shoe bomber, the underpants bomber, the soft-drinks bomber, the printer-ink bomber - have failed? If the goal is simply to make us worry, make us remember that Islamic fundamentalism exists, and to waste millions of hours of our time in airports, it succeeds without having to kill anyone. The terrorists and security authorities are in a cooperative game and I'm not sure if we really want to disturb the equilibrium too much. If we give either party a reason to start doing something different, we might not like the results.

What's more, there are plenty of beneficiaries from this process. The toothpaste, razor and bottled water markets have been boosted significantly in the last ten years. And airlines are now making millions in checked-baggage fees - or alternatively, have a powerful price discrimination tool - which never existed before.

So maybe security theatre - no matter that sophisticated observers recognise exactly what it is - is just what gives terrorists the level of visibility they need without having to sacrifice hundreds of lives for it. Here's to shared illusions...and happy Thanksgiving!

* To be fair to Bruce, he was one of the ones saying this kind of stuff before we were bored to death of it.

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