Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for March 2nd, 2007

Security theater of the absurd

Posted by metaphorical on 2 March 2007

I love theater, but not security theater. Bruce Schneier, the smartest guy I know when it comes to computer security, or any security for that matter, defines security theater as “measures designed to make us feel safer but not actually safer.” Living in New York, post-9/11, it’s easy to feel all the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players… Sans shoes, sans belts, sans water bottles, sans everything.

This morning, on the way to work, I stopped off at school to get my new ID. As I may or may not have mentioned here, I’m finishing a master’s program in creative nonfiction. Why the school chose the middle of the school year to create a new ID is something I’ll never know. I’m in my final semester; if they had waited till September I would have avoided the hassle entirely.

I’d seen the new ID and all I knew about it was it’s swipeable. It eliminates the need for a separate ID for, say, the meal card used in the cafeterias. None of the cafeterias are open in the evening, so no one I know uses them anyway. Whatever.

I got the ID, picked up some lunch to go, and got back to office around 1:00. Now one thing you need to know about my office is that it’s in a 43-story building in midtown Manhattan. Some office buildings in Manhattan have real security; mine isn’t one of them. After 9/11, my building required that you show some ID, briefly. Then it issued its own IDs and required, again briefly, that they be produced, before settling into an inconsistent and extremely lazy practice of requiring them sometimes, but not for UPS, FedEx, attractive women, food deliverers, and most visitors.

Some buildings have instituted real security, installing turnstiles that only admitted only those wielding badges, which have to be swiped. In such buildings, visitors have to get a picture taken and a temporary badge is made. My building isn’t one of them, and it’s hardly the only one to engage in half-hearted security.

At the time of 9/11 I was seeing a physical therapist at one of the hospital buildings in the NYU medical system; there, as at my building, IDs had to be produced, but for no real reason and you could show just about anything that had a picture. To test the outer limits of this theater of the absurd, I bought a fake ID on 42nd Street and used that all over town. I even wrote about it; the article is no longer on-line, but the first half of it can be found here.

I should mention that those of us working in my office have two IDs, one the post-9/11 building card for the downstairs RFID reader and the other a company card for the reader that lets us into the doors that lead from the elevator lobby. The downstairs lobby has no turnstiles or doors, so swiping your card only produces a green light on the reader, a certain beeping sound, and your photo being thrown up from a data file onto a PC screen behind the desk. No one, as far as I can tell, ever looks at that screen.

The two cards interfere with one another, by the way, and in the summer of 2005, I noticed that the company card produced the green light in the lobby, and the pleasant beeping sound as well. So beginning on the fourth anniversary of 9/11, I put the building card in my backpack and started using the upstairs one in the downstairs lobby, using, in other words, my company ID not just to get in the door up on the 17th floor, where our offices are, but in the lobby as well. My photo didn’t get thrown up on the PC screen, but no one seems to have noticed, for over 17 months now and counting, hypnotized, I guess, by the soothing beeping sound. If security guards in lobbies throughout New York are satisfied by security theater, then those in my building are satisfied by radio drama; the merest sound effects of security are sufficient.

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