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.
The new school ID interferes with the elevator lobby card reader, I can have on in my wallet or the other. So the same hassle that I avoided by using the wrong card in the lobby has no reasserted itself until the school year is over. If building security theater has been absurd before, now it’s Gallagher-comedy absurd, staining one’s shirt with watermelon juice.
If security theater is a joke in Manhattan skyscraper lobbies, it’s a multi-billion-dollar joke in our nation’s airports. Last summer, after the foiled London hijacking plot, Bruce Schneier wrote:
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.
If any proof of that were needed, we saw it last week when a clever pilot and his passengers foiled a hijack attempt on an Air Mauritania. You probably saw the story; the pilot figured out that the hijacker didn’t speak French and announced over the speaker system, in French, that he would land the plane breaking to a hard stop, and then sudden speed up again. Between the two jolts to the cabin, the hijacker would probably be thrown off balance and could be overcome by the crew or the passengers. Which is exactly what happened, and probably would have happened even if the pilot weren’t able to use French as some kind of 21st century Navajo jet-set code-talking language.
It’s been said that since 9/11, no plane can be steered into a tall building because the aircraft’s pilot and passengers won’t allow it, knowing that they might as well risk their lives, since they’re forfeit anyway. Do we need any further demonstration of that?
And if not, can we end the security theater of disallowing water bottles brought from home, while allowing the high-priced ones carted in every day by minimum-wage newsstand and snack-bar employees? Can we stop pouring contact lens solution and perfume into 3 oz containers (possibly mixing them up and nearly blinding ourselves, as one hapless woman did recently).
Can we stop spending billions, literally, on useless airport security theater, and direct the money toward port security, fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, or low-interest college tuition loan guarantees for the many students who, unlike me, need them desperately?