on security

Nov 20, 2014 | 09:02 GMT

7 mins read

The Danger of Security Theater

VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor

By Scott Stewart

I've often written about how terrorism is a type of macabre theater, or as early anarchist terrorists referred to it, the "propaganda of the deed." As I wrote in a previous Security Weekly, the intent of terrorist planners is to create hysteria that transcends the immediate impact of their attacks by drawing other people into the trauma of their attack as vicarious victims. The goal is to maximize the social and psychological impact of physical efforts.

But terrorism theater does not exist in a vacuum. It has a counterpart that lives alongside it and largely in response to it, in some ways exerting a Newtonian opposite and equal force in misleading the public. This force is, of course, security theater — theater that is intended to abate, rather than create, hysteria. But as the name suggests, this purportedly secure facade constructed of smoke and mirrors is no more universally effective than terrorism is universally dangerous. Both terrorist attacks and security measures are real, but neither is as significant or substantial as the public is led to believe.

Acting for the Sake of Acting

Now perhaps this topic is just coming to mind because I am traveling this week, and aviation security is one area in which security theater is perhaps the most readily apparent. Highly visible, knee-jerk security measures have been implemented to stop the methods and tactics used in previous attacks, but they have very little ability to stop any future attacks that use new techniques.

The Transportation Security Administration, for example, was created in the wake of 9/11 and charged with preventing similar attacks. Following the shoe bombing attempt in December 2001, aviation security authorities enacted measures requiring passengers to remove their shoes for screening. This change in procedure caused terrorist planners to switch to alternative methods of concealing explosives, such as liquids or underwear, to smuggle them onboard aircraft. Consequently, after the 2006 discovery of a plot to smuggle explosives disguised as liquids aboard aircraft, authorities limited the amount of liquids travelers could take in their carry-on luggage. Finally, in response to the failed attempt to detonate a bomb hidden in underwear in December 2009, the Transportation Security Administration began to employ full-body scanners at airports. Indeed, aviation security has a long history of being a reactionary arms race, and I see no end to this pattern.

In truth, there is only so much that aviation security authorities can do to prevent explosives from being brought onboard an aircraft so long as passengers and luggage are permitted onboard and attackers are willing to die. But because of the hysteria caused by incidents like the failed shoe and underwear bombings — and the economic implications of such panic — authorities feel compelled to do something to reassure and calm the traveling public, even if other smuggling tactics can circumvent those measures.

Creating the Illusion of Security

Security theater is not restricted to the domain of aviation security; it is much more widespread. The typical corporate office building, for example, is "secured" by access control devices, badge readers and closed-circuit television cameras. Such measures are highly visible and help prevent low-level intrusions, but they do very little to protect facilities from clever and sophisticated criminals, brute force attacks, or perhaps most significantly, insider threats. During my career I have seen many cases of expensive access control systems being rendered useless by people propping doors open with trash cans, failing to check the identifications of people tailgating in the door behind them, or simply refusing to lock doors for the sake of convenience. In many cases, the presence of access control devices and cameras can actually create a false sense of security, a psychological crutch that can be dangerous if people assume they are safe, fail to practice good situational awareness and even go into denial at the first sign of a criminal or terrorist attack, all because they don’t think such an attack could happen at their "secure" location. This attitude often proves fatal when it causes people to ignore warning signs or go into shock and freeze.

Training can also contribute to a false sense of security. Safety training can be extremely helpful and effective, but if it is not done correctly (or sufficiently) it can lead to overconfidence and dramatic failure. When I was in high school, a kid who had taken a few Kung Fu classes became unduly cocky and was taken out with one punch by an experienced street fighter. Throughout my career as a diplomatic security special agent and corporate security manager, I have encountered many people who have received a little training and have begun to think entirely too highly of their capabilities. Closely related are the security hucksters, or self-described "security experts" who heavily self-promote their expertise for financial gain. Yet despite the multitude of initials they like to include behind their names, these hucksters have little idea of what they are doing in the real world. Whenever I encounter such people, I think of that Kung Fu kid, and of how these poorly trained charlatans are setting themselves (and their clients) up for a similar type of spectacular failure. 

Getting in Touch with Reality

So what, then, is the antidote for security theater? It starts with a sober assessment of the threats facing a person, company or agency. Can the threat be defeated, or is it something that can only be contained, avoided or abated? The next step is to share that rational assessment with the people you are seeking to protect. Education is an important element of effective security, and I have found that if security managers and government officials are open and honest with their people, and explain the threat they are trying to protect against in a candid and rational manner, most people will cooperate with security programs, especially if the programs are logical and designed to protect against the threat that has been defined. Yes, there will still be people who will buck any security system, but if security managers are able to get buy-in from most of the people they are protecting and establish a good security culture, then cooperative individuals will help provide positive peer pressure for any non-conformists.

Once security managers or agency directors have formed their rational assessments, they must implement security programs and measures that are balanced, sensible and cost-effective. Will your multimillion-dollar closed-circuit television system ever be able to prevent an attack or theft? Will it ever be able to help you recover enough stolen property to pay for itself? If not, you may need to rethink spending that much money for it.

Security professionals must understand that the people they are trying to keep safe are really the best line of defense against security threats of all kinds. The protected population has many more eyes than the security staff, even in companies that employ widespread video surveillance. If people are treated as adults and buy into security programs, they can become a critical part of the solution rather than the problem. When we expand this to a larger scale and incorporate individuals into the national security strategy — if you see something, say something — citizens can become highly effective grassroots defenders. This concept is becoming especially important as the terrorist threat becomes increasingly concentrated in the grassroots itself.

While the protected people in the office (or nation) can be a great security asset, they can also become cynical and jaded if they are alienated by security personnel. Nothing pushes people away faster than hyped-up, melodramatic security theater. By making theatrical and unreasonable security claims and demands, you can lose the trust and respect of the people you are trying to protect. And as a security professional, it is extremely hard to regain a person's — or a population's — trust and respect once you have lost it. 

Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor's analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.

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