A Front Row Seat in the Security Theatre

[This is a piece I wrote in 2007 following a trip to New York to publicize the AVIEN book at Infosec, courtesy of ESET. I can’t remember who I wrote it for, but they didn’t use it. And I recently found it lurking on my laptop, so I figured I might as well put it up here before I lost it again.]

It was my first flight to the USA since 9/11 – actually, before 9/11 – unless you count looking across at the American Falls from the Canadian side of Niagara. It was a much edgier experience than I remembered. The restrictions had tightened again in the year since my last foreign jaunt in 2006. At check-in, my somewhat over-sized (listen who’s talking!) camera had to go into my suitcase, since I could only take one item of hand luggage, and I’d rather my camera was mislaid than my laptop. I had to tell the airline where I was staying, too. That was fortunate, as it happened. Opening the suitcase to put the camera away, I realized that I’d left my customary folder of travel information in my suitcase, and I was going to need it at the other end, for the immigration form.Check-in was behind me, but the obstacle race wasn’t over. The long, long queue to go through security at Gatwick snaked through the entire terminal. I found myself in conversation with another middle-aged Limey who was, he told me, in New York on that very day in 2001 when the Twin Towers fell. It turns out he was also in Paris when Princess Diana was killed and geographically close to several other history-defining tragedies of the past 20 years, so I was secretly slightly relieved (pleasant chap though he was) that hewas going to Las Vegas, since I was bound for New York.

Still, the queue gave me plenty of time to transfer everything that might upset the metal detector to my fleece pocket or laptop bag. Possibly for the first time ever, nothing sounded an alarm, and I reassembled my worldly goods: pens, coins, belt, shoes, cell phone, keys, all present and correct. Even my camphor stick passed without comment. However, my laptop was randomly selected to have its DNA tested. The swab revealed no toxic or explosive substances, and I passed on to Departures, fully metalled once more.

But did I feel safer for it all?

Cryptographer and security guru Bruce Schneier coined (as far as I know) the phrase “security theater” (well, he is American), and many people apply the phrase to airport security. I think he means security measures that don’t actually add significant security (and may even reduce it), but make us feel safer. To put it crudely, we may feel that since airport security restrictions are so inconvenient to us, they must be inconveniencing terrorists and criminals too. I suppose they may reduce the risk from shoe bombs, but even I can think of ways to smuggle a significant threat onto a plane in less than 100 ml of liquid, and I’m fairly sure it’s possible to turn a laptop into a weapon without leaving traces that can be picked up by a cotton bud. Here’s a classic example from 2001: just after the attack on the Twin Towers, the UK government forbade aircraft to fly directly over London. Obviously, air controllers and pilots did as they were told. However, would a modern-day Guy Fawkes have been deterred from making a kamikaze attack on the Houses of Parliament or the City of London? Of course he would. Just as surely as sheep are deterred from grazing by “Keep off the grass” signs.

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World 


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