Posted by: Tobias | September 14, 2008

Movie-Plot Threats

Every time I stand in line at an airport security checkpoint these days I think of Bruce Schneier. Schneier is the security analyst who has coined the term “security theater” to describe the approach commonly taken to security: not to create real security but to make people feel secure, which seems to be exactly what is going on at these checkpoints.

In his latest article in the Guardian Schneier decries a similar folly, to focus on specific “movie-plot” threats:

We spend far more effort defending our countries against specific movie-plot threats, rather than the real, broad threats. In the US during the months after the 9/11 attacks, we feared terrorists with scuba gear, terrorists with crop dusters and terrorists contaminating our milk supply. Both the UK and the US fear terrorists with small bottles of liquid. Our imaginations run wild with vivid specific threats. Before long, we’re envisioning an entire movie plot, without Bruce Willis saving the day. And we’re scared.

[…]

The problem with building security around specific targets and tactics is that its only effective if we happen to guess the plot correctly. If we spend billions defending the Underground and terrorists bomb a school instead, we've wasted our money. If we focus on the World Cup and terrorists attack Wimbledon, we've wasted our money.

It's this fetish-like focus on tactics that results in the security follies at airports. We ban guns and knives, and terrorists use box-cutters. We take away box-cutters and corkscrews, so they put explosives in their shoes. We screen shoes, so they use liquids. We take away liquids, and they're going to do something else. Or they'll ignore airplanes entirely and attack a school, church, theatre, stadium, shopping mall, airport terminal outside the security area, or any of the other places where people pack together tightly.

These are stupid games, so let's stop playing. Some high-profile targets deserve special attention and some tactics are worse than others. Airplanes are particularly important targets because they are national symbols and because a small bomb can kill everyone aboard. Seats of government are also symbolic, and therefore attractive, targets. But targets and tactics are interchangeable.

The following three things are true about terrorism. One, the number of potential terrorist targets is infinite. Two, the odds of the terrorists going after any one target is zero. And three, the cost to the terrorist of switching targets is zero.

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Responses

  1. Although the idea isn’t comforting: this all sounds similar to the Meese-Rogoff conclusions on the pure random walk model you described in ‘Martingal, ick hör dir trapsen’.

    While I agree that things are getting ridicule and a fake sense of safety is provided at the airport some precautions might prevent something big which direct and indirect will cost much more. However knowing the point when and where to stop is something we find very difficult to determine.


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