Security theater

I wrote this piece back in late November and forgot to post it.  I still agree with what I’ve written, so decided there’s no reason not to just publish it now.

I learned a new term yesterday- security theater.  A phrase coined by Bruce Schneier, security technologist and author, it’s something that only serves to make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve security, much like the TSA security measures for screening of airliner passengers.

While I understand that some form of security is necessary to protect travelers, the methods currently being employed are beyond acceptable in my eyes.  I cannot envision permitting our young son to go through either the full body imaging scanner or the more aggressive pat downs that have recently been put in place.  I’m thankful we’re not set to fly somewhere already, as it would be a hard to face the loss of the money spent on tickets, but I think at this point foregoing the flight is something I’d do.

It’s beyond imaginable to me that people would even begin to think the aggressive behaviour that constitutes the advanced pat down is OK when in any other context it would be a crime. Modesty aside, the safety of the scanners is unproven in my mind, considered by many scientists to be potentially dangerous.  Yet, I hear coworkers defending the practices, and passing it off as no big deal! It can only be fear talking, the traditional technique used to elicit such a response.

When writing this post, I tried to examine many sides of this issue and look at my personal fears on the topic. What I found was that it’s more like indignation than fear in my case.

One one hand, you have the issue of being forced to  submit to the full body scanners, a multifaceted problem. Even if you ignore the part about some stranger viewing pictures of your naked body, there’s still the problem with the radiation from the scanners.  Of course the TSA says they’re safe, but that’s with limited testing and when they’re operating within normal limits.  But what if they’re not operated correctly (as happens even in the medical world where people are very well trained and paid, and that’s not the case with TSA workers) and are giving off more radiation than they should? And what effect does it having on growing kids brains? And since this is in addition to the radiation received in flight, what effect does the cumulative exposure have on health? Does it make one more likely to get cancer? Just so many unknowns!

On the other hand, you have the fear of humiliation, coupled with outrage and indignation about personal bodily integrity.  I firmly believe that the government should not have the right to control what we do with our bodies, that it  should be left up to the individual (and parent).  In the western world, we value our right not to have our bodies touched without our consent.  In this case, there is no other option. Sure, you can choose to go through the scanners, but even after doing that you may be forced to go through the pat down process.  While I may decide that this trade off makes sense for me, I just cannot put my son through that.  Just how does one explain to a child that a random low-level security guard is on the list of people that should be allowed to touch their genitals? You can’t; it’s just not justifiable.

Have you seen the video of the young boy being strip searched? What about the one where the disabled passenger’s urine bag is broken? While it’s good for people to see these things happening, for all to be aware of just what’s going on, it also adds to the growing level of fear of what will happen if we do implement the procedures. And I don’t even want to think about what happens when they encourage the use of this technology for all forms of public transportation!

I think we’d be hearing less public outrage, if we knew the new measures were effective. But that’s the point of security theater– effectiveness is not the goal.

According to Schneier, our current response to terrorism, “relies on the idea that we can somehow make ourselves safer by protecting against what the terrorists happened to do last time.”  And this is so true!  Terrorist will always evolve to incorporate the most recent changes into their plans. If you do look at 9/11, the example brought up by so many in defense of the TSA practices, you’d realize that the same attack would not be allowed to happen today, irregardless of the right of security personnel to touch your “junk”. Cockpit doors have been reinforced and passengers are now willing to fight to make sure planes aren’t being used as weapons.

Scnheier also argues that there’s no need to subject citizens to increasingly invasive search methods when, “the best defenses against terrorism are largely invisible: investigation, intelligence, and emergency response.”  I really agree with Scneier, and also loved his piece in the New York Times debate on the topic of body scanners making us safer. It’s one of the only sensible things I’ve read on the topic over the last few days.

So what’s the cost of all this security theater? Millions of taxpayer dollars, loss of bodily autonomy, increased public fear. People are willingly submitting to be harassed in order to visit their family members or go on vacation.  Some would argue that it’s just the price you have to pay if you want to travel via air. I’ve decided that price is too steep for my family to accept. For the unforeseeable future, we’ll be avoiding flying.