Commentary, Travel

Security Theater

08.18.06 | 1 Comment

My daughter is 3 years old. As a 3 year old, she has some irrational fears. Not what you’d think like monsters in the closet or the boogeyman, but fear of car washes. Like most parents, I struggle from time to time on how to get my daughter to listen to me and periodically, I’ll use this fear against her. “If you don’t do X, then we’re going to go to the car wash.” Works like a charm.

My observation is that our culture has many parallels to that 3 year old outlook with irrational fears driven by irresponsible government officials – not out of malice (hopefully,) but stupidity. They blindly fall into the age old saw “good intentions pave the way to hell.” The result: security theater. This term was coined by Bruce Schneier, a noted computer security figure, in his book Beyond Fear and refers to the specious activities purported to “improve security.”

Let’s take the most recent example of this phenomenon: The liquid bomb plot. I’m glad that people are paying attention to wackos who wish infidels (us) death and dismemberment. But, I would think that some degree of skepticism would be employed when evaluating the potential threat vs. simply having a knee jerk reaction to ban all liquids from going on airplanes.

A colleague forwarded me this link yesterday that has a pretty good assessment of the plausibility of actually fabricating and detonating such a device on an airplane. The short version is, it’s not plausible. Creating a bomb from acetone and peroxide is wishful thinking on the part of would-be terrorists and shoddy science on the part of the governments evaluating this to be a credible threat. Would these terrorists discover the implausibility? Probably. Try something else? Probably. It’s a good thing that they’ve been arrested and I applaud our intelligence and law enforcement communities for that work.

The risk was effectively eliminated when the arrests were made. There was no need (or benefit) to changing the security posture at airports, canceling flights, or any of the other histrionics we’ve seen in the past few days. It is, plainly, security theater calculated to use the public’s irrational fears to some greater aim. What that aim is, we can speculate. But I can imagine it is but one event we’ll see in the next few months to remind us our politicians are “protecting us” in advance of mid-term elections.

Let’s talk about risk for a moment. I’ve invested a huge amount of time over the past few years quantifying risk, in computer operations specifically. Risk really can be broken down into a defined condition that leads to a particular outcome set. That outcome can be positive, neutral, or negative. When quantifying the liklihood of a particular outcome, one needs to examine two axes, probability of occurrence in a defined time frame and severity of the outcome. Thus we can quantify any specific risk with probability and severity by outcome.

Now, let’s examine actual risk of negative outcome from planned air travel. What is the most dangerous part of this journey? The trip to the airport in a car. Your odds of being a traffic fatality in any given year in the US? 14.52 per 100,000 people. Your odds of being dying by air travel (terrorism inclusive?) 0.027 in 100,000 flight hours according to NTSB or 1 in 8,000,000 flight opportunities. Or an even better way to characterize this: If one gets on a random flight every day, it would take 22,000 years before the negative outcome of death would occur. More mortality statistics available in this entry.

If we’re willing to accept the odds of driving to the airport, I think that the risk of negative outcome needs to rise above the rate we’ve accepted before we perform another act of security theater. It’s past time we get rational about the fears we have and pragmatic about how we respond to them. There is no such thing as zero risk of negative outcome. Let’s find a balance that is close to what we implicitly accept every day.

One of my favorite quotes is from Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up an essential liberty for safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Technorati Tags: | Security | Safety

1 Comment