Security Theatre: a Front Row Seat

[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. When I found it lurking on my laptop, I figured I might as well put it up on my Dataholics blog before I lost it again. This version, obviously, has been updated slightly. I will be attempting to gather more of my miscellaneous prose here in due course: only if copyright and other considerations permit, of course.]

In 2007 I took my first flight to the USA since 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) since my last foreign jaunt in 2006. At check-in, my somewhat oversized camera (listen who’s talking about being oversized!)  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 at check-in where I was going to be staying, too. It’s as well that they asked, since it turned out that the folder of travel information that normally sits in my hand luggage was lurking in my suitcase. I was going to need it at the other end of the flight, for the immigration form, so it was just as well that I was able to retrieve it.

The long, long queue to go through security at Gatwick didn’t help, snaking 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 – 11th of September – in 2001. 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 he was going to Las Vegas, since I was going to New York.

Still, the length of 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, keyring: 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 the phrase “security theater” (well, he is American), and many people apply the phrase to airport security. I think he means by that term security measures that don’t actually add significant security (and may even reduce it), but make us feel safer. Or perhaps make the authorities feel as if they’ve performed a useful PR exercise.

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 some of the precautions I’ve observed over the years may reduce the risks from shoe bombs, for instance, 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. No, I’m not going to offer suggestions.

We could, of course, draw some parallels with some of the lockdown measures imposed in various countries during the COVID-19 pandemic, but I’ll leave that for another time…

What I will do, though, is leave you with a classic example of security theatre 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 that instruction have deterred a modern-day Guy Fawkes from making a kamikaze attack on the Houses of Parliament or the City of London? Of course it would. Just as surely as sheep are deterred from grazing by “Keep off the grass” signs.

David Harley

To a Daughter, Aged Six

A rare foray into prose that isn’t security-related. Previously published at the Lost & Found Exhibition.

This is one of my occasional forays into prose that isn’t security-related, and was previously published at the Lost & Found Exhibition. You could see this as a companion piece to the song How To Say Goodbye. Well, I do…

This letter is more than a decade too early. You are a bright child and an advanced reader, but not so unnaturally mature that you’ll really understand what your parents are about to do to you.

You were always a Daddy’s girl. Even when you were still tiny, your mother and I agreed that she’d get first crack at getting up to see to you when you cried in the night: I think she was worried that you already thought I was your mum. It was still me who took you out on a Sunday so she could get on with some work in peace, in that tiny flat where the only bedroom was yours, while she and I slept on the sofa-bed in the lounge. It was me who applauded your first steps across the living room. It was me who took you to nursery and hung my head like a criminal on the second day when you wept, betrayed and abandoned, because instead of staying with you (as I had the first day), I went on to work.

When your mother had to take short term contracts in various parts of the country, it was me who, thanks to a job that lent itself to flexible working and the first of several considerate employers, built my working day round the need to ferry you to and from nursery, then school. Your mother and I grew apart and both took guilty consolation elsewhere. When I said that I didn’t think Mummy and Daddy could go on living together, and asked who you’d rather live with, you pointed to me with a woebegone expression, but no hesitation. Would you have hesitated if I’d been able to tell you what lies ahead?

Yes, there will be happy times. Soon, we’ll move into our own flat. You’ll have a room that will be all your own, rather than a bed in a lumber room, and you’ll get the cat you’ve long wished for. Sadly, he’ll turn out to be a one-person moggie, not good company for a child, and after a particularly vicious bite, you won’t be too sad when I give him away. We’ll survive the custody arguments with your mother, when she begins to regret that she gave you up so easily. We’ll live in (mostly) happy chaos, despite my deficiencies as a housekeeper and mother substitute. Because money is tight, most of our holidays together will be with relatives, but sometimes I’m invited to speak at conferences. You spend a lot of time sitting at the back of lecture halls reading and drawing, but we also get to see lots of European cities, and even Disneyland.

We’ll get to know lots of single parent families. Every other weekend, you’ll stay with your mother, and occasionally I’ll spend some of that time with someone who’s more than a friend (once in every second blue moon, I might even get a babysitter). However, I’ll turn my back on romantic liaisons when they threaten too many changes in the way we live. Is that because I’m frightened of upsetting you, or because I’m happier being someone’s Dad than someone’s lover or husband?

When I’m offered a job in another part of the country, though, things will start to change. Because my new employer is less indulgent about my duties as a parent, my mother will come to live with us and look after you when I’m not there. You’ll resent having to share me, and give her a hard time because she’s not your mother. Alternate weekends are a pain because of the distance we have to travel to your mother’s.

Then, out of the blue, I meet someone I can’t turn my back on. Suddenly, you’re thirteen years old, living with me and someone you think of as a wicked stepmother. I betray you time and again, taking her side instead of yours, or getting into arguments about you that make you feel like the victim and the villain. In the end, you’re back to living in a one-bedroom flat with just one of your parents, but this time it isn’t me.

Then you’re sixteen, and your GCSEs are nearly behind you. You’re happier than you’ve been for a while, but in between you spent over a year on anti-depressants, you would only meet me for a few hours at a time on neutral ground, and even tried suicide: mercifully, you didn’t try too hard. When my new wife and I separate for a while, you say you’d come and live with me again, but only if I moved closer. You’re a young adult now, with a life and relationships that neither your mother nor I know much about. Your life is full of uncertainty, but there are possibilities you’ve barely started to explore. Your texts and emails tell me you love me lots and lots, but I know you need me less and less. Perhaps your mother feels the same, but she and I way beyond talking about anything so personal. I know it’s a parent’s job to foster a child’s independence, but did it have to be so soon?

I don’t know how well your 16-year-old self understands what’s happened to us. I’m not sure I understand it myself. It breaks my heart to know that for me, you’ve already left home.

This letter is decades too late, for both of us. And sometimes I miss us both so very badly.