Expert Calls Metro Bag Search Plan 'Security Theater'
Security specialist Bruce Schneier offered biting criticism of the Metro's new bag searching policy today in a chat with readers. He summed up the terror-fighting strategy as a waste of resources that would likely make residents less safe overall.
Here are some highlights:
Boston: ... Do people really think this is going to make us safer?
Bruce Schneier: Of course it's not going to make anyone safer.
This kind of thing is what I call security theater against a movie-plot threat.
A movie-plot threat is an overly specific plot or tactic. The problem with defending against them is that it only makes sense if you've guessed the plot correctly. If we spend millions on these random Metro searches and the terrorists go bomb shopping malls, or crowded movie theaters, or restaurants, or churches, or buses, or restaurants, or any of the other zillions of places where people congregate together, then we've wasted our money. But a "movie-plot threat" is a vivid story in our minds, and we respond to vivid stories. ...
Southern Maryland: ... This would seem to invite the screeners to select passengers based on personal prejudices or fears. I can easily imagine them targeting black men, or men who look Middle Eastern.
Bruce Schneier: This is certainly a worry; police officers will almost certainly stop people who "look suspicious," whatever that means. And, of course, terrorists will use that to their advantage by looking and dressing and acting like they fit in. ...
Baltimore: ... Everybody else see this policy for the sham it is -- why can't Metro?
Bruce Schneier: Actually, you're asking a very profound question. The reason Metro doesn't see this as a sham is that they're too close to the threat.
The threat is terrorism, and smart solutions reduce the threat overall. Dumb solutions move the threat around -- from the Metro to busses, from DC to another city -- and so on. But Metro officials have a different view; to them, the threat is terrorism on the Metro. If they institute this program and the terrorists go bomb something else, it's a win for them. But for all of us, it's a waste of money.
Bethesda, Md.: ... If I enter a metro station and refuse a search, then exit and return 1 minute later (say after 5 people have passed through the gates), will I be stopped again? ...
Bruce Schneier: I don't know. Certainly a smart terrorist will just take a cab to another station.
Washington, D.C.: Metro points to McWade v. Kelly - the New York City case - as proof of the program's legality. But does that case really create binding precedent for courts in DC, Maryland, and Virginia? Isn't the Metro program open for challenge?
Bruce Schneier: The New York case notwithstanding, there is definitely a court challenge in this case.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Are there other means of detecting bombs, such as bomb sniffing dogs, that could be implemented as another means to assist in preventing bombs from entering transit stations?
Bruce Schneier: Sure. You could add dogs, x-ray machines, metal detectors, explosive trace detectors -- all sorts of things. That's not the issue; the issue is "why bother?" Why is this particular movie-plot threat worth of all these resources and attention, and all the other millions of possible threats not? ...
Washington, D.C.: ... What is the new threat that requires searches on Metro?
Bruce Schneier: Perhaps someone needs to look tough on terrorism in order to secure a promotion.
I don't mean this as a joke. "Threat" needs to be understood from the point of view of the person who is implementing this program. There are threats to the general population, threats to the Metro ridership, threats to the Metro employees, and threats to that particular person. The decision to implement this program is based on all of those threats.
Whenever you see a security trade-off that doesn't make sense, try to understand it from the point of view of the person making the trade-off. It will make sense that way.
Washington, D.C.: Metro doesn't have enough security personnel to deal with the real threats it has: [assault, aggressive teenagers, harassment, crime]. ... Now they want to divert personnel to fight theoretical terrorists.
Bruce Schneier: This is another important point. Not only are there different terrorist threats, there are different threats in general. When the police divert resources from crime to terrorism, the result is an increased threat of crime. It's probable that people will be less safe overall because of this. ...
Pittsburgh: I lived in D.C. and I think it's a good idea to do this. It is better safe than sorry, and everyone would want this if something bad happens to us like 9/11.
Bruce Schneier: You certainly don't believe this. If you did, you'd never leave your home. Better safe than sorry, after all. You'd never let anyone into your home; better safe than sorry. You'd never do anything.
The choice is not between safe or sorry. This security measure won't make you safe. And not doing it won't necessarily make you sorry. (The Metro hasn't done it since the system opened in 1976, and no one is sorry.) The choice is the standard security trade-off: are the security benefits worth the cost? And by any reasonable measure, they're not.
Silver Spring, Md.: ... If terrorists were going to set off a bomb in the Metro, why haven't they done it already? ...
Bruce Schneier: Agreed. It seems unlikely that a would-be terrorist would say something like: "Wow, they're randomly searching bags in the Metro. I will abandon my terrorist plans and go get a real job instead." Far more likely he will make a minor change in his tactic and go about his evil business.
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