I’m a bit late to the party on commenting about Boston Marathon’s new no bag policy, but life/work got in the way of blogging. I don’t think anyone was surprised that there are changes in the name of security for races, especially for the Boston Marathon in the aftermath of the bombing. I am not arguing that changes shouldn’t be made in order to increase safety and security for the runners and the spectators, but I am frustrated with some of the changes that are being made and they are nothing more than security theater.
Security theater is a term coined by Bruce Schneier to describe countermeasures taken by agencies to increase feelings of security without actually increasing security itself. In short, it’s all for show. Schneier describes several examples of security theater in our lives, from TSA in airports, security in stadiums, and banning of certain objects and behaviors (such as taking photos). Schneier gave this great TEDx talk on perceptions of security and the reality of security in our world. Perceptions of security and the reality of security don’t always match and this is a particular problem when we feel safe, but situation does not actually warrant that feeling.
One of the key points that Shneier makes that is that security is a trade-off. In the essay, The Psychology of Security, Shneier writes:
Security costs money, but it also costs in time, convenience, capabilities, liberties, and so on. Whether it’s trading some additional home security against the inconvenience of having to carry a key around in your pocket and stick it into a door every time you want to get into your house, or trading additional security from a particular kind of airplane terrorism against the time and expense of searching every passenger, all security is a trade-off.
I remember in the weeks after 9/11, a reporter asked me: “How can we prevent this from ever happening again?” “That’s easy,” I said, “simply ground all the aircraft.”
As people, as society, we need to decide what trade-offs we find acceptable. Grounding all the planes permanently would definitely ensure that no terrorist will ever be able to hijack a plane and crash it, but the costs of banning air travel is not something that as a society we’re willing to tolerate. Schneier points out:
It makes no sense to just look at security in terms of effectiveness. “Is this effective against the threat?” is the wrong question to ask. You need to ask: “Is it a good trade-off?” Bulletproof vests work well, and are very effective at stopping bullets. But for most of us, living in lawful and relatively safe industrialized countries, wearing one is not a good trade-off. The additional security isn’t worth it: isn’t worth the cost, discomfort, or unfashionableness. Move to another part of the world, and you might make a different trade-off.
Schneier very correctly argues that not all security theater is bad. When people feel insecure and the reality of the situation does not warrant those feelings of security, it does good to bring in a little security theater so that people feel safer and behave in a manner that corresponds to reality. Security theater is a problem when it’s used to raise feelings of security without actually making us secure or when the costs of security theater outweigh the benefits.
After the Boston Marathon bombing, race directors began making changes to their bag policy for runners. Some races eliminate bag check-in all together. Other races insisted that runners use clear plastic bags. The Boston Marathon decided that runners will not be allowed to bring bags with them to the start of the race. In past years, marathoners were able to check bags at the start that were then brought to them to the finish line. The reasons why bags are specifically targeted are because 1) Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev used backpacks to hide the bombs and 2) bags can hide contents. The questions for the no-bags policy are: 1) Does this policy actually increase security? 2) Does this policy increase feelings of security? and 3) Is the cost of the no-bag policy a good trade-off?
I don’t believe that the no-bag policy actually increases security. In order for the no-bags policy to actually increase security, we need to believe that there’s a possibility that a terrorist is going to register for the Boston Marathon. To register for the Boston Marathon, the terrorist will either need to train and BQ in another marathon OR be a charity runner. This seems like more work than what a terrorist would do since it’s much easier to simply be a spectator, which is exactly what the Tsarnaev brothers did.
Does the policy increase feelings of security? Possibly, because we tend to view actions as having a much bigger effect than they actually do. We see that the race directors created a new policy in reaction to the tragic event and we perceive the change as increasing our security. However, I don’t think these no-bag policies (or the clear bag policies) actually increased feelings of security either because after the Boston Marathon bombing, no runner was saying, “Oh, I’m not going to ____ Race because they still have a bag check,” or “I’m doing this race because they only allow clear bags.” Runners were still going to races, regardless of bag check policies (but grumbling if bag check was eliminated).
Is the cost of the no-bag policy a good trade-off? In my opinion, no. I recognize that a bag-check service, particularly for a point-to-point course is an additional cost and burden to the race organizers. No bag check means less work for the organizers, however, it eliminates a very valuable service to the marathoners. I don’t think that a no-bag policy is a good trade-off for security because it does nothing to increase actual safety. Neither do I think it does much to increase feelings of security. You might ask, well, maybe the no-bag policy will act as a deterrent for the potential terrorist. Interesting question, but I don’t think the terrorists were ever planning on using bag checks anyway. I think race organizers are simply using security concerns to eliminate some costs.