Imaginary Security
Imaginary Security

I recently posted about a fun experience with the metal detectors and security staff at the Oakland WCAB.1

At the end of January I was fortunate enough to witness more security shenanigans.

A man in line behind me took off all metal from his person and placed it in the provided gray plastic bin.  Here’s a summary of the exchange between this gentleman and the security guard:

  • Security:  Sir, you’re going to have to take off your belt.
  • Man:  My belt buckle is metal.  I took it off, see?  There’s no metal in my belt.
  • Security:  That doesn’t matter, sir.  Please take off your belt.
  • Man:  But, there’s no metal in it.
  • Security:  Sir, you’re going to need to put your belt through the metal detector.
  • The man finally took off his belt…

I have several problems with this2  “security procedure.”

  1. It is irrational and absurd.
  2. This system encourages security guards to be lazy and unobservant, encouraging the hiring of unsophisticated or untrained security guards.
  3. This system places too much importance on the value of x-ray machines.

Let’s take this point by point, shall we?

First, when challenged to provide any rationale for their demands, the security staff resorts to argumentum ad verecundiam. 3  There’s no reason why a non-metal belt buckle or, heaven forbid a piece of paper, needs to be fed into the x-ray machine.  They’re not security risks.

Second, the current system allows the security guards to insist all detachable belongings be fed into the x-ray machine. 45  The current system essentially removes the incentive for hiring trained, competent, or intelligent staff.  And, really, why should they?  A mannequin with a sign around its neck could instruct everyone to remove all belongings.

Finally, the current system allows all the security guards at the Oakland state building to place too much importance on the x-ray machines.  Once you’ve placed your belongings6 in the plastic bin, you aren’t given a second glance.  What happens if someone decides to conceal a dangerous non-metalic object on their person?  These security guards believe that paper should be x-rayed!  I’m supposed to trust in their powers of keen observation?

Can you tell I’m frustrated with the security situation at the Oakland WCAB?

  1. Original photo courtesy of Daquella manera. []
  2. imaginary []
  3. Latin argument for “appeal to authority” aka “I have a badge so I must be right” aka “‘Cause I said so, that’s why.” []
  4. Don’t forget to put your right to privacy in that bin.  After all, you don’t have anything to hide from Big Brother, do you? []
  5. For a while they actually required the removal of shoes too.  Taking your shoes off at the airport is bad enough.  But at the Oakland state building??? []
  6. And dignity!  Don’t forget your dignity!  Don’t worry, after a couple of times through this system it will be small enough to fit comfortably between your cell phone and belt buckle. []

Imaginary Security
Imaginary Security

What’s worse:

Having no security or having the illusion of security?12 Before you answer, you might want to read this article about how TSA security at airports is just plain ridiculous.

Keep in mind that by definition, the only difference between no security and illusory security is your ignorance – not someone else’s.

That said, having the illusion of security is worse.

No Security

If you have no security, you could at least take steps to improve security.  Let’s restate the question to highlight the distinction:

Would you rather have no burglar alarm or have a burglar alarm that never works and tells you it does?

Although not having a burglar alarm won’t prevent you from making foolish decisions3, at least you’ll have the opportunity to know you’re making a foolish decision.  Without a burglar alarm your decisions might be wise or foolish – but only accidentally so.

Illusory Security

Some would argue that the illusion of security provides a deterrence effect.  The only people who believe in the illusion of security is better are those who have something to gain by selling illusory security.4

  • First, deterrence is not a benefit of actual security.  Actual security depends upon the ability to actually stop something from occurring.  Deterrence is, at best, only a side-effect of actual security.  To the extent that actual security relies upon deterrence, its really just illusory security.  When good security is employed deterrence is either irrelevant or unnecessary.  Case in point:  If I have a good guard dog outside my house, I could care less what he looks like.
  • Second, as the above article suggests only stupid or careless criminals are deterred by illusory security.  Even the stupidest criminal knows that some people have actual security and other have only the illusion of security.  Don’t forget, if a criminal doesn’t care about whether you have actual or illusory security, then there is no deterrent effect.  If that same criminal cares whether you have illusory or actual security, then they’ll do the minimum to determine whether you have security.  If this hypothetical criminal instead who doesn’t know or care about illusory or actual security is stupid and will try out security measures.
  • Third, deterrent effects do not require illusory security.  Case in point:  If you know you don’t have a burglar alarm, there’s nothing preventing you from buying signs that say you do.  If deterrence is truly a worthy goal, then why not just opt for no security and specificallly develop the illusion of security.

Stupid Security

Why am I blathering on about security today?  I had an appearance at the Oakland WCAB on Monday afternoon.  As per the instructions of the security guard, I removed all metal from my person and placed it all in the plastic bin provided.  As I was about to walk through the metal detector, she pointed to my shirt pocket and asked what was in it.

Jay:  “Paper – see?”  I showed the parking lot ticket and a receipt from lunch.

Security Guard:  “Put that in too.”

Jay (giving a puzzled look):  “Why?  There’s nothing metal in it.  Its just paper.”

Security Guard:  “Just in case.”

I swear her response was, “Just in case.”  At this point I gave up.  There is little point in arguing with truly profound ignorance.

Just in case of what, exactly?

Just in case paper turns into metal?  Just in case I was hiding something in the paper I just showed her?  Isn’t that what metal detectors are supposed to find anyhow?

  1. Original photo courtesy of Daquella manera []
  2. “i” stands for an imaginary number.  :) []
  3. Such as going on vacation with the front curtains wide open showing off your 60″ plasma screen. []
  4. Call this a reductionist statement and ad hominem attack all you want.  But, you better back that up with an actual reason why illusory security is better than no security.  If you’ve got one, I’d like to see it. []