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Is more security more theater?

Anti-terrorist programs depend on technology — remotely controlled cameras, automatic license plate readers, interception of cell-phone signals and high-tech explosives detectors.

It might pay to ask: Is this high-tech surveillance security or security theater? Does it provide enough additional safety to justify the added intrusiveness? Or do the bad guys just find a way around it?

For example, if terrorists don't know that the National Security Agency can intercept their phone calls in remote parts of the world, the intercepts will be useful. Once they know, they stop using cell phones.

This is doubtless a nuisance to them, but hardly a show-stopper. If they know about automated monitoring of e-mail, again, they stop using it or, depending on what they are doing, use an anonymous, disposable Hotmail account.

The inability thus far to capture Osama bin Laden demonstrates the ease of circumventing surveillance techniques.

For a while people talked about combating steganography — the hiding of messages in, say, Web pages by various coding schemes. At least some security folk wanted specialized software to examine pages for messages exchanged among terrorists. Useful sometimes, perhaps — unless the bad guys know about it.

Then they communicate by prearranged codes. For example, a post on a classic-car site looking for a blue 1957 Chevy six-cylinder means one thing, whereas looking for a red 1958 Ford means another.

If a suicide bomber (which seems to be the threat we face) thinks he can't get his bomb past nitrate sniffers and specialized X-ray machines at the airport, he simply blows himself up in a crowded part of the terminal. If the point is to protect airplanes, security may work.

If the point is to stop terrorism, it is useless.

There is no way to stop a guy with a backpack from getting on Metro at rush hour.

New York is set to spend $90 million on more cameras and license plate readers. What will this accomplish? A CNN story on the system quoted Steve Swain, a security specialist who spent years working with London's net of cameras, who said, "I don't know of a single incident where CCTV [closed-circuit television] has actually been used to spot, apprehend or detain offenders in the act."

Cameras aid in the investigation of a crime already committed, he said, and "you need to do this piece of theater so that if the terrorists are looking at you, they can see that you've got some measures in place."

But catching the offender is of trivial importance compared with preventing the terrorism. Is the theater aimed at the terrorists, or at the public? Surveillance increases apace. From the Times Online of London, "An 'intelligent' CCTV camera designed to predict when a person may be about to commit a crime is being tested in high streets and shopping centres." I have encountered brain-scan research endeavoring to determine moods thought to be associated with terrorists.

According to a recent ABC News poll, the public favors surveillance by almost 3 to 1. Governments from federal to local want to integrate cameras and similar devices.

Concern with terrorism makes it difficult to oppose new measures. And there is big money in making the equipment. All of this contributes to the acceptance of more and more surveillance, without anyone asking, "Wait, what are we really going to get out of this? Will it work?" In the words of Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York ACLU, "Technology is an unstoppable train. The question is whether we can maximize the benefits and minimize the harms."

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