- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

Today we have an example of what the security expert Bruce Schneier calls “security theater”: measures that appear to provide security, and usually provide contracts to high-tech firms, but in fact don’t improve security at all.

In Forbes magazine I find the following: “WASHINGTON (AP) — Amtrak will start randomly screening passengers’ carry-on bags this week in a new security push that includes officers with automatic weapons and bomb-sniffing dogs patrolling platforms and trains. … Anybody who is selected for screening and refuses will not be allowed to board and their ticket will be refunded.”

Why is this pointless as a security measure? Start with the obvious. Any terrorist with more sophistication than a disturbed teenager can find ways to package explosives so that sniffers, whether canine or technological, won’t find them. I asked an organic chemist friend about this. “Easy,” he said, and started rattling off ways.

Also obvious: Rail stations are regular mob scenes during peak hours. Suppose the team “randomly” searches 2 percent of passengers. That means that of every 50 terrorists, 49 will get through.

How secure is that? It might stop a college kid from smuggling a kilo of cocaine. No, he probably wouldn”t get caught, but the risk of 15 years in prison would seem daunting. But a suicide bomber? Besides, if a screening team were present, he would just go to the coffee shop, have a doughnut, and come back the next day.

And, of course, just by being in the station, the terrorist would be close to hundreds of people. If he was chosen for inspection, he would simply blow up then and there. Making people afraid to go to a train station is as effective as making them afraid to board a train.

At Union Station, how do you catch a terrorist before he gets into a crowd? All of it is a crowd at quitting time. Do you set up 50 computer-controlled sniffing stations, each with blast-proof walls, so the bad guy never gets close to more than maybe 20 people? Note the absurdity of refunding the ticket of anyone who doesn’t want to be inspected. This amounts to saying that the system is guaranteed not to catch the terrorist. He just leaves and drives to the next station.

Protecting the station wouldn’t be enough. You would also need automated cameras, certainly with night vision, to watch the entire track from beginning to end. You can wreck a train by derailing it better than by blowing up one car from inside. Preventing this would require huge rooms full of television screens with glaze-eyed employees watching them in desperate boredom. The alternative would be a high-tech fence full of sensors on both sides of the track to keep people away from the track. Here we’re talking tens of thousands of miles of pricey fence to cover the United States.

Every 15 seconds somewhere a cow would wander into it, or kids would trip the alarms for fun.

At any rural crossing, a terrorist with a rented dump truck or other vehicle could simply drive onto the tracks as the train approaches. So now we need crash-proof automated gates and a way of keeping vehicles away from deserted portions of track in the countryside, and …

So much of “security” is theater. It may serve to make people feel safer, and does serve to condition them to accept ever-tightening controls over daily life, but it doesn’t actually make anyone safer. There are things for which technology is a solution. This isn’t one of them.

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