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Security theater

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What you have here is not security, but a system for inconveniencing passengers.
—El Al[note 1] security expert, consulting to the US Transportation Security Administration

Security theater is the mostly pejorative term to refer to activities that provide little more than a feeling of safety in the public, or that make it look like the government is "doing something", usually in response to some recent lapse of security. These are often useless and ineffective, as security theater is essentially a placebo for a panicked public.

Measures that are particularly flashy or invasive, such as high-tech scanning equipment, are good examples of props used in security theater, while often useful measures, such as subjecting airplane baggage to low pressure (to prevent bombs designed to explode at altitude) are "invisible" and yet probably justified.

The term was popularized by Bruce Schneier, the Chuck Norris of cryptography.[1]

U.S. homeland security[edit]

In the U.S., a particularly popular sort of security theater is called "Homeland Security." It consists of such things as:

  • Subjecting airline passengers to a gauntlet of frivolous security checks and restrictions while ignoring some obvious ones — you'll have to take off your shoes and leave behind your tube of toothpaste but, for a domestic flight, you won't have to show anything like a driver's license or other form of photo ID (as of April 2014 all passengers are required to show ID even if their flight is as short as Chicago to Milwaukee), and the four cigarette lighters in your pockets can step right on board.
  • Amber Alert signs being used to broadcast "Report Suspicious Activity" 1-800 numbers to Interstate Highway travelers[2]
  • Driver's licenses having magnetic strips or bar codes on them containing your biometrically encoded fingerprint or something else equally pointless
  • Adding similar high-tech features to passports (a financial boon for some government contractor, no doubt)
  • Rent-a-cops and concerned citizens harassing innocent rail fans taking photos of choo choo trains
  • More of the above twerps hassling innocent science fans taking microfilm copies of nuclear power plant plans
  • Employers whose idea of stopping terrorism is to conduct background checks on their employees to root out those with 30-year old DUI and marijuana convictions
  • Installing concrete barricades in front of buildings to deter truck bombs, but leaving the loading dock protected by a plastic boom gate.
  • A 5-color security alert scale that will never go below yellow, and which includes an attention-grabbing watermelon color that is scarier than orange but less terrifying than red.
  • Low-image-quality surveillance cameras everywhere
  • Tracking which books you check out from the library
  • Referring to the United States by the term "homeland", a term which seems creepy to Americans of a certain vintage, being vaguely evocative of authoritarian regimes.

The end effect of Homeland Security is to make life difficult for the 99.999% of people who aren't terrorists while doing very little to hinder those who are.

As with everything else that emerged from the George W. Bush administration, there is a great deal of money to be made from the Homeland Security Industrial Complex. And when major universities offer Master of Science degrees in homeland security,[3] you know the likes of Blackwater will be shaking the money tree for some time to come.


See the main article on this topic: Computing woo

Unlike actual security and cryptography, which rely on having a secret (such as a password or cryptographic key) that a malicious party cannot efficiently extract from the secured system even in principle, these two approaches rely on convincing the public (or the corporation sponsoring development) that an attacker won't bother finding vulnerabilities. Unsurprisingly, it never works.

Other examples[edit]

  • Putting an armed guard in front of a bank but a) not giving them a bulletproof vest and b) loading the gun with blanks
  • Regular drug tests but no monitoring of liver performance; alcoholism is both more common and more harmful than e.g. marijuana use.

See also[edit]


  1. Israel's flag carrier, which has not had a hijacking in almost five decades despite countless attempts