Come in Spinner: Security theatrics

Politics is often characterised as theatre and probably never more so in areas – such as security – where symbolism is often more important than logic and probability.

An individual who has done more than most to expose the nonsense of much Western anti-terrorism activity and policies is an IT security expert, Bruce Schneier, whose regular crypto-gram newsletter often discusses what he has termed ‘security theatre’.

‘Security theatre’ is also great public relations for governments, spy agencies, security firms and others in the security-intelligence complex along with being very, very profitable.

Schneier argues that there is a profound difference between feeling and reality in security. “You can feel secure even though you’re not and you can be secure even though you don’t feel it,” he says in a 2008 essay on his website. Governments need to be seen to be doing something about ‘security’ from terrorism for instance, even though the probabilities of a particular event happening are very low. The public, which in the main has little sense of probabilities, is easily persuaded that more and more overt is always the way to go. Our inbuilt evolutionary cognitive biases are also a problem. “Our brains are much better optimised for the security trade-offs endemic to living in small family groups in the East African highlands in 100,000 BC than to those endemic in living in 2008 New York, “ he said.

In terms of trade-offs Schneier was recently asked to comment on the elaborate security procedures used at the new 9/11 memorial in New York. Asked what would be the thing which would most protect the security of visitors he suggested it would be to buckle up the seatbelts on the trip to New York.

No government would admit that a cost benefit analysis of whether it’s worth spending billions on security measures would probably conclude it wasn’t. Equally no government would admit that the progressive erosion of privacy standards and the monitoring of more and more information about individuals make more work, and justification, for security agencies without having much impact on security. There is no way known they would also admit that many of the recent ‘terrorist’ threats avoided in Australia and the US were actually never threats but rather the dreams of a few unstable individuals which would never have got far without the assistance of the security and intelligence services. The Christmas plot to blow up the Christmas tree in Portland Oregon’s main square a few years ago was a prime example of this. The would-be terrorist wanted to blow something up but actually didn’t know how to make a bomb. Despite all the claims about how the internet makes it easy for terrorists this one didn’t really crack the problem until an FBI agent monitoring him helped.

Security theatre does, however, have some benefits. Schneier cites the example of identity tags on babies in maternity wings being an important sense of security for parents – and a potential defence against litigation – despite the statistical insignificance of infant abduction incidence with the chance of a baby being inducted from a US hospital is 1 in 375,000 compared with the US infant mortality rate of one in 145.

We are probably more at risk, in terms of potential global death rates, from a new SARS epidemic or a re-run of the 1918 flu pandemic than we in the West are from terrorist attack or from infant abduction.

According to Lynn Klotz and Edward Sylvester in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientiststhe pandemic risk from a laboratory escape are quite high. They say: “Consider the probability for escape from a single lab in a single year to be 0.003 (i.e., 0.3 percent), an estimate that is conservative in light of a variety of government risk assessments for biolabs and actual experience at laboratories studying dangerous pathogens. Calculating from this probability, it would take 536 years for there to be an 80 percent chance of at least one escape from a single lab. But with 42 labs carrying out live PPP research, this basic 0.3 percent probability translates to an 80 percent likelihood of escape from at least one of the 42 labs every 12.8 years, a time interval smaller than those that have separated influenza pandemics in the 20th century.”

Extrapolating this risk to that from major terrorist attacks of 9/11 scale it is worth remembering the words of a Bush administration official that the success of their anti-terrorism policies was reflected in the fact that there had been no major attacks since 9/11. There were, of course, no major terrorist attacks before 9/11 for much longer and without the spending of billions. Indeed, the probability of 9/11 was skewed more by security incompetence than any other factor.

But what probably the most important questions are: what is the bigger risk and what is the relative value of resources we are committing to each compared with the public relations value politicians derive from each?

Politicians are not good at discussing these probabilities. Surprisingly, one of the best examples of a considered approach to pandemic came from Tony Abbott when Health Minister when he made a major presentation on the risks of a flu outbreak and what could be done. It is clear from the tone and content (well it was to me after a post-graduate student outlined in it a research project I was supervising) that the impetus for the presentation came from either advice from, or close attention to the thinking of, the doyen of risk communications Dr Peter Sandman (

Given his regular doom-laden, apocalyptic pronouncements Tony Abbott seems to have forgotten this more reasoned and logical assessment of risk, just as he seems to have forgotten (as we all thankfully do) some of his student days. Indeed, Malcolm Turnbull’s plea for more civilised political discourse might be best served by less theatre and more carefully balanced assessment of probabilities – such as that Tony Abbott once showed.