Opinion: Getting "Beyond Fear": A Security Expert's Prescription for A Safer World
by , Lynne Greer Jolitz
Not too long ago, actress Patti LuPone was subjected to a public pat-down at a Florida airport with no explanation provided by screeners.
"I kept going, 'this is really rude, what is going on? What is going on?'" LuPone told "Good Morning America" (Nov. 24, 2004). "I was shocked that I had been felt up."
Pat-down searches are more difficult for women than for men. Women object the most to "the groping nature of the searches," and complain that male colleagues "scoffed at their complaints, calling a physical pat-down a small price for security," according to the New York Times.
But do pat-downs make us more secure? While every American should be concerned about the intrusive aspect of body searches, we should also be focused on whether this security approach is the best strategy and a cost-effective way get the desired results.
I can identify with Ms. LuPone's concern about personal body privacy. As a mom, I also think about the bad guy striking at any time in any place. The very nature of global terrorism and orange alerts and the undefined ambiguous elements of a society in which we are expected to blindly trust authority, lead women in particular to experience feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
But as a technologist who studies and writes about security, I am struck by how little ordinary folk feel they can do to protect themselves and their families--and that just isn't right. The fruits of security are reaped every day, in airports and subways, malls and homes, and the very intrusive nature of security can result in a backlash from the very citizens and businesses we aim to protect.
Perhaps if we placed more effort into communicating our needs to an informed populace before the crisis starts, we'd face fewer security debacles. But how do we teach people about the practice of security when what they really want to know is how to take control of their own fear and lives?
Getting Sensible About Security
There are ways to quickly and simply assess security, including whether you're getting your tax money's worth, without resorting to jargon and doublespeak.
We shouldn't be asking, "Are intrusive pat-downs too personally intrusive?" Sometimes security is personally intrusive. The question we must ask is "Are these intrusive airport pat-downs making my community, schools, and family more secure?" In other words, is what I'm going through sensible, fair, and right?
Which brings me to why I got on this topic. As I was browsing Bruce Schneier's latest book "Beyond Fear," I found it interesting how much his book spoke to the concerns of America's security-conscious Moms and Dads — and how few of them had even heard of the book.
This isn't surprising — the book cover is garish orange, the artwork like something off a Tom Clancy novel. Don't people judge a book by its cover? Most do, and this one says "hands-off unless you're a security geek."
But notice the subtitle: "Thinking sensibly about security in an uncertain world." "Sensibly," huh? That doesn't sound like a shoot-em-up. "Beyond Fear" is actually intended to teach ordinary people how to ask the right questions and get the right answers about security, the real story behind security success stories, and, most importantly, provide a straightforward discussion of security geeks who fool themselves and make our world less secure under the color of making it more secure.
Bad Security Impacts The Pocketbook
So what does Schneier, a well-known security expert, say about airport lap dances? Plenty. He breaks down the broad
category of airport security into the players: the pilots, the flight attendants, the government officials, the FAA, the airlines and even the customers. He points out that when government wanted to ban laptop computers (which can easily contain bombs), the airlines "screamed that doing so would enrage their highest revenue generating passengers: business travelers." And the heaviest users of business travel are men.
Of business travelers, men take more business trips a year than women do — an average of seven business trips as compared to four for women, according to statistics compiled from non-partisan departments of the U.S. government and research organizations by the Gender Issues Research Center.
While men may not object to pat-downs, they certainly would object to a laptop ban.
But simple statistics can be deceiving. For example, statistically speaking, men place greater importance on the quality of airline's food, while women care more about how they're treated by employees, according to recent studies on customer satisfaction in U.S. domestic air travel conducted by management and marketing experts at Rice and Cornell University.
In other words, if men get treated badly, they eat. If women get treated badly, they remember.
Well, why should this matter to the travel industry? After all, don't men fly more often? Well, yes, but women buy the tickets, and do more online research about travel, too, according to a study by Burst! Media. So follow the money — you can't treat women badly, in the name of security or for some other reason, and not breed resentment resulting in lost future revenue.
Which gets to the point of the issue: where is the voice of the customer — or in the case of pat-downs, the female customers? Since women haven't appeared to be the primary "money-making" customers, they don't have corporate advocates.
And, as Schneier points out, "you and I, as ordinary citizens have so little power as individuals, we have almost no control over most of the major security systems that affect our lives...You can either fly or not."
How Much Security Is Good Security?
Schneier does think we should be checking out everyone — even the elderly and children — precisely because making exceptions creates flaws in a security grid. This does make sense. If Grandma is allowed to get around routine searches, everyone else notices this, especially the bad guys, and this isn't good for Grandma or the rest of us. Terrorists can figure out who is subject to lighter screening, and find ways of using that knowledge.
Recent efforts to exempt some groups from being searched — such as children or old people — don't solve the problem. Security must be even-handed to be effective. Women, even Grandma, should be subject to searches, otherwise Grandma will be coerced or tricked into acting as a terrorist tool.
The question isn't "can't we excuse women and children because searches are too humiliating?" but instead "are these searches catching the bad guys?" In other words, are the costs (real as well as psychological) getting us a return on our investment?
But how do we get answers when there is no advocate to hear the questions? We know that other countries have for many
years, with great success, conducted routine body scans without resorting to routine physical pat-downs Why can't we learn from their best practices? It's hard to get a straight answer, even if you're informed. Security is often used, not to protect, but to intimidate, and it's hard to ask reasonable questions in an environment predicated on fear — even if it hurts us all.
Getting Beyond Fear
Yet, as Schneier notes, we are not just individuals cowering in our homes. We are also "consumers, citizens, taxpayers, voters, and, if things get bad enough, protesters. Only in the aggregate do we have power, and the more we organize, the more power we have." And the best way to start is to get informed.
So I'm going to be blunt. Get a copy of Schneier's book for your spouse, child or parent. Take off the stupid paper cover — it is misleading. And make everyone read it before you take that summer cruise to the Mediterranean or the family trip to Yellowstone. And then talk to them about it.
Our fear of the bad guy is not mediated by some mythic force of nature, nor is the response by government and commercial interests all knowing and monolithic. It is only mediated by our minds, and tested by the unknown. Thus, as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet (Act IV, Scene V): "We know what we are, but know not what we may be."
Lynne Greer Jolitz is CTO of ExecProducer, a real-time video production company, and co-creator of the open source Berkeley Unix operating system.