Safety Second: The Value of Security Theater

Is it more important to feel safe than to actually be safe?

Every passenger on the MRT knows the drill – before you tap your card through the gate to the train platform, you play a part in an act of sorts. First, you fumble to unzip a pocket in your bag. A guard pokes around in it for a second or two, then you zip it up, tap your card, and head to the platform. During rush hours, it seems like hundreds of passengers are ahead of you going through these motions ever so slowly, with another hundred or two waiting behind to play their part. You may have walked through a metal detector that may or may not be working.

When you’re rushing to get to work or get home, the act of checking a pocket in every single passenger’s bag seems like a frustrating eternity. But it’s worth it for the safety of the system… right? Who knows how many threats have been foiled by a terrorist opening the exact pocket his bomb or weapon happened to be in?  Even if the extra waiting time gets tacked on to everyone’s commutes, people feel safer seeing the inspections, and are more likely to ride the MRT instead of congesting roads with their cars… right?

There is a wealth of evidence that measures like bag checks don’t make anyone safer. It’s pure security theater.

What is Security Theater? 

According to Bruce Schneier in his excellent essay, Moving Beyond Security Theater, the concept of security theater refers to “security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security.”

Schneier elaborates on the distinction:

Security is both a feeling and a reality. The propensity for security theater comes from the interplay between the public and its leaders. When people are scared, they need something done that will make them feel safe, even if it doesn’t truly make them safer. Politicians naturally want to do something in response to crisis, even if that something doesn’t make any sense.

Schneier himself points out that Security Theater is not always useless. In a TED talk, he describes the case of security bracelets in hospitals. These bracelets set off an alarm in case someone without an authorized bracelet takes a baby from its mother. Schneier points out that for all the times baby-snatching is used as a plot device in film and television, it almost never happens in real life. However, mothers normally become strongly attached to their newborn children in the time following childbirth for many reasons, one of which is the fear of baby-snatching. This makes it difficult for mothers to surrender children to hospital staff for routine procedures.  Even though baby snatching is unlikely, hospitals must persuade mothers who feel otherwise that it actually is unlikely. The bracelets are security theater. They help hospital staff do their job.

The duality is on display in this article by Stephen Hardy on Strong Towns. In his study of a few census tracts in Kansas City and Austin, Texas, peoples’ feelings of security in these areas do not correlate with crime rate, but with employment. This points to another insight in this case – actually making people more secure does not make them feel secure. More work has to be done to establish if employment actually is what drives the feeling of security, or if the feeling of security has another cause, but results in greater productivity and eventually higher employment. The important takeaway is this: you don’t always find the feeling and reality of security in the same place.

Security – both the reality and the feeling – have implications for urban and transport economic policy. Building security improvements into public transport also attracts people out of space-inefficient private transport. This draws traffic away from roads and decongests them, at least in the short term. People who do not feel safe taking public transport or biking  will be motivated to travel in the relative (perceived) safety of a private car. By making people feel safe (and hopefully actually making them safe), transit authorities can make mobility and access improvements without growing fleet or adding service-hours. Some measures that make people feel safer – like improving lighting at stops and stations – can be done at a much lower cost than, for instance, adding trains. Government transport policy should be mindful of these quick wins.

Here is an interesting question on this duality: can the feeling of security ever be worth more than the reality of security? Is it ever worth trading actual safety for the mere feeling of being safe? Back to the example above of the MRT bag check, the installation of the contactless Beep Card system is meant to move people faster by removing the technology bottleneck of the old gates. Tap cards allow for higher passenger flow (people moving per second) levels at the same densities (people per square meter) than the old technology. However, the additional bottleneck created by the bag check creates a lower-density location immediately behind the gates, wasting much of the time savings that the tap card technology brings. The passenger density, of course, backs up behind the bag checker, resulting in overall lower flow. In order for the bag check to be economically justifiable, the travel delay imposed by the bag check will have to be canceled out by some quantified value of “feeling more secure” from having the bag check there. Whether this is studied in the Philippines is anyone’s guess, since feasibility studies of government projects are not for public consumption.

Besides the bag check, the feeling of security is used to justify other policies* whose effect on the reality of security is not conclusive. Recalling Hardy’s study above, perhaps there is economic productivity associated with “peace of mind,” that may be great enough to warrant even eroding the reality of safety. If we live better in some regards when we feel safe – if we can work and study better, for instance – perhaps being a little less safe is something we can live with… right?

*I have not found the survey cited by NCRPO here on Pulse Asia’s website. As of this post’s writing, I have reached out to Pulse Asia via twitter on the matter but have received no response. The contact form on their website appears to be down. 

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