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Bruce Schneier: Security Theater Presentation

30 Mar 2008

On Thursday, I went to the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota to see Bruce Schneier entitled Security Theater as part of the Paul Shambroom: Picturing Power exhibit that is at the Weisman until April 20, 2008.

In this program, Bruce Schneier helps separate “security theater”, or a fictive performance of safety and prevention, from its actual and effective workings.

My context of Bruce is mostly computer or technology related security. The topics he addressed were not focused on computer, national, or even personal security. This lecture focused more on the psychology of security and his Feeling-Model-Reality view of security in society.

Security Theater Presentation

The presentation started with a distinction between the Feeling of security as being separate from the Reality of security. The goal of this model is to bring both these things together. As a Venn Diagram, these two areas would overlap as much as possible.

Bruce also explained that the risks we take, what amount of security we will give up, is a trade-off, in the economical sense. There are many factors in this trade-off. But we usually will take the Feeling of security over the Reality of security.

Relating the feeling versus the Reality, Bruce stated, “if it’s news, it’s probably now worth worrying about.” This refers to the fact that news is sensational and is meant to be the extraordinary. So, if someone is murdered, no matter how often it happens, and it’s on the news, its still an exceptional event. We need to be concerned for the things that are not on the news, the things that have become everyday and desensitized. I really liked this idea.

Security Theater then refers to the idea that an agency is attempting to create the Feeling of security regardless of the Reality of security. His example was after September 11, 2002, there were military personnel in airports with big guns, but these guns were not loaded. The government created a Feeling of security and not necessarily a Reality of security. This is not an inherently bad thing. A Feeling of security is important.

Talking about airport security led to the idea that people making decisions, specifically politicians are obligated to do something especially in the case of security. Doing something, whether helpful or not ensures that certain kinds of blame cannot be put onto that person or agency. For instance, with airport security, each threat that has occurred has reacted a new security measure. Specifically, we have to take off our shoes at security points. We are not actually any safer because of it; but if for some reason, another person hides explosives in their shoes, the TSA cannot be blamed because they “did something”. People are not necessarily forgiving for these sort of situations, so doing something is often more important that solving an issue intelligently and deliberately.

So, how do the Feeling and Reality relate? This is where Bruce brought in another entity in the diagram: the Model. The Model is our personal view of how security works; it is our perception. Our Model_s are very often not the _Reality. Still, the Model is very much influenced by both Feeling and Reality. Again, the goal is to have the three areas to overlap.

A security issue like airport security has many interested parties. Unfortunately most of these parties have specific agendas. These agenda push to create a Model that is best fitting for that party. Usually, the forces that drive these agendas are market or economical forces.

The Model should converge with Reality. The idea of expertise is extremely important for this to happen. Our society is much too complex to not have experts. Experts are detrimental for creating a Model that is closest to Reality.

There was a time at the end for questions. I am very interested in voting, and Bruce has done a number of writing and research on Voting Systems, so I asked him if he would apply his presentation to voting systems. His main point in answering the question, and one I can agree with, was that no matter the technology, a society or constituency cannot feel like it’s voting system is flawed. The Feeling of security is extremely important in this system.


I was really impressed with this presentation. Granted, I already had a lot of respect for Bruce. Also, my co-workers got him to sign a couple hubs. There are pictures at the top of this post.

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