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Personal experiences with security theatre

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“Security theatre.” The concept is easy to understand. Members of the public will feel more secure if there are obvious signs that an organization or their government is taking steps to protect them from threats real and imagined.

This is especially true if these threats are new – the attacks of 9/11 helped to usher in a new set piece in North America featuring pervasive surveillance, recurring identity verification on a technological and personal level, and more frequent interactions between the public and security agents from public and private organizations.

This type of theatre is particularly effective in times of crisis, when the threat seems more immediate, and seems capable of affecting a segment of society rather than simply an individual. As a result of past crises, governments have put in place proposals that have led to increased identification requirements, greater surveillance powers, frequent intrusion into their personal lives and restriction in the activities they can undertake without challenge from authorities.

As individuals, though, we constantly come across moments that pull back the curtain to expose the machinery. These prompt us to question the usefulness to an individual security measure, if not an entire security strategy.

There is a small but relevant example in our own building. The landlords have recently installed a number of surveillance cameras capable of panning over every square inch of the public space in our building. There are even multiple cameras in each of the enclosed emergency stairwells.

If we assume that the landlord has implemented these cameras as a result of a security audit, where known and potential threats suggested that a level of risk, then we might just suffer the constant monitoring of our activities in the building.

But what if one of these cameras was evidently broken? I’ve passed by the same camera, located in a remote corner of the building, seven times in the last week. The plastic dome that protects the lens and rotating assembly has fallen off. I’ve reported the problem to security twice. After the first report, they obviously tried to replace the dome – with electrical tape. That failed, and the dome has been lying on the ground for the past five days.

Now, this isn’t the biggest problem that could beset a technologically advanced security camera, but its continuing condition does lead to three questions:

  1. Why can’t someone take the time to repair it properly?
  2. If they don’t need to repair it, do they need it to be operational?
  3. If it doesn’t need to be operational, why does the camera need to be there at all?

I think we’ve all had a similar experience at some time, where it becomes obvious that there is more concern in having security equipment or procedures in place than ensuring they work effectively.

Or am I wrong? Have you?

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