Security Theater

duck and cover


Security theater is a term that describes security countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to actually improve security. The term was coined by computer security specialist and writer Bruce Schneier, but has gained currency in security circles, particularly for describing airport security measures.

Security theater typically involves restricting certain aspects of people’s behavior in very visible ways, that could involve potential restrictions of personal liberty and privacy, ranging from negligible (where bottled water can be purchased) to significant (prolonged screening of individuals to the point of harassment).

While it may seem that security theater must always cause loss, it may actually be beneficial, at least in a localized situation. This is because perception of security is sometimes more important than security itself. If the potential victims of an attack feel more protected and safer as a result of the measures, then they may carry on activities they would have otherwise avoided. In addition, if the security measures in place appear effective, potential attackers may be dissuaded from proceeding or may direct their attention to a target perceived as less secure. Unsophisticated adversaries in particular may be frightened by superficial impressions of security (such as seeing multiple people in uniform or observing cameras) and not even attempt to find weaknesses or determine effect.

Security theater may also be useful where a threat is perceived to be more likely than it really is; in these cases, it can bring the risk’s perception in line with its reality. For example, a gated community might have weak enough security that the gates don’t really reduce the risk of crime, but if it is in a low-crime area anyway the gates can help ensure that people feel as safe as they ought to. Security theater has also proven itself effective in reducing shoplifting, particularly for businesses too small or otherwise unwilling to spend money on actual security measures. Examples of this include the use of mock surveillance cameras and empty camera housings; attachment of devices with blinking indicator lamps (and no other function) to high theft goods; and placing periodic make-believe security-related announcements on the store’s public address system such as, ‘Inventory control to the back office.’

Examples of alleged security theater include National Guardsmen carrying automatic weapons in airport lobbies in the months following the September 11 attacks. Reports varied on whether the weapons were loaded or unloaded; loaded weapons would apparently pose an extreme danger to the dense crowds found at an airport in the case of an actual incident. Also, the 1950s ‘duck and cover’ drills in U.S. public schools – which suggested that ducking under a desk is a reasonable way to protect oneself from the detonation of an atomic bomb – have been cited as an example of security theater.


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