Most security measures are just for show

The “theatre” of security is not actual security

Allan BonnerIn the current Canadian Freedom Convoy emergency, it’s important to remember that we have the “theatre” of security, not actual security. We have badges, signs, uniforms, guns, scans, and pat-downs. We’re told to say something if we see something but are not told what to look for or whom to tell. This theatre accomplishes less than it seems.

The U.S. has spent at least $100 billion on airport security since 9/11, yet the authorities report that weapons can still be smuggled in.

While regularly working on five continents in risk and crisis management, I’ve tested security systems. I used an expired Swiss student card to get into the UN in New York and through countless airports. I asked why the airport was accepting an expired Swiss student card. The person responsible shrugged, saying it was government ID. I said it was from a private institution. The person shrugged again.

I regularly went through airport security without showing my boarding pass. I’d let the tip of a pass peak out of a book I was holding. Then there’d be a fuss about plastic tubs and what goes in which one. Most airport security people seem to be protecting tubs from passengers, not the airport from terrorists. I’d gesture with the book and ask if I could put my cell phone with my computer or did I need another tub. We’d debate tub limits and whether I could use a tub for my topcoat or suit jacket. I got through. Then I told the security guard at the end of the process that I’d not shown my pass. Sometimes I’d have to press the guard to look at my pass or ask for a supervisor and insist that it be verified.

Emergency book coverOnce, at the Toronto airport, the announcement “Can someone please claim the bag with the Arabic writing on it” was made multiple times. The bag was just outside the security check for the gates. I told a supervisor that the bag had been there a long time. The supervisor spewed out an acronym – “That’s CATSA” and did nothing. Multiple forces are responsible at the airport – RCMP, Peel Regional Police, Canadian Air Transport Security Authority – meaning no one is fully responsible. Acronyms don’t scare terrorists, even when shouted.

Once at the Department of National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa, I saw people going to a conference showing badges to the guard. I took a blank white plastic card out of my wallet, shook it and asked, “Do I have to go around to Laurier Street, or can I come in here?” I was politely told that I could enter.

One night outside Montreal, I was driving by my pharmaceutical client’s facility. I was meeting there in the morning and decided to stop in and test the system. The guard opened up, and I asked him to drop off a book and bottle of homemade wine to my client for use in our meeting. The next day I arrived and asked the receptionist if I could use the washroom. She buzzed me through perimeter security. I filled my briefcase with the samples of skin cream and such that the company kept on display.

In the meeting, I was told that the company wanted a quantitative risk assessment (QRA) about the risks it faced. I’m trained in QRA and happy to do that work. But I also noted that plain old perimeter security was a good idea. Moreover, Canada’s counter-terrorism task force identified the animal rights movement as a major threat. Why not take action on the obvious and less expensive solutions first? At this point, I asked my client if he’d received the bottle of wine I dropped off. He had and thanked me. I asked if he was sure it was wine. Then I took out the lotion from the men’s room and began using it on my hands and face. I pointed out that if an activist wanted to threaten people in this building, putting ground glass in these products would do the job. The client modified its perimeter security system.

Security at the Ontario Legislature is relevant today. There are different procedures with different officers at different doors. Some call up to the person I’m visiting. Some want that person to call down in advance. Some will look up the number and some want me to have it. One officer said that if he had a record of my visiting several times, he’d just let me in. Occasionally I’d ask to use the washroom – inside the security perimeter. I was allowed until recently.

One weekend, a friend and his family were visiting from out of town, and I suggested a tour of the Legislature. As we walked to the front door we saw several hundred protesters on the parking lot and lawn. My guests and I walked around to the back.

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I opened the back door and walked down a short hallway to the guard’s kiosk to sign in, but no one was there. I guessed there might be another table and guard down the hall, but no such luck. I assumed I’d encounter a guard eventually, so I led my party of tourists all through the Legislature, into the chamber, and up and down several floors and halls examining the art and architecture. We left through the same door when our tour was done.

The next day I walked by the back door and reported the event to the guard. I noted that the protesters could have taken over the building or sent in a lone gunman as happened in the Quebec National Assembly some years ago.

“Yeah, we’ve had some problems with that door,” was the response. Apparently, the lock hadn’t worked well for a while. Nothing to alarm the security detail, it seemed.

Lately, a new procedure doesn’t seem to be working well. The perimeter has been pushed out into the parking lots at the front and back of the building. Offices say they have instructions from the speaker to “hail” or question visitors some feet away from the doors. They ask, “May I help you?” Having visited and worked in the building for 35 years, I didn’t need help. So I’d say, “No thanks, I’m fine.” Most officers then began walking backwards with me. As I tried to keep a distance and walk around, the officers would walk on an angle to impede my progress and some even jostled me. I took to asking what help they could provide, thinking they might be signing people in right there in the parking lot. I’m sure I looked and sounded uncooperative. But I’m in the habit of answering a question that’s put to me, especially from a police officer. If I’m asked for my driver’s license, I don’t respond “It’s a sunny day, isn’t it, officer?” I produce my license without comment.

I’ve asked officers about the “May I help you?” opening line. They said it was just a friendly way to begin questioning visitors. My input is that a security question should be clear and purposeful. In fact, there should be signs in the outer perimeter parking lot stating, “Please identify yourself to an officer and state the purpose of your visit when asked. Thank you.” The officers should say, “Hello, may I ask the purpose of your visit, please.” That would be helpful. Offering help when none is being offered or required is not actually helpful.

Then there are COVID protocols. It’s hard to stay at a distance when two officers are chatting, standing in front of a door. I remove my sunglasses, lower my mask and state my purpose. Sometimes they don’t move out of the way. Sometimes there are COVID questions (symptoms, exposure, etc.), sometimes the questions occur in the hallway or down the hallway at the next guard’s kiosk, and occasionally there are no questions.

Good security should make people safer, not just fill up time and space. This usually involves predictable systems and protocols and regular use of discretion and judgement. Sure, sometimes mundane conversation is used to get the suspect talking. But distractions compromise safety as you see in the movies – a scuffle, argument about tubs, or jostling about nothing. Being alert and focused is vital for safety.

By the way, hats off to the old officer at the Legislature whom I thought only saw me sitting in my car as I drove in regularly. We’d exchange pleasantries while I stated my purpose. One day we were both standing in the parking lot and he waved from many yards away. As we approached each other, he noted he recognized my body language and walking gate. He must have been alert over the years when I parked and walked into the building – doing his job, it’s called.

Allan Bonner was the first North American to be awarded an MSc in Risk, Crisis, and Disaster Management. He trained in England and has worked in the field on five continents for 35 years. His latest book is Emergency! – a monograph with 13 other authors on the many crises that occurred during the pandemic.

Allan is a Troy Media Thought Leader. For interview requests, click here.


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