It Is Time to Get Serious About Security Theater

In 2009, security consultant and current chief technology officer of IBM Resilient Bruce Schneier wrote about the concept of security theater. “Security theater refers to security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security,” he wrote. At the time, there was a lot of fear about information security and a sense of urgency to stem the tide of cybercrime.

Since then, we have learned that fearmongering is counterproductive. Tactics such as creating ID checks and banning liquids and gels from carry-on luggage aren’t really effective. As each measure is put in place to try to protect the public, there are others created to defeat them. Often, these techniques just create more problems.

Setting the Scene

In an earlier article, however, Schneier explained that security theater can be effective under certain circumstances. On a visit to a newborn unit at a local hospital, for example, he noticed that the babies were wearing radio frequency identification (RFID) tags around their ankles. The tags triggered an alarm when a baby passed through the doors, which were equipped with sensors.

Now, the risk to infant abduction from a hospital ward is quite low — about 1 in 375,000 babies, if you average things over the past several decades — and far lower than infant deaths. But that isn’t really relevant. In this case,”RFID bracelets are a low-cost way to ensure that the parents are more relaxed when their baby was out of their sight,” he explained.

The benefits of using RFID technology — in this case, parents’ peace of mind — outweigh the relatively low cost.

Don’t Write Off Security Theater

Yes, the RFID tags are security theater, but they are necessary. “Most of the time security theater is a bad trade-off, because the costs far outweigh the benefits,” Schneier wrote. “But there are instances when a little bit of security theater makes sense.” The potential cost of a lawsuit if a baby is actually abducted, for example, could easily eclipse the cost of the RFID tag program.

The trick is to balance the need for security with its eventual implementation. This holds for IT implementations, too. Sometimes we need to consider both our feelings and the realities of enterprise security.

As Schneier put it, “Security theater is no substitute for security reality, but, used correctly, security theater can be a way of raising our feeling of security so that it more closely matches the reality of security. To write off security theater completely is to ignore the feeling of security.”

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David Strom

Security Evangelist

David is an award-winning writer, speaker, editor, video blogger, and online communications professional who also advises numerous startup and well-established technology ventures. He began his career as an in-house IT analyst and has founded numerous technology print and online publications, such as editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine and as part of the launch team of PC Week's Connectivity section. David has written two books and spoken around the world at various conferences and been on national radio and television talking about network technologies. He continues to build websites and publish articles on a wide variety of technology topics geared towards networking, security, channel, PC enthusiasts, OEMs, and consumers. In addition to these activities, he consults to vendors and evaluates emerging technologies, products, strategies, and trends to help position and improve their technology products.