Sometimes, Security Theatre Really Works

Israeli security researchers Gadi Evron and Imri Goldberg find that security theatre can be about more than window dressing

Security theatre isn't necessarily as ineffective as the security community believes. In Israel, there is a guard at the entrance to every store. The guard isn't very useful to stop an attacker, and yet in several cases the guards' presence does make a difference, often at the cost of their lives.

The term "security theatre" describes security measures designed to make people feel secure by putting up a reassuring show. It is observable security, if not necessarily useful. In this article we want to discuss a case where it works really well, if rather grim.

As information security professionals we often believe that physical security is in our repertoire and that we understand it well, which is not always the case. We are annoyed when we observe security theatre such as when visiting airports in the United States, watching the TSA at work. Budgets for security are difficult to secure so watching so much of it being misused (wasted) without a real gain to actual security is disturbing, to say the least.

By itself, security theatre can have positive effects. It has been argued that security theatre yields a false sense of security. However, the goal of a terror organization is to destroy the sense of security people enjoy in their lives.

It uses the media to leverage relatively few successful attacks, to create panic and fear, aiming to prevent people from going on with their daily lives. This can be considered as trying to create a "false sense of insecurity." Viewed in this light, security theatre may be effectively combating that effect.

One immediately observable use of security theatre is deterrence. Security theatre is in fact security by obscurity. If played right, it can play a crucial role in the larger security strategy and add a layer of psychological deterrence to potential attackers.

Indeed, this has been grimly observed as operationally viable in preventing terror attacks such as suicide bombings in Israel.

When visiting Israel, one of the first things tourists note is that at the entrance to nearly every public venue, be it a mall or a restaurant, there is an armed security guard. Unlike other places around the world, the security guard is there to screen incoming customers, rather than outgoing ones. They are not there to prevent thefts, but a terror attack.

It is not the guard's effectiveness in sniffing bombs that saves lives. These guards are not very formidable. Often they are either young 20-something students paying for their tuition or, more commonly, retired elderly folks.

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