Security in Promotion of Conformity

20:16 Fri 02 Nov 2007
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After reading Bruce Schneier’s post on overblown security responses, I was quite amazed. Some of the incidents he lists are truly ridiculous. However, I think that he’s missing the point if he believes that these results, which cost staggering amounts in terms of time and money for the security forces and the various people caught up in the overreactions, are bugs in the security processes that the authorities have set up. These results are either intentional, or are viewed as beneficial once they are recognized.

This is partly true because all organizations accumulate power and don’t like to relinquish it. The various organs of the security apparatus in the US (and other countries) gained a lot of new powers with the recent “War on Terror” scare, and have no desire to give it up. One of the powers, not an insignificant one, is the power to cause tremendous inconvenience to many people for little or no reason. The heightened sense of fear surrounding “security” helps make this power possible, because many people are inclined to accept inconvenience for what they think are “safety reasons”. Schneier is correct that little or no actual safety is provided, but the overreactions themselves help to frighten people, providing a good environment for further overreactions.

He is also correct that the various organizations involved will just reinforce each other, although he doesn’t extend this to the media, who also help to paint a lot of this as acceptable. I think that this example of an iPod in a toilet becoming a major security operation is particularly instructive because of the contrast between that first-person account and the media coverage. I also love the line from the police at the end of that article: “the suspicious package ‘has been identified as an electronic device commonly known as an iPod.’”—because “electronic device commonly known as an iPod” sounds far, far more threatening than “an iPod”. “The suspicious package has been identified as an iPod” would make them sound fairly stupid, so they stick “electronic device” in there.

The other interesting aspect in the personal account (unmentioned in the press, of course) is that the perpetrator (of the terrible act of inadvertently dropping an iPod into a toilet) is questioned not merely about their politics, but also about their game playing and whether or not they are in possession of pornography.

Overall, the impact of incidents like this is to reinforce the idea that conformity is the best policy for anyone wishing to go about their business in peace. Nonconformism can lead to a massive authoritarian overreaction, for which you might be held liable (because you should “know” to conform “under these circumstances”, and to keep your nonconformism for “safe” times and places).

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