Perceptions of safety – securing your environment

Apr 3, 2018 Industry News

The past decade has seen a dramatic shift to the security landscape in that security concepts and strategies, once only the domain of professionals, are now ordinary topics of conversation in both businesses and households alike.

It seems these days that everyone has an opinion on everything, from local crime rates, spam protection and online privacy to national security and counterterrorism.

This consumerisation of security and its subsequent accessibility to everyday users is partly due to advancements in online services such as banking, social media and the prevalence of personal computing and home networks.

These advances have generated a need for everyday users to understand risks pertaining to privacy, identity theft, hacking, access control and overall protection of their data; concepts which readily translate into the physical protection space. Coupled with worldwide terrorism activity and an overall increase in media reporting of security-related matters over the past 15 years, this has resulted in a more security conscious society of educated end-users in both the information and physical security environments.

With this increased education and understanding, however, comes criticism and evaluation of the visible protection mechanisms utilised in environments where physical security and personal safety are at a premium and are, in fact, demanded by users. Terrorism activity in public places of mass gathering such as stadiums, public transportation, airports, entertainment venues, hotels, restaurants, marketplaces and just about every other possible type of venue has generated fear and unease within the community.

The need for venue owners, managers and governments to address this fear and secure their sites has intensified; however, the most effective methods of achieving this may not be visible to the average user, and therefore will have no impact whatsoever on the perception of safety.

The general public needs to feel secure and see that an increased effort is being made to provide them with this feeling. If security mechanisms cannot be seen and do not impact upon a person’s interaction with his environment in some way, even if inconvenient or invasive, the perception that any action has been taken to address the perceived increased level of risk will not be made and people will not feel safe. People today need to see and feel that measures are being taken to let the good guys in and keep the bad guys out.

This psychology of security and the notion of keeping malicious persons, items and weapons out of places of public use is the fundamental definition of access control. Unfortunately, security measures that are highly visible but very common nowadays such as CCTV, electronic access control systems and locks, and entrance barriers do very little to placate and reassure people that any increase in security has been made. A venue may have spent many thousands of dollars upgrading such systems to the latest, state-of-the-art technologies with advanced capabilities such as analytics and facial recognition, but because these systems are so commonplace and widely accepted and expected, there will be no impact upon the perception of safety amongst the community.

Average users will not know that the system they can see has been upgraded and has increased capabilities that directly impacts upon their safety, but will definitely notice the absence of any visible, new security measures that are reactive to the changing risk climate. To reassure the public and provide the perception of safety, visible security countermeasures have become necessary, regardless of the actual effectiveness, if any, they provide.

This concept is called security theatre, and has been written about in depth by renowned security expert Bruce Schneier, who notes that security is both a reality and a feeling. Security as a reality can be measured in a mathematical sense based upon risk probability and countermeasure effectiveness. Security as a feeling, however, cannot be measured and is subject to the differing psychological reactions of individuals to risk, perceived risk and to countermeasures. Schneier summarises this perfectly, stating, “The two things are different: you can be secure even though you do not feel secure, and you can feel secure even though you are not really secure.”

The value of security theatre cannot be discarded, particularly after security incidents such as terrorist attacks have occurred. The genuine fear and psychological uneasiness of the public that occurs now around public places of mass gathering, air travel, underground train stations, sports arenas, entertainment venues and the like is a very real issue and cannot be left untreated. Society’s perception of safety and security in day-to-day lives has been shattered and people’s innocence in such matters has been lost. This in turn has led to the increased security awareness of everyday citizens who now demand to be reassured that they are safe.

It has been well documented that after the September 11 attacks in the US, several airports utilised National Guard troops to stand guard at security checkpoints to provide a highly visible presence to all airport users. What subsequently came to light and was widely reported upon in 2002 was that none of those officers were carrying loaded weapons and that their guns were empty. The effectiveness of their presence was purely as a visual deterrent and to reassure frightened passengers that action was being taken to prevent such an attack from happening again.

Since that time, there has been an overall increase in visual presence of uniformed security personnel, baggage screening, screening of individuals, ID requirements and checks, and ‘see something, say something’ type campaigns involving everyday citizens to increase awareness and reporting of suspicious activity.

Security has become highly visible and in many circumstances inconvenient or invasive, as is the case with bag screening or body scanning of every person. However effective or ineffective these visible methods are, it cannot be argued that they do not provide psychological reassurance and address some of the fears of the public. For that reason alone, countermeasures that do not contribute in any other way to the mathematical reduction of risk probability and thereby qualify only as security theatre are effective. Just as the placebo effect in medical treatment is effective and qualifies as a treatment in its own right.

Security theatre is not just being performed at airports, or in response to actual incidents, but is now being used to satisfy governments, board members and event organisers that efforts have been made to reduce the occurrence of risks, which in turn impacts upon the likelihood of litigation and accusations of negligence or complacency. Changes to access control measures at rock concerts, festivals and stadiums is a great example of how the performance of security theatre has become mainstream, with little or no evidence of providing any tangible risk mitigation.

Where once the focus of security at such venues was to ensure a patron had a valid ticket and was not bringing any illegal alcohol or glass containers into the facility, the focus now is on explosives and weapons. This means longer queues, additional manpower, increased baggage searches and, in some cases, metal detection being used to screen persons entering such venues.

The reality is that the likelihood of patrons bringing illegal alcohol, glass containers and nuisance items such as flares or fireworks into these venues is still higher than the likelihood of explosives and firearms. The consequences of the latter of course are much different, but despite recent attacks globally, the likelihood locally has not statistically increased. In fact, new risks may be introduced as a result of the implementation of security theatre treatments, such as health and safety concerns for elderly or young patrons standing in long queues for hours in excessive heat, or the increased risk of violence and aggression amongst patrons frustrated with the inconvenient and invasive search tactics.

Just as the presence of essentially unarmed National Guard troops at US airports following the September 11 attacks provided reassurance to the public, the value of the access control countermeasures seen today is in the visual deterrence, public reassurance and reduction of liability. The operating costs of security theatre strategies that treat perception rather than reality can be quite high; in many cases just as high as the costs of treating actual risk by upgrading existing systems with more effective technologies or implementing new countermeasures with measurable effect. As shown historically, however, the value of an effective countermeasure compared to a theatrical one is negligible if it is invisible to the average person who now demands increased security, despite not always knowing what that actually entails.

The psychology of security and the perception of safety as people go about their day-to-day lives is a crucial aspect of overcoming the effect that terrorism has on the consciousness of a community. The message globally after any incident or attack is unanimously that people will not live in fear and will not change their way of life. Security theatre measures and their capacity to provide reassurance to the general public, reducing anxiety and fear during times of great uncertainty, means it is in fact a valid and valuable security strategy.

The changing risk climate and the increased fear within the community that increases with every incident that occurs will ensure that psychological security treatment becomes increasingly common, and may become just as important as traditional security countermeasures in days to come.

The changing security landscape in Australia and how this impacts best practice building management, will be one of the many topics discussed at this year’s ASIAL Security Conference. For more information check out the full Conference Program here

Story credit: Rachell DeLuca for Security Solutions Magazine.