Ayende @ Rahien

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On Security - From the physical perspective

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                         (Image from Boing Boing)

I don't generally comment on such things, but in my recent trip to London, I had to go past the Heathrow Airport, and I found the security measures there... excessive. Especially in light of several other... observations that I made while in London. Those observations match across several countries (Canada, UK, Denmark, and I am pretty sure that it will match what I will find in USA). This is not an attack on the UK, this post was merely sparked by my recent trip there.

You could say that I have a professional interest in terror and terrorists. And I spent some time trying to understand them. Living in Israel, a country with a long and bloody history of dealing with terrorism, certainly help bring the lesson home, even if I haven't had personal experiences with it.

Israel's security forces, by and large, have long institutional memory with regard to how to handle potential threats, and I did my share of that a few times. As such, I have to say that while the security on Heathrow was excellent after you passed it, there seem to be zero security whatsoever until that point.

A casual survey of the way that I would attempt to make any sabotage attempt suggested several routes that seems very opened for attack.

Now, to be clear, I despise terrorism to the depth of my soul, and I have little but contempt for the actions of people who believe that random killings and the attacks on civilians are a viable method of operation.

I can think of at least three non violent ways to cause problems that are going to bring as much news coverage, cause no loss of life or damage to property and are even likely to be legal.

Oh, and they would be aggravating as hell itself.

That disclaimer aside, assuming that you can get a bomb (and you can find enough instructions in Google, even if you can't get a basic chemistry book), there is a lot of damage that can be done easily enough.

Just take the train. I got into the train by walking into the station with a large suitcase. At no point did I even see security, much less had them inspect what I was doing. I left the suitcase at one end of the train car and found an empty seat in almost the other end of the car.

During the one hour ride, it appears that no one has noticed that there was an unattended suitcase that was just sitting there for a long period.

Compare that to the experience that I expect to have in Israel. In nearly all public buildings (from the Mall to the Library), you have a guard that will ask to open your bags, and I can't imagine an unattended bag sitting anywhere with people for a long period of time. People here notice that (and trains, bus stations and even on the buses themselves there are security guys that will generally catch this type of thing).

Just to give you an example, here is what happens if you leave your laptop unattended in Israel. They shot it dead.

Israel has very good reasons for this type of behavior. I went for a pub with a friend from the states not long ago, and we sat down in a place on the shores of Tel Aviv, and talked a bit. The discussion moved to terror at some point, and I began to list bombings in the area. That very pub we were sitting on, a club not 500 meters away, a bus on the next street, etc. And that was what I could recall off hand and at a moment's notice.

I do not expect it to be the same elsewhere, but I was disturb by the difference between level of security for getting on a plane vs. everything else.

This post is getting long, morose and I have another flight to catch soon. It is also a subject that I tend not to talk about much, at least not on the blog, so I'll wrap it up now. But that dissonance is annoying as hell, disturbing at many levels and irritating just about all my professional senses.

Comments

Symon Rottem
02/21/2008 11:14 PM by
Symon Rottem

I don't know if you follow Bruce Schneier but he as some excellent posts and articles about security and in particular in relation to airports. Just recently he raised exactly the issue you've mentioned, but his take seems to be that for countries like the UK and US it's probably not really necessary to have that level of security because the cost (both financial and in terms of personal liberty) is too high compared to the benefits gained.

You can find his blog here: http://www.schneier.com/blog/

The Other Steve
02/22/2008 05:02 AM by
The Other Steve

Ahh, but did you notice there are very few public trashcans? And none in the subways? The ones in the park are wire baskets that you can see through.

Perhaps coming from Israel, that won't strike you as odd, but when I went to Britain in 2000 it was quite a shock.

Tuna Toksoz
02/22/2008 06:26 AM by
Tuna Toksoz

I agree with the other steve. You cant find public trashcans in most of the places.

It was odd enough that there wasn't a security check in Wallmart's and other mall's in the USA. I asked them if you have in Europe, they told me that they didn't at all.

Ken Egozi
02/22/2008 08:16 AM by
Ken Egozi

I totally disagree with you.

It's true that in Israel you get a guard in every mall entry.

But the so called 'guards' has no training in counter-terrorism, no knowledge of how to identify threats, and actually no use, but a l slight discouraging affect that would not influence a stupid suicide bomber.

Al they do is to have a quick look at your bag, sometimes in your bag, and unless they spot a Tom-and-Jerry-Alarm-Clock-With-Dynamite-Sticks they won't do anything.

During the time I served at the army I was carrying a hand-gun with me everywhere, not concealed, just shoved in the external holster dangling to the side of my trousers.

Almost never I've been asked to show a license.

Now in London (a city with a long terrorism history as well) you have cctv everywhere, with trained people monitoring any suspicious move, and although I'd say that Al-Quida is much more into hitting London that hitting Tel-Aviv, the number of successful terr. acts is way lower.

So Im not too sure that they should learn from the Israelis about that.

As for Airport Security - that's about preventing two things:

a. kidnapping airplanes for hostages

b. kidnapping airplanes for kamikazze acts.

both are well guarded against in the model implemented on most airports.

Andyk
02/22/2008 09:28 AM by
Andyk

Oren,

I think the whole reason you have security at every corner is because your country suffers terrorism on a weekly basis. And I pray that never comes to my home town London.

We had our fair share of local terrorism in the 70's, 80's. The reason there's no trashcans in stations is because of the IRA. They're also the reason why the 'ring of steel' was invented. (That still exists today, in the square mile)

The day we start suffering from daily bombings, will be the day we start needing security on every corner.

Until that happens, Londoners have more of a problem with chavs than worrying about middle eastern fundamentalism!

Ayende Rahien
02/22/2008 09:42 AM by
Ayende Rahien

The use of trash cans as a mean to hide bombs went out of terrorist fashion in the mid 90s. That is hardly a security measure.

As an aside, I might have not noticed that, but I found a lot of opaque trash cans all around in London

Ayende Rahien
02/22/2008 09:51 AM by
Ayende Rahien

I just went through Ben Gurion (Israel's main air port).

I had to go through; Check at the road before entering, check when entering the actual building, check for the luggage before I could get a ticket, additional check fr hand bag and what I was currently carrying.

As for the effectiveness of those measures... I agree that most guards aren't the ones that I would chose, given a choice. Since there isn't any, they are better than nothing.

They have a significant deterrance effect, and they do go throught at least a minimal ammount of training and briefing.

Beside, we both can recall more than a single case where a guard has prevented a bombing, several times at the cost to his life.

As for going with a gun, where you in Uniforms?

I know that when I was at Uniforms and traveled with the rifle, I had to show ID just about anywhere.

Then again, maybe I look more suspicious than you

Ayende Rahien
02/22/2008 09:56 AM by
Ayende Rahien

Andy,

No argument there.

It just sturk me as very very odd, that difference between the two modes.

Alessandro Riolo
02/22/2008 10:00 AM by
Alessandro Riolo

First of all, the British police openly admitted that al-Qaida type terrorist attacks in London were inevitable long before the 7/7 bombings (i.e. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2004/mar/16/terrorism.september11).

Once they have accepted that you cannot avoid that kind of risk, it is a matter of risk management.

  • What you can do to minimize the losses when the threat will happen?

  • What actions you can take to proactively minimize the risk?

  • What are the actions which are more likely to be efficiently succesfully achieved?

Evidently, the British government think that the level of security after the airport checkin is worthy the hassle, while others places and areas are not.

As a side note, first time in Istanbul I was shocked by the guard and the metal detectors in every mall and in every major public and private office. All of this in a city with a very congested transport system, where some terrorists could wreack real havoc just targeting the main traffic bottlenecks (the bridges, 3 or 4 bus station, the huge international bus station).

Casey
02/22/2008 11:03 AM by
Casey

Well in London ... you have to remember us Londoners have been dealing with terrorism for a VERY long time ... we had the IRA for decades bombing London on a regular basis ... I was within 1 mile of one of the largest bombs, and was 5 minutes outside of Victoria station when the bomb went off there.

We are pragmatic, we understand that if a terrorist really wants to kill someone they will - and in London there is nothing you can do to stop it - regardless of what politicians say ... all of their laws protect nobody, and do create fear in all.

So we carried on every day when the IRA bombed us ... and we will carry on if anyone else does too.

The only thing terrorists want to achieve is to change your way of life - at the point you give in and change your laws to match their threats, you have lost and they have won.

Andyk
02/22/2008 11:25 AM by
Andyk

The other problem is that London is so diverse in culture, everyone is terrified of offending everyone else. Its political correctness gone mad. A security guard from one ethnic culture could never ask a person from another ethnic culture to remove head scarfs or veils, in fear of causing international outrage, provoking streets marches and burning of effigies.

Casey
02/22/2008 12:11 PM by
Casey

The other problem is that London is so diverse in culture,<<<

Well that works against London and for it ... not for the reasons I think you mentioned though ....

In many other countries it is easy to see who 'doesnt belong there' ... in London we have one of the most diverse communities in the world .. we have every race and every religion, .... so you can't just shut a certain set of people out and put up some walls.

However it is that diversity that makes London such a wonderful place, and that is the only way to end hatred on bace of race or religion - learn to understand each other and live together.

Pawel Pabich
02/22/2008 01:48 PM by
Pawel Pabich

Oren, you have to trust people a little bit more :)

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