Security Theater refers to measures that make people feel more secure while doing little to effectively improve their security.

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Security theater refers to security measures that make people feel more secure, but by definition, do little to truly improve their security. This often involves restricting aspects of people's behavior in very visible and highly specific ways, or prominently displaying security equipment to give the appearance of surveillance [1, 2]. Restrictions of people’s behavior, personal liberty, and privacy rights can range from negligible to significant. Security theater, as a term, is not neutral; it specifically refers to security measures that are more for spectacle than efficacy.

Examples of security theater include random bag searches on subway systems, a practice used by Washington DC’s transit system - among other cities - whose program yielded zero arrests [3]. Another example is TSA’s Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program, a behavioral-detection program introduced in 2007 that sought to detect terrorists, which cost $900 million but was revealed to have exposed no terrorists [4].

Security theater measures are often specific and reactive to particular events, such as requiring the removal of shoes after the 2001 “shoe bomb” attempt, and utilizing full body scanners after the 2009 “underwear bomber” attempt. Because of this, privacy and security advocates have argued that measures such as the removal of shoes, electronics, and liquids for separate scanning can be likened to a “fishing expedition,” as attackers simply divert to other strategies [2]. Many have demonstrated the ease with which existing airport security measures can be tricked or hacked [5, 6, 7].

Figure 1. X-ray scanning of shoes for explosives.

However, others have also argued that the perception of security may also be as important as actual security itself [8]. The feeling of protection or safety could allow people to carry on activities that they would have otherwise avoided. In this understanding, a possible benefit of security theater is to encourage people to take part in society as they normally would, particularly in the atmosphere of uncertainty after well-publicized accidents or terrorist attacks. However, not all passengers are afforded the feeling of protection equally, as security theater can result in prolonged screening of specific minority populations to the point of harassment.

“Security is both a feeling and a reality. The propensity for security theater comes from the interplay between the public and its leaders. When people are scared, they need something done that will make them feel safe, even if it doesn't truly make them safer. Politicians naturally want to do something in response to a crisis” [9].

  1. Schneier, Bruce. 2003. Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World. Copernicus Books. p. 38.
  2. "Smoke Screening". Vanity Fair. 20 December 2011. Retrieved 27 December 2011.
  3. Freed, Benjamin R. “Metro's Bag Searches Are Pretty Empty, It Turns Out” DCist. June 12, 2012.
  4. Kevin D. Williamson, “The TSA's 95 Percent Failure Rate: Security Theater as Farce”, National Review. June 3, 2015.
  5. Chakrabarti, Samidh, and Strauss, Aaron. 2002. "Carnival Booth: An Algorithm for Defeating the Computer-Assisted Passenger Screening System". Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  6. Gardham, Duncan, 2009. "Airport face scanners 'cannot tell the difference between Osama bin Laden and Winona Ryder'". The Telegraph.
  7. Cincotta, Thomas. 2010. Behavior Profiling: Ineffective and Expensive Security Theater, Political Research Associates.
  8. Glaskowsky, Peter. “Bruce Schneier's new view on Security Theater”. CNET.  April 10, 2008.
  9. Schneier, Bruce. “Is Aviation Security Mostly for Show?” CNN. Cable News Network, December 29, 2009.