Security Theater

Over at the New York Times, Matt Ritchel asks why we still have to take out our laptops at security screenings even though many of them are scarcely bigger than tablets. The TSA refuses to explain, citing security concerns. After rejecting a series of possible lines of reasoning, Ritchel finds an anonymous security expert who is willing to tell him that it is nothing more than "security theater," an effort to make us feel that something is being done to protect us. 

The feebleness of this effort aside—after all, who really feels the TSA is effective at anything besides the catching the most primitive efforts, building long lines at the airport, and existing as a form of republican social welfare—it points to something that I allude to in the Situated Technologies Pamphlet I just completed with Helen Nissenbaum.

Network culture clearly has a drive toward openness and transparency. The freedom of sharing and ease of building upon information encourages that. At the same time, there are plenty of individuals and institutions with power who see that freedom as something for the Muppets of the world while they themselves hide behind the curtains. To them, our own haplessly na├»ve transparency is something to exploit from their citadels, be they in the government or in finance. In turn, we have to hope that those in power won't abuse it too badly, that taking out laptops at the security line as a ritual is the worst of it.     

We're still early in all this and just as the Democrats adopted civil rights as a mission in the 1950s, one day these issues may be taken up by political parties. Until then, it's not just up to power to stay vigilant, it's up to us to stay vigilant of power.

Comments

security theater

Yes! Especially important is the deployment of the props, i.e. the scanners and x-ray machines, etc. to create the false sense that something wonderful is being done automatically. As if everybody didn't experience machine failures every day of their life.

Though on the other hand, there are amazingly clueless people who show up at the airport with knife collections and such. So maybe it isn't entirely theater.

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