CBC News Viewpoint
November 11, 2005
Usually I spend my days as a freelance writer tied to my computer. My
kids and neighbours know who I am; the mailman feels confident about
leaving letters in my mailbox. The dog keeps any unwanted intruders
out - it's quite simple. But last summer, I faced three different
security situations away from my home which left me frustrated,
humiliated and, oddly enough, no longer feeling secure.
During a visit to Vancouver, I discovered I had forgotten my bank card
in Toronto. After undergoing a cross-examination by my bank that
included giving my mother's maiden name, recent transactions and money
totals in each account, I had a new card. But to get it fully
functional, I was forced to call the bank four more times and undergo
another personal-identity interrogation, driven to patience only by
the knowledge that a thief had easily lightened my bank account of
$200 US south of the border in June.
My second encounter was at Ozzfest, a heavy-metal concert I attended
with my son in the United States. After undergoing a full-body search
and being disarmed of plastic water bottles and blankets, but
thankfully not my migraine pills, I wandered into a parking lot where
many bands were playing. The lot was full of stones and rocks - which
I could have thrown at anybody if I'd wanted. Security people just
shrugged embarrassed when I confronted them about it.
My final security stunner started out with your basic airport
experience. I flashed all my photo ID to anyone who was interested
(and many who were not), because my fear of flying has been replaced
by a fear of not flying. Five days later, I watched as people waiting
for travelling relatives strolled into the baggage area and wandered
up stairs. I marveled at how they outwitted security - it was simple,
when people walked out, others walked in.
Such common security woes keep North Americans from their money, off
planes and out of concerts, but do little to keep us safe from thieves
or terrorist threats. The Fifth Estate showed the glaring reality of
that this week, with its expose on the lack of effective security in
Marcus Shields, a computer security expert, says society is subjected
to "movie plot security," a term coined by security guru Bruce
"An awful lot of the security measures you see in everyday life are
not being done by institutions because they are terribly effective,
but because they need to be seen to be doing something," says Shields,
enterprise product manager with Soltrus, which is owned by VeriSign, a
computer security company. "What you see in larger bureaucracies is
increasingly intrusive measures, which at the least subject people to
delays, and at the worst serious personal humiliation."
The problem is much of this security starts to feel like a huge
invisible straitjacket, meant to keep us safe from one another, but
actually making modern life more impossible. The balance, says
Shields, who was prevented last summer from photographing his daughter
at a splash pool by security guards worried he would send pictures of
her and other children over the internet, is: "How much inconvenience
is it reasonable for the average person to put up with to gain a
certain level of security back, and are those measures effective?"
He adds, "In the computer industry, we have a push from governments
and bureaucracies these days to collect personal information, but at
the same time our mandate is to keep personal data private."
The other problem is that many systems such as internet banking, there
to make life easier, become more complicated if security is beefed up.
Shields says, "The more complex and intrusive a security system gets,
the less secure it becomes. That's because users either won't be able
to figure it out and give up, or else they will find some way of
end-running the system." He says if people have to remember a bunch of
passwords, they end up putting them on sticky notes on their
computers, which defeats the purpose of security.
My worry is that while adults of higher intelligence can usually fight
their way through bureaucracies, etcetera, what about those not as
mentally apt, or young people? How are they ever going to learn to
navigate their way through the ever-burgeoning security systems these
Shields believes there are two answers. One is that people will rebel
against this first wave of "movie plot security." Secondly, he thinks
that security will have to become more sophisticated. Right now, he
says, much security is relatively cheap and can be run by unskilled
operators. Shields says, "I'm hoping we see the Israeli approach. The
airline, El Al, constantly targeted by terrorists, doesn't ask you
stupid questions. They have highly trained officers in plain clothes.
It's expensive, but it's also the most effective form of security,
much more so than this 'let's frisk everyone at the door' kind of
I'm now taking part in my own personal battle against "movie plot"
security. When a bank clerk phoned me the other day and asked for my
security information before he would continue to speak to me, I told
him he could hang up if he didn't believe it was me. When I won that
round, I asked if the conversation was being recorded and he answered,
"Yes." Good, I answered, because I told him I was also recording the
conversation for a story I was writing. It was nice to hear the
nervousness in his voice for once - kind of like the way I feel when I
am cross-examined incessantly for "security" reasons.
I wonder if he felt any safer, or did he feel like the criminal Big
Brother thinks we all are?
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