Let’s lower the curtain on pandemic security theatre

Branka Marijan Emerging Technologies, Featured

By Branka Marijan

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 41 Issue 2 Summer 2020

Providing measures and processes that make individuals feel safe and protected has been important for maintaining social order during the developing COVID-19 pandemic and is becoming even more critical as societies reopen with no vaccine yet available. Governments around the world are looking for technological solutions, such as contact tracing mobile applications, wireless bracelets, and thermal-imagining cameras, to both contain the spread of the virus and to reassure citizens that public spaces are safe. Industry and a range of businesses are also getting onboard, eager to calm customers and employees. Some of these technologies could stay in place as long as the public-health scare exists—or even longer.

But are the solutions really effective or are they merely “security theatre”? If they are NOT effective, might they actually increase the present danger?

Security theatre

“Security theatre” references airport security measures imposed after the 9/11 attacks in the United States in 2001. The term was coined by Bruce Schneier, a privacy and security expert, who noted that, of all the security measures added at airports, only “reinforcing the cockpit doors and persuading passengers that they need to fight back” really increased safety. Most other measures were simply theatrics.

“Security theatre” is now being used to describe security measures that provide a false sense of safety by only seeming to address specific concerns. Typically expensive, such measures make life more difficult for ordinary people and actually decrease overall security by taking resources and attention away from effective responses. Moreover, some of these measures, like social profiling and the targeting of specific minority populations, can even pose dangers to human security if they are abused.

Professor Evan Selinger of the Rochester Institute of Technology and privacy lawyer Brenda Leong of the Future of Privacy Forum have recently written about the dangers of pandemic security theatre in Medium publication OneZero. They note that the current theatrics are “linked to the ideology of solutionism and bolstered by the common human tendency to want to show strength in the face of danger.”

Solutionism finds answers to complex problems in technology. However, such a dependency tends to lead to more and more technological solutions (often to problems created by technology), and the loss of reliance on human ingenuity and even moral fibre.

Salinger and Leong believe that security theatre will cause harm in the current pandemic crisis. They write, “But allowing people to rely on ineffective safeguards is misleading at best, and at worst, threatens economic recovery and lives.” Others share their belief. A growing number of analysts and public-health experts are expressing concerns about some of the technologies that are being promoted to the public as solutions to the pandemic, with little evidence of effectiveness or utility.

Thermal-imaging cameras

Thermal-imaging cameras, for example, can apparently detect fever—a symptom of the coronavirus—in individuals and are now in high demand. The cameras function as watchdogs in public locations like airports, alerting authorities to the possible presence of the virus.

However, it is not clear that the cameras are an effective tool in detecting and defeating the virus.

According to experts, the cameras only have an accuracy rate of +/-2 degrees Celsius. Should these cameras be mounted on drones, as has been suggested, they will become even LESS accurate, because they are further from the targeted individuals and because public spaces introduce other environmental factors that create interference. Finally, the cameras detect the skin’s surface temperature, not body-core temperature, which is a more accurate reflection of health.

Moreover, normal body temperatures vary among individuals, sometimes by as much as 3.6 degrees Celsius. And temperature can vary even for a particular individual, for a whole host of reasons, including time of day, the individual’s age, and how much that person has had to eat and drink.

The bottom line is that individuals with the virus could consume fever-reducing medications and produce false negatives; individuals with the coronavirus could be asymptomatic, especially during incubation, and also produce false negatives; while individuals with normally high temperatures could have test results that are false positives.

One wonders how these cameras could provide any sense of security.

Lessons from the past

Experiences with Ebola detection offer even more cautions about trying to find incubation-stage viruses. Individuals with incubation-stage Ebola have few detectable symptoms and so will not be intercepted by security checks. By the time Ebola victims display recognizable symptoms, they are generally too sick to travel and present themselves at security checkpoints. In a 2014 article in Vanity Fair, former United States Transportation Security Administration Agent Jason Harrington suggested that “finding incubation-stage Ebola in a crowded airport amounts to a taxpayer-funded search for fleas conducted through a shattered magnifying glass.”

Harrington also pointed to the SARS outbreak in 2003. A Canadian report found that extra security measures did not detect a single case of the SARS virus. According to the report, “the pilot thermal scanner project screened about 2.4 million passengers. Only 832 required further assessment, and again none were found to have SARS.” The report advised the Canadian government to review security measures and only use those that demonstrated their public-health effectiveness.

Leaving the theatre

The coronavirus is much more infectious than previous viruses encountered by the global community. Individuals do need to be vigilant, follow public-health guidelines, and be forthcoming about any symptoms or encounters with those diagnosed with the virus.

And there is a connection between perceptions of security and real security. People who believe themselves to be protected are more likely to accept appropriate restrictions and the advice of security institutions. They are then more confident to resume normal activities. After 9/11, security checkpoints, even if not effective as safety measures, did reassure many people that it was safe to fly again. So, it’s tempting to adopt some technologies in the current crisis to jumpstart our journey to whatever the new normal is.

But this approach, relying mainly on a placebo effect, raises serious concerns. The presence of technologies like thermal-imaging cameras could encourage individuals to let down their guards and neglect demonstrably effective measures, such as physical distancing and frequent handwashing. In such cases, the perception of being safe could in fact encourage dangerous behaviour and result in more illness and death.

Many of us dream of the day when live theatre will return to the Stratford and Shaw Festivals—or to the Little Theatre in our community. We value what live theatre adds to our cultural life. Security theatre is something different and must be carefully scrutinized. Greater transparency about the public-health utility of technologies and responses to the pandemic will serve us all better than will illusions of safety. □

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