Beyond Security Theater: Unsecured Theater, and the Shanghai Metro X-Ray Machines

Not long after the 9-11 attacks, Bruce Schneir, a US security expert, coined the term “Security Theater.” The original definition was made in his book, Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World, but for the purposes of this post, let’s use the definition presented in this easily accessed essay from the New Internationalist:

Security theater refers to security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security. An example: the photo ID checks that have sprung up in office buildings. No-one has ever explained why verifying that someone has a photo ID provides any actual security, but it looks like security to have a uniformed guard-for-hire looking at ID cards.

In essence: dumb terrorists will be fooled while everyone else  is inconvenienced. And, it goes without saying, the smart terrorists will find vulnerabilities (for an example of a smart fake terrorist, see Jeffrey Goldberg’s classic debunking of the security at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport).

Which brings me to the x-ray machines that Shanghai installed in recent months at subway stations across the city (every station I’ve visited, at least) in advance of the massive Expo 2010 (World’s Fair) opening May 1. These have been the subject of much derision from locals and expats (for a contrarian view, see “Confessions of a Shanghai security staffer“), largely due to the fact that they are staffed by teenagers, most of whom appear to be more interested in text messaging and/or checking out the hottie with the fake LV bag. In any case, to my mind, these x-ray machines don’t qualify as “security theater” because they project incompetence, not security. An example: last night, just after 10:00 PM, I entered the People’s Square station. If it’s not Shanghai’s busiest, it’s certainly in the top three, and if you were going to install x-ray machines in only one subway station, that’d be the one. Below, the x-ray machines just outside of a line 1 gate, as I found them last night (ie, switched-off):

After the jump, the Hengshan Road station, 15 minutes later, as I exited:

Now it doesn’t take a dumb terrorist to figure out what’s going on in Shanghai’s metro. But let me spell it out: x-ray machine personnel don’t work the late shift (I called a couple of friends who work late – and they tell me they’ve observed the same phenomenon upon leaving work). Which means – and this isn’t a hard deduction – if you want to carry something dangerous onto the Shanghai metro, and you don’t want it x-ray’d, you merely need to wait for rush hour to end.

Obviously, so long as they aren’t run during the evenings, Shanghai’s subway x-ray machines aren’t going to make anyone safer. But I’d like to take this one step further and suggest that Shanghai’s x-ray machines – by conveying the city’s lack of serious security preparations – actually make the subway system and the city less safe. In effect, a smart terrorist will ask: if Shanghai can’t be bothered to staff its x-ray machines in the evenings, then it probably can’t be bothered to properly staff the two levels of Expo site security barriers announced in today’s Shanghai Daily (“Security taking center stage at Shanghai Expo”). Of course, the terrorist might be wrong, and the city might, in fact, do a better job of staffing the barriers than the subways. But I think everybody is safer if the terrorist doesn’t make the deduction at all.

In any case, for the purposes of opening up a discussion, let’s refer to Shanghai’s subway measures as Unsecured Theater, and define the term as:

Security measures that convey official incompetence and thus render a system more attractive to terrorist attack.

Curious to hear reader thoughts.

[UPDATED: An email and a comment, below, have arrived to remind me that James Fallows was all over the Beijing Olympics subway Unsecured beat in 2008 and 2009. Representative posts here and here.]

[UPDATED 4-14: Below, comment #13, Shanghai Slim offers this compelling contrarian viewpoint:

What I *am* worried about is the guy trying to save eleven RMB by using the subway to transport his containers of highly flammable industrial solvents or his crate of fireworks.

According to the local police, a horrifying number of such cases are thwarted weekly. Even if those official figures are off by a magnitude or two, they are very worrisome.

Imagine the carnage if a rush hour subway carriage was suddenly engulfed in flames, or filled with toxic fumes. We’ve seen the consequences when this happens to a crowded Chinese bus.

If the new screening systems even marginally deter or reduce the chances of such a horror, I say make them permanent, and I will remain happy to toss my bag on the conveyor belt.]

21 thoughts on “Beyond Security Theater: Unsecured Theater, and the Shanghai Metro X-Ray Machines

  1. Welcome to our world. We’ve had them in Beijing since before the Olympics, and we still have them. You, too, will have them forever. Enjoy.

    At rush hour these things cause huge backups, leading to the obvious terrorist strategy: If you want to cause maximum carnage, just blow up the security checkpoint.

    Good job, everybody.

  2. Apples oranges. Different personnel handle metro and Expo perimeter security. Lot of PLA involved near the site. Never seen PLA in the metro.

  3. Do all stations have these, or like Beijing are some at the end of the line missing them, making the process of terror device transportation a commute rather than a downtown hop?

    I find Will’s suggestion interesting as blowing up security checkpoints is likely to be a move supported by city residents.

  4. Will – Curious: are Beijing’s x-ray machines shut off in the evenings?
    steve – Disagree. Yes, different entities will oversee different security ops. But problems in the subway, if they happen, will reflect upon the security barriers elsewhere in the city. If Shanghai is trying to project an image of security, this is failure.

  5. In Beijing, the X-ray machines are on full time. However the x-rays machines in the subway are nowhere as inconveniencing and bottle neck inducing as the ones at the train station.

    I’ve never seen anyone stopped or anything confiscated by the security personnel in the subway. There do lay dormant “Bomb Containers” though on the platform. I guess these are there if a suspicious object is hanging around and they need to detonate it in a safe place. James Fallows has a piece on this. Security Theater.

  6. Definitely one of those things that are only supposed to create the illusion of making you safer. I doubt many terrorists feel the need to carry bombs in backpacks and, as you said, turning it off at night kind of makes the whole thing a moot point.

    The only thing I think they could hope to catch is the stuff that Shanghai security staffer mentioned – people who might cause a panic by thoughtlessly whipping out a toy gun/carrying a firecracker on board.

    Oh yeah, and there’s the whole “It creates jobs” thing too.

  7. Why don’t you just say that Shanghai’s security prep is a total joke? That’s what it feels like you’re trying to say here.

  8. I assume that, like in Beijing, these x-ray scanners are made by Nuctech, a company made famous by Hu Jintao’s son.

  9. I’d add that it’s generally no problem to simply blow right past the machines, bag in hand–at least for a tall foreigner like myself. Just keep an even pace and look like you’ve got more important things to do…. I’ve submitted to the process about half the time because I don’t want to give the people with the unenviable job of putting up with the likes of me too much trouble (I joked once to an attendant that the guy watching the screen was sleeping and had to run back and tell him I was *joking* to keep the checkpoint supervisor from dressing the poor guy down loudly and yes, *theatrically*).

    Anyway, whatever type of theater it may be, it’s heavy on the absurdism. Alfred Jarry would be impressed.

    It seems almost beside the point to mention that there are huge packed crowds of people on the Bund or Nanjing Road who the presumed terrorist could target.

    Certainly one of the most ridiculous things I’ve seen in China and the kind of thing that makes it easier to imagine how so many people could complacently go along with more heinous types of theater (Struggle Sessions, Mao adulation sessions, etc.).

    I know you’re a big fan of Expo overall, but this kind of thing seems to me to make clear the ugly totalitarian side of the entire enterprise, if it wasn’t already clear enough.

  10. Line 1 Jinjiang Park station (one stop past Shanghai South Rail Station):
    Northbound entrance has two machines.
    Southbound entrance (next to the KFC) has NO machines and as of Sunday, no security staff.

  11. I really don’t mind the new security screening system at all.

    Maybe that’s because I am not too worried about terrorists.

    What I *am* worried about is the guy trying to save eleven RMB by using the subway to transport his containers of highly flammable industrial solvents or his crate of fireworks.

    According to the local police, a horrifying number of such cases are thwarted weekly. Even if those official figures are off by a magnitude or two, they are very worrisome.

    Imagine the carnage if a rush hour subway carriage was suddenly engulfed in flames, or filled with toxic fumes. We’ve seen the consequences when this happens to a crowded Chinese bus.

    If the new screening systems even marginally deter or reduce the chances of such a horror, I say make them permanent, and I will remain happy to toss my bag on the conveyor belt.

  12. Shanghai Slim – Interesting counter-point. I’ve added is as a quoted update to the end of my post, above.

  13. Adam: They’ve been on any time I’ve been through the subway in the last two years, day or night. Not sure if they run them way out in the periphery, but I assume so.

  14. @david perry: like you, i’ve noticed that the subway x-rays often seem to be optional. i also only submit to them about 50% of the time (when i’m not in a rush). the other 50% of the time i walk right past them and no one raises an eyebrow. agree with adam’s point that this sends a bad signal to would-be criminals about shanghai’s attitude toward security.

  15. Like others, I’ve had little trouble breezing past the subway X-ray machines. I’ve only been forced to put my bags through once or twice.
    It’s particularly easy for foreigners, but I’ve noticed the guards don’t seem too bothered about being ignored by busy locals either.
    The whole thing is fairly ridiculous, especially given the big song-and-dance the city government is making about how tight their expo security is.

    [A wee pedant’s note: the uniformed guys patrolling the expo site are Wujing (paramilitary police), not PLA]

  16. I visited Shanghai and Beijing last November for a couple of weeks and *not once* did I submit to a security check during any of my subway journeys. In fact, I made it a point *not* to use them because the throngs backing all the way up the staircase during the heavy periods totally turned me off. And yes, I am a laowai, so that helped, I suppose. Like @David Perry says…bear down the stairs and strut like you’ve got a purpose and I challenge the guard to actually step away from his post to stop the foreigner making a beeline for the trains. It’s sad, but true. Too many bodies congregating around one silly machine…which gets me thinking…what does the person sitting in front of the screen do if s/he finds something objectionable? Stop the whole queue, get the violating person to shunt off to the side and then what? Back up the whole entry system by forcing the offending party to submit to a search of their offending belongings? I have no idea what the logistics of that must be like…I saw it happen a couple of times, but didn’t wait around for the fireworks display.

    Consensus opinion here is that the whole enterprise, as stated here by other eminent commenters, is a total sham, tailor-driven to generate rather superfluous employment, doing very little to provide the security it is purportedly supposed to supply. Adam has it right from the get-go.

    @David Perry, @abby, and @will clem seem to have it right as well.

    By the way, the advice to dodge the security checkpoint came courtesy of a prominent Beijing-based tech guru who is a well-known subway and metro aficionado, and a spokesperson for Chinese public transportation, more generally. I don’t want to mention any names, but it’s indicative of the fact that this “dodging” is likely more common than we otherwise might think…

  17. Hey its Reggie again. This post is very interesting. The machines your show in the pictures in the post remind me of a scene in Willy Wonka, you know the crazy italian entrepreneur candy maker that brought joy to like everybody. Anyways, remember that scene in Willy Wonka when Mike Teevee gets put into the tv and then gets dispersed into millions of tiny pieces, and then the people can see and even hear him as he ZOOMS over their heads…only to reappear as a person the size of a doll (even smaller than me…in my last post I did mention I had mild dwarfism if you remember). We never did find out if they were able to get the poor boy back to normal size.

    Well come what may, I do love chocolate.

    Thanks,

    Reggie

  18. Above I suggest it’s best to just try to blow by the machine and personnel. It’s not, really. What’s working best for me now: Walk directly up to the security cat directing traffic, say hi, open your bag and show it, smiling all the while, and move on. So far, fast, easy and… you actually have a relatively pleasant human interaction rather than a frustration-laden encounter with people who probably, on the whole, feel at some level as conflicted about doing what they’re doing as you feel about submitting to what they’re doing. It’s faster, friendlier and nobody loses a shred of face. They might wave one of those little paddle-security wands at you for extra show (the same type of wands, I bet, that have been criticized for being essentially useless as used in Mexico, Iraq and elsewhere), but whatever….

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