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Security Theater at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center

A week or two ago, I attended an event at the Boston Conference and Exhibition Center (BCEC). The BCEC had a series of tables set up outside the entrance, and each table was staffed by a security guard, who was responsible for checking bags.

The first time I went through bag check, I handed my backpack to the security officer, who began rifling through it with a wooden dowel. I smiled cheerfully and asked “So, what kind of contraband are we looking for today?”.

“Well,” the security guard replied, “we’re not looking for contraband, so much as we’re looking for weapons. Knives, scissors, that sort of thing. We’ve found quite a few of them.”

Eventually, the guard convinced himself that I wasn’t carrying a knife, a pair of scissors, or any similar sort of thing, and I was almost allowed to go through. Because of a small conference badge issue, I’d have to head over to another line, get the badge issue resolved, and come back through bag check.

During my second trip through bag check, I got a security guard who was more thorough than the first. In addition to prodding through my backpack with a wooden dowel, he asked me to take out my laptop case and open the main compartment, so that he could verify that it did in fact contain a laptop. I complied, which convinced security guard number two that I was not in possession of knives, scissors, or similar implements of destruction. From there, on to the conference.

Now, I’d like to spend a few minutes looking at what the two security guards missed.

  • First, they missed the knife sheath that was prominently hanging from my belt. Normally, my knife sheath contains a Buck Multi-tool. It’s got screw drivers and pliers, but it’s also got a three-inch blade. The sheath was empty (I knew about the bag checks, and I wanted to avoid having yet another knife confiscated), but the guard couldn’t have known this without asking me to open the sheath for inspection. He didn’t.
  • I was never asked about the contents of my pockets. I could have easily been carrying (say) a small Swiss army knife. Clearly verboten from the security guard’s standpoint, but I could have easily walked in with one. I used to have a Swiss army knife; the TSA has it now.
  • Had I been wearing a suit, I probably could have walked in wearing a shoulder holster, or an ankle holster. The guards were checking what was in your bag, but not what was on your person, so I’m sure these would have gotten through. Let’s face it, boring middle-aged white guys in suits aren’t the first candidates for a pat down.
  • My backpack has five compartments. The two security guards opened and inspected three of the five compartments. If I were carrying a weapon, they only had a 60% chance of opening the right compartment to find it.
  • In my backpack, I carry a blue zippered cash bag with an air pump, a couple of bicycle tubes, and a small assortment of tools; a standard cyclist’s road repair kit. It’s somewhat bulky, with roughly the same displacement as a small 9mm handgun. Neither guard asked for a look at my bulky bicycle repair kit.
  • My laptop case has a main compartment, and two exterior compartments. One guard asked me to open the main compartment; neither asked to inspect the two exterior compartments.

Based on my experiences, I can only conclude that BCEC was conducting the bag check for one of two reasons:

  1. They’re opposed to people carrying scissors and pocket knives in the course of day to day life, and felt morally compelled to confiscate them. Bad you for leaving that Swiss Army knife in your bag and forgetting about it!
  2. The whole thing was just for show. In short, the bag check was another example of Security Theater.

So what’s up with all of the security theater?

Clearly, the bag check — and even the combination of two bag checks by two different guards — was not very effective. Physical security screening is a hard problem, and it’s very inconvenient when done effectively. Suppose the BCEC guards really were interested in keeping weapons out of their facility. What might they have done differently?

I’ve you’ve ever gone to a courthouse or to an airport, then you’ve gone through the ritual of passing your belongings through an X-ray machine, emptying your pockets into a plastic tray, taking off your shoes and walking through a metal detector or full-body scanner. Those are reasonably effective (though not completely perfect) ways of finding weapons. A metal detector will only miss non-metallic objects; full body scanners have their own set of weaknesses, though it’s difficult to find concrete information about what those weaknesses are.

Of course, these shortcomings are easily overcome with a thorough pat-down. There are strategies for fooling the machines, but it’s much harder to fool a human that’s running their hands up and down your body parts. As I said earlier, highly effective security screening is also highly inconvenient.

Keep this in mind the next time you go through a bag search at a conference, or perhaps at your neighborhood MBTA station. Take note of where the guards are looking (and where they’re not), and ask yourself, “what could I have gotten through?”.

And then ask yourself, “what’s up will all the security theater?”

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