Security Illusions
By A.D. Freudenheim

28 May 2002

As every techno geek, gadget freak, and fan of the mystery, thriller, or espionage tale knows well: few are the security systems that cannot be overcome. No fortress is truly impenetrable, which is why in most mystery-related fiction, the evil-doers defeat the opposition by faking out their security systems. Security that relies solely on technology is ultimately doomed to fail.

Now, following the devastation of the 11 September, 2001 attacks on the United States, movements are afoot to bolster Americans' security through a new series of technological deployments - focusing on the hopeful triumph of machine over the fallibility of man. Better scanning systems are slowly being deployed at airports across the country (along with mildly improved guards to operate them), while companies developing security technologies such as retinal scanners and fingerprint machines are receiving broader attention. Newsweek, for example, reporting in its 13 May issue, even notes a rebirth in the movement towards a national identity card system that would offer the hope of better and more reliable security through technology.[1]

It certainly seems clear that better technologies cannot hurt: scanners that could have detected the box-cutter blades of the airline hijackers would have been preferable to those that cannot. Credit cards that have photographs, drivers licenses with anti-forgery holograms, and dollar bills with metallic strips or inks - all of these are useful tools to prevent fraudulent uses. But as with fiction - where the victory of the forces of good comes as a result not just of ingenuity at overcoming the machines, but because of an acceptance of and reliance on human help and trust - Americans need to remember that technology will not save us.

Imposing a national identity card system, however, will not help. The ultimate logic behind the proponents' arguments appears straightforward: if you have nothing to fear from being identified, then what are you afraid of? But this kind of security is illusory, and it represents the first step off a slippery slope: once it becomes so easy for every American to identify themselves in such excruciating detail, it also becomes easier to require Americans to identify ourselves. Does it seem crazy to imagine that we might one day need a national ID card to enter the mall or go to a movie? Where does the line between safety and privacy exist? (Each time you cross the street on foot, you trust that the cars stopped at the light will not suddenly run you over. Imagine a society where there is less trust of citizens; would a movable barricade at every intersection offer you better protection? Should cars be disabled at intersections, to prevent them from "accidentally" hitting pedestrians?)

Security systems can be trumped, and not just in the movies. A recent article in InfoWorld tells the story of a Japanese researcher who defeated a number of different finger-print scanning machines using false fingertips made from gelatin, with fingerprints crafted using very basic image-manipulation tools like PhotoShop.[2]  Even if we assume that people are who they say they are, are we any more protected against a well-planned attack - or a low-tech one? The kid who dropped pipe-bombs in mailboxes a few weeks ago: a national ID card would not likely have aided in his identification and capture any more quickly than it actually happened. Likewise, we should have no doubt that a dedicated and sophisticated terrorist could find the means to fake out the security systems at an airport.

Ultimately: the solution to our security concerns rests in the trust and strength embedded in our concept of a free society, not in the technologies that may be woven through it. We operate with an implicit social contract: that every American will make an effort to contribute to the overall well-being of our society, and not attempt to tear it down. Reasonable precautions should be taken; scanning passengers boarding an airplane is reasonable. But we should not fool ourselves into believing that technology can make all precautions appear reasonable - or infallible.

[1] "Playing the ID Card," by Steven Levy, Newsweek,
13 May 2002.
[2] "Japanese researcher gums up biometrics scanners,"
by Sam Costello, InfoWorld, 16 May 2002.
Copyright 2002, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.