The WSJ reported recently that the FBI, looking for fresh leads in the 1982 case of Tylenol poisonings, suspects Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski and is trying to get hold of a sample of his DNA. Coincidentally I was just thinking about that case thanks to Bruce Schneier. In his recent TED talk he mentions that the Tylenol incident led to tamper-proof caps — a perfect example of what Schneier likes to call “security theater”:
As a homework assignment, think of 10 ways to get around it. I’ll give you one, a syringe.
So far this is typical Schneier. It’s a great point, but one I’ve heard him make many times before. In the next sentence, though, he breaks new ground:
But it made people feel better. It made their feeling of security more match the reality.
Bruce Schneier used to mock the theatrical dimension of security. Now it seems his thinking has evolved — and in a really interesting way. He’s alway viewed security in a relativistic way, and as a game of economic tradeoffs. Here he twists the lens to bring something else into focus: the relationship between how secure we feel and how secure we are.
We know that modern hominids evaluate risk poorly:
One way to think of it is that we’re highly optimized for risk decisions that are endemic to living in small family groups in the East African highlands in 100,000 B.C. — 2010 New York, not so much.
There are two ways our feelings about our security can disconnect from reality. We can have a false sense of security, as when we underestimate the risk of automobile travel. Or we can have a false sense of insecurity, as when we overestimate the risk of air travel.
What matters most, Schneier suggests, is that we align feelings and reality. And if security theater helps us do that, then it’s a perfectly good thing. The Tylenol episode represents the kind of risk that the media thrive on and magnify. People felt unsafe even though they were astronomically more likely to die in other ways. Tamper-proof caps may be a purely theatrical response, but that may still be useful.
Technologists too rarely display this kind of nuanced thinking; it’s refreshing to see it.