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Security Theater- Airplanes, DNA, and Anti-Piracy June 29, 2011

Posted by Chris Mark in Piracy & Maritime Security, Risk & Risk Management.
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Bruce Schneier, in his book Beyond Fear, coined the phrase security theater.  Security theater describes describes security countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to actually improve security.  One of the clearest examples is that of US airport security.  The guards checking people (randomly, I might add) is intended to make people feel as if they are more secure while really doing little to address the the risks to which airliners are exposed.  Today I read an article in which the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia or the clumsily named CGPC had announced it is building a DNA database of Somali pirates.  This database is due to be completed by 2012 and is intended to help cut off funding for pirates.  According to the president of the organization proposed database will be a “base for other international actions against piracy” in waters off Somalia.  While it is nice that something is being done, the question must be asked as to whether this is the right approach.

Another example of Security Theater is the joint patrols in the Gulf of Aden. The Gulf of Aden is approximately 205,000 square miles and the Arabian Sea is approximately 1.5 million square miles.  Task Force 151 is a multinational task force which consists of between 14-15 ships (usually).  It does not take a brilliant mathematician to see that 15 ships cannot patrol 205,000 square mile effectively.  Spread equally, each ship would be responsible for about 13,666 square miles.  When the Arabian Sea or Indian Ocean are included, the Task Force is anemic to say the least.  In spite of this, the task force maintains that while it is not exactly winning the battle, it is not losing either:

“We are not fighting a losing battle. There has not been a successful piracy attack on merchant vessels since the end of April,” Commodore Tim Fraser, a regional maritime commander, told journalists aboard the amphibious assault ship Albion.

“There has been no successful piracy event in the Gulf of Aden since September last year. Although I would not wish to give an indication that this is sorted out, because it is not,” he told a news conference.

While these statistics, if true, are to be lauded the reality remains that the first quarter of 2011 has seen the most pirate attacks on record and has shown the pirates to be increasing in violence and sophistication.  The fact remains that approximately 600 crew members remain as hostages of pirates as due scores of ships.

Growing up in Texas I remember racing my motorcycle through desolate West Texas and reading signs that warned “traffic monitored by aircraft”.  As a teenager, I slowed down until one day I had an epiphany.  Aircraft are expensive to fly and maintain.  To use aircraft to catch the odd speeder simply did not make economic sense.  From that day forward I raced like a bat out of hell on my motorcycle.  In spite of frequently exceeding 120 mph, I was never once caught by one of the airplanes.

While many of the proposed controls are intended to keep traffic flowing by increasing the confidence of air travelers and ship owners (managers, masters) the reality is that many of the current practices are less effective at actually preventing piracy than they are at making people believe they are preventing piracy.  A critical look at the numbers tells a more accurate story.  Do not be taken in by security theatrics.  The only way to ensure safe transit in pirate infested waters is to take personal accountability for the ship and her crew.

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