American Culture

Security as product placement

As Jack Bauer finishes his complete melt-down at the end of his eighth season, I’ve had 2 revelations:  1) he seemed to confirm 3 weeks ago the opinion of experts that torture “isn’t working” and 2) we’ve all been sold a lot of security myths that people want to believe are real.

On May 18, there was a story on The World about a documentary called “Erasing David.”  It involved efforts by David Bond to “disappear” in the most security-camera laden society.  He knew he’d be caught (and he was).  You can see the documentary he made on the website.  The point that stuck with me, though, was this:

Well I spent a lot of time keenly aware of quite how often I walked under the scope of CCTV cameras.  But as it turned out, I was mistaken to think that they would be able to access, crack into, and track me using the police and state based CCTV network.  But having said that, it does nonetheless provide a constant reminder to us all in the U.K. that we’re being watched.  We have millions of them now.  The recent House of Lords report stated that they have no material affect on the prevention or detection of crime, and yet we merrily spend billions of pounds putting these things up.  There’s basically a very strong lobby from the people who make these things to persuade politicians that they’re effective and I’m not convinced that they are. . .  .

I would strongly warn residents in New York City to resist, and I’ll tell you why.  Because there is no evidence that these cameras do anything other than show events after they’ve happened. Occasionally that can be useful for prosecution and in the vast majority of cases, they’re not preemptively successful in stopping things happening.  What they do, do is infringe all of our privacy, day in, day out.

But, think about it.  How many times are we presented with both fiction and non-fiction that attempts to present such security measures as effective24‘s CTU is just one example:  analysts glued to computers looking for terrorists in real time.  On 24, for awhile last season, Cisco was a major sponsor with not just ads, but in-your-face product placement for their technology.

Sure–it’s fiction.  But more people understand the story as fiction and treat the technology as accurate (even if somewhat exaggerated).  At some level, we believe that spies have gadgets beyond our mere mortal imaginations–so what we see must be the conceivable tip of the iceberg.Homeland Security Chart

A friend introduced me to a good phrase a couple of years ago:  “security theater.”  “Security theater” consists of actions designed to convince us that we are “safer” without actually having a significant impact on actual security.

My favorite example is the Lifesaver-hued “Security Threat Level” charts that you can still see in airports if you look hard enough.  Depending on where you live, we’re at Orange (maybe “Yellow” in some obscure necks of the woods).  We’ve been at “Orange” for over eight years.  We’ll never be at blue or green:  “Guarded” or “Low.”

Orange is the new green, the new “Normal.”

Funny, CTU doesn’t seem to have one of those posters.

As David Bond pointed out, the main use for security footage is forensic, as demonstrated by the use of such footage in the recent Times Square attempted bombing.  In the end, a lot of the capture of real or would-be terrorists, in fiction or non-fiction, comes down to solid detective work by people piecing together the available evidence.  Even on 24, when Jack kills yet another terror-suspect after unsuccessfully interrogating him/her, he has to resort to detective work and forensics to get the evidence that he could not get by violence.

We’ve always loved security and spy theater.  Whether it was Q in the Bond films, Marshall in Alias, or the  corporate stars of 24 (and why don’t they have a Q?), “technology as security salvation” has been floated in front of us and we’ve bought, tasted, and consumed with abandon.

8 replies »

  1. So, wait – you’re saying that Big Brother ISN’T our friend?

    Aherm. I keep wondering why we haven’t seen a fairly basic resistance to this employing cans of spray paint.

  2. Big Brother aside, it’s Big Corporation selling its possibly ineffective vision of security.

    • That’s where everybody from Orwell to Jefferson really missed the boat, though. They thought Big Brother was a gummit employee, when in actuality he’s a CEO.

  3. “Security theater” — brilliant. Re those cameras: I work in Manhattan and can’t help but conclude that they may not be helping to prevent crime because of their very discreetness (even when they’re labeled). They’re not in the forefront of the public consciousness yet. In time they will be, I fear.

  4. The problem is that no one I can vote for is writing the rules or developing the tools. I’m not even a shareholder. It’s not that I want NO government, or a tiny government. I want an EFFECTIVE and RESPONSIVE one. I don’t want the band playing “Hail to the CEO” while we do Wal-Mart cheers (

  5. Sam: I think we’re fast moving toward the day when The President IS a CEO – elected by corporate citizens. Hell, we’re probably already there and simply can’t bring ourselves to say so yet….

    Russ: I remember during my days in MD seeing the missiles being towed around to various spots to protect DC. They got to be just another part of the traffic scene. I think that’s when we’re in danger – when we accept the unacceptable….

    Cat: Great piece!

    • Well, the Prez/CEO thing would be fully in line with the system the Framers constructed, wouldn’t it? Only landowners could vote and run for office, so that bouncing sound you hear is Thomas Jefferson happy-dancing in his grave….

  6. @ Jim & Sam: The Citizens United decision takes us a lot closer to CEO for President.