Thursday, April 14, 2011

Should we ban watches on subways?

This is a lesson in pitching. If you choose the right words, you can get international exposure for your company or your cause.

Let's face it, if you want to get your message out, the British Broadcasting Corporation is a good vehicle. In an article that discusses the future availability of wi-fi on the London Underground, a self-described expert who "specialises in reducing terror or technology-related threats" was quoted. This quote comes from Will Geddes of the ICP Group.

"This will enable people to use their laptop on the Tube as if it was a cell phone."

Frankly, when I was initially investigating the purchase of a netbook, I was wondering if I could use the netbook to replace my mobile phone. I didn't realize that this would brand me as a terrorist, but Geddes reminds us that:
  • Mobile phones have been used to remotely detonate bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq.

  • If wi-fi enables phone conversations, terrorists could talk with each other underground.

  • Wi-fi could allow Trojan software to penetrate users' laptops.

Bruce Schneier, noted security writer, has offered his take on Geddes' alarming statements:

This is just silly.

And his commenters agree with Schneier's assessment.

One thing that Schneier didn't explicitly discuss was another item that was cited in the BBC article:

The March 2004 train bombers in Madrid used mobile phones.

This is certainly implied by Geddes' concern. However:

However fears were reduced when it was revealed they detonated the bombs by the phones' timer functions, not a signal.

Hmm. Does that mean that we need to ban watches in subways?

Of course, Geddes does not limit his security suggestions to the London Underground. One of the regrettable things in our society is that there are nutjobs who want to harm our elected officials. In a few cases people actually try to harm said officials. Most of the time, the nutjobs are just nuts.

In some cases, the elected officials don't have a choice about whether they're going to get protection. If Obama were to draft an Executive Order abolishing the Secret Service, he'd probably be impeached by his own party. But other officials DO have the choice of whether they want protection or not - and some choose to forgo protection.

Take Lord Mandelson, who was Business Secretary in March 2009. As the Times notes, he chose to go without police protection.

As Northern Ireland Secretary Lord Mandelson received the highest level of personal protection because of the ongoing risk from terrorists. He decided not to repeat the experience when he returned to the Government as Business Secretary.

“I lived with permanent round-the-clock security when I was Northern Ireland Secretary,” he explained. “I don’t think I need to go back to that. I’m not afraid for my security as long as I’m doing my job, doing it conscientiously, addressing the right issues.”

This of course infuriated security experts such as Geddes, who said that the Business Secretary not only required one security detail, but two:

Mr Geddes said he would have had two teams protecting Lord Mandelson - an advance party at the venue he was going to and an escort detail travelling with the minister.

The advance security team would identify any protesters and keep a close eye on them, looking for whether they were wearing bulky clothes or carrying anything that could be used for a demonstration.

“This doesn’t have to be a very sophisticated set-up. It can be very straightforward,” he said. “The venue you are going to very likely has its own security. You will be asking those security people to provide support.”

Unfortunately for Geddes, there are many public officials who would be eligible for security, but who decline it. The most famous example was former Vice President Richard Nixon, who dropped his Secret Service protection in 1985. To be fair, he reportedly hired private security after that, but he apparently took the action as a government budget-saving gesture.

When one of the most polarizing ex-Presidents in history decides that the government doesn't need to protect him...then perhaps we should take a sane view of when a high level of security is needed, and when it is not.

Incidentally, I can think of only one time when an ex-President was threatened - and the ex-President, Theodore Roosevelt, was in the processing of running for President again.
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