Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Chaser security prank success

Have you ever wondered what sort of security AUD$250,000,000 buys? (Early reports suggested the cost of the security for APEC was $165 million; later figures suggested it actually cost $250 million. Either way, it is a lot of money.)

Apparently very little.

People are talking about The Chaser's wonderful prank where they drove a car with a fake Osama bin Laden right up to the highest security section of last week's APEC conference without being stopped. PZ Myers thought it was pure entertainment; Bruce Schneier is also a fan.

All the stupid security theatre and money wasted -- Australian taxpayers' money -- and it was only when Chas Licciardello, dressed as Osama bin Laden, stepped out of the car shouting "Where is my friend Bush? It has all been a misunderstanding!" that the security realised that something was wrong.

[Sarcasm alert] It's hard to blame the security guys. They're doing a simple job for lots of money: keep out people who don't belong. If they got fooled by The Chaser's cunning plan to put a Canadian flag on their cars, well, ask yourself: who wouldn't have been fooled? Just because "Osama bin Laden" was sitting in the back seat of a supposedly Canadian vehicle, well, that's hardly suspicious. And tell me that you too wouldn't have been fooled by this inauthentic-looking insecurity pass:

Insecurity pass

(Click image for full view.)

The Australian media, especially the Herald-Sun, loves to throw around the word "hero" to describe any Australian who basically isn't a total and complete waste of space. Saved thirty-seven children from a burning building? Hero. Rescued a cat stuck in a tree? Hero. Got hit by lightning and didn't die? Hero. Fell down drunk and chipped a tooth but didn't cry? Hero. But I think they really missed an opportunity to use the term appropriately. The Chaser guys might have been doing television comedy, but they were also making vitally important social commentary. As taxpayers and members of society, we are entitled -- no, not an entitlement, we have a duty -- to ask if our money is being put to good use. Spending a quarter of a million dollars, or even half that, for security which can be breached so easily is worse than a joke. The entire country should be thanking The Chaser for revealing that the Emperor has no clothes. Not only are they risking jail, but they actually risked their lives to make a point: all it needed was one trigger-happy government sniper on the rooftop and they could have been killed.

What we've learnt is that actual terrorists could have strolled right up to the restricted zone with no difficulty at all. Anybody could have done it. While the police were busy shutting down the entire city of Sydney (at who knows what economic cost) and keeping democratic protesters at least ten kilometres away from the conference, Osama bin Laden himself could have strolled right up to George Bush and given him a wedgie.

Or detonated a bomb.

If the clowns running this nation had really cared about security, instead of just the security opera of 24/7 helicopter fly-bys, snipers on rooftops and stopping tourists from taking photos, they would have held the conference somewhere inaccessible, like Canada did in 2002 when they held the G8 Conference in Kananaskis, population 429.

[Aside: I like these people.]

There's a certain level of tension between the needs of democracy -- the right of people to protest where they will be heard by those making the decisions -- and of security. Personally I think that the needs of democracy should outweigh those of security. Presidents and prime ministers might come and go, but democracy needs to survive. Protesters should be allowed to protest right outside George Bush's bedroom window, at least from 9am to 5pm. But if you want to put security first, then don't hold your conference in Sydney. Hold it miles away from any population centre, where you have more control over who comes in. That's good security and good economics.

Instead, what we got was bad security and bad economics, but lots of security opera. Good security should be as close to invisible as you can afford -- just visible enough so you know it's there, but not so much that it disrupts normal activity. Instead Sydney was completely disrupted, money was wasted, and for no good effect.

Naturally, the con artists who have wasted our money aren't happy about being exposed. NSW police minister David Campbell threw a hissy-fit at the tricksters:

An angry David Campbell denied he was embarrassed by the comedians' ability to penetrate APEC's restricted zone - rather, he was pleased the "multi-layered" security had worked.

He said the prank was inappropriate and he "did not see the funny side at all".

The Chaser's production team had been specifically warned by police to behave responsibly during the APEC security lockdown, he said.

"[Police] said 'we understand that parody and satire are entertaining and fun, many people watch the program and enjoy it, but please understand the seriousness of this matter and please take caution as you go about making your program.

"That seems to have been thrown out the window and that, I think, is inappropriate."

What's inappropriate is that Campbell hasn't been laughed out of town. Humourless, pretentious gits like him have no clue and should have no place in positions of power. Alas, the way of the world is that those who shouldn't have power so often do. The skills needed to become powerful so rarely include the skills needed to govern wisely.

The reality is that tricksters like The Chaser don't just make us laugh. Satire and parody are not just fun entertainments; they have a vital role in society. It has been said that medieval Fools, alone in the court, were permitted to make fun of the king and thus keep him from becoming too egotistical. (I doubt this was true in general, but it makes a nice story.) By puncturing the undeserved egos of the incompetent, tricksters help reduce the harm they can do. Far from being irresponsible, puncturing the illusion of security theatre is a fine example of civic responsibility.

Campbell had two possible responses to The Chaser's actions: he could admit to being embarrassed by the security failure and promise to do better, or he could bluster and blame the messengers. He choose to bluster and blame the messengers, and for that he should be out of government so fast it leaves his head spinning.

Unfortunately, for all of Australia's reputation as a nation of larrikins with a healthy disrespect for authority, we're becoming a nation of sheep who only do as we're told. (But that's a topic for another day.) Australians seem to have taken The Chaser team to heart, but not enough for them to demand real changes to the political system which allows the government to engage in this expensive security opera with no genuine benefit. While I would like to think that next time NSW voters go to the polls they will remember this and vote accordingly, the cynic in me expects that by this time next week it will all be forgotten.

This prank has punctured another myth. By showing just how easy it is for anyone to get through the loudest security money can buy, it puts a whole different perspective on terrorism. It doesn't take a devious master criminal to get through security. So where are all the terrorist attacks? If Chas Licciardello can get so close to the President of the USA, why hasn't a real terrorist managed it?

It isn't because the terrorists are afraid of our security, or because they're less competent than The Chaser. It's because they're few and far between. Despite the constant cries that the sky is falling, terrorists are thin on the ground. Unless you live in one of a few high-risk places, terrorism is a rare risk. The dangers of over-reaction are far greater than the danger we're trying to protect from.

The Chaser's press release can be read here; over here we have a long thread of comments where one angry right-winger (claims to be an ex-soldier; reads more like a scared little boy) gets angry at The Chaser for exposing the Emperor's New Clothes and says they should have been shot to punish them for discovering just how lousy the security really was. Oh my.

Thanks to Hasimir, who first brought The Chaser's cunning stunt to my attention (via Mrs Impala).

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