If our feeling of security is close to the reality, we make better security exchanges. Our models, theories, and frames of security can bring these closer together – based on the musings of Bruce Schneier.
I take a relativist stance when it comes to security. I don’t believe in a factual state of absolute security waiting to be achieved, I believe it depends utterly on the circumstances and the observer. One need only look at the ‘acceptable level of violence’ permissible during the Northern Ireland Troubles for a stark illustration of this. This said, I also believe that security amounts to essentially two different notions; there is the feeling, and there is the reality. This can be summarised by the truism that you can feel secure, even if you’re not, and you can be secure, even if you don’t feel it. As an undergraduate, I explored the disjuncture between the fear of crime and the actual risk of victimisation amongst different demographics within Sheffield’s red-light district. As a postgraduate of war studies, I find this distinction, between the feeling and reality of security, equally relevant. Where, why, and how these differing concepts may diverge and converge is essential for a sophisticated understanding of what it means to be ‘secure’.
As Schneier explains, economic tools of cost-benefit analysis can be a useful lens through which to view security. Not in the sense that security should be quantified necessarily, but rather viewed as a transaction or an ‘exchange’, because whenever you achieve a higher level of security you’re inevitably exchanging it for something else. This may be at a personal level such as the decision to install a steering lock to your vehicle or security lights at your property, or at a national level, such as the decision to invade another country, bolster military defences and border controls, or increase domestic monitoring. For any one of these you may exchange time, money, convenience, or even social cohesion, global political standing, or fundamental civil liberties. The question then is not necessarily whether X will make Y more secure, but whether X is worth the exchange of Y. The argument often put forward by advocates of the Iraq war is that the world is now safer because Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship has fallen. Even if this (highly contentious) statement were true, it misses the point, which is whether the war was actually worth it?
One makes this assessment based on the security benefits achieved – here the removal of the bloody regime, headed by an unhinged narcissistic, but who it now transpires, had no WMDs and posed a fairly minor international threat – against those elements sacrificed – here the enormous loss of military and civilian life, the provincial power vacuum created and the inflammation of sectarian tribal factions, the regional bolstering of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the long-term repercussions of removing the neighbouring Shi’ite counter-weight to Iran, the war’s radicalising effect amongst angered Western Muslims and an emergent homegrown threat, to name if only the most obvious. However, despite academics, commentators, and policy makers jostling for position over the ‘correct’ and/or ‘moral’ stance to take, when we talk of the ‘feeling’ of security there is often no generalisable right or wrong conclusion as to whether a security exchange has been worth it. Other examples could be that some of us have burglar alarms at our homes, some of us do not, or that many Americans own firearms whilst others choose not to. This may depend on where we live, the value of our personal possessions, our family members, our demographic and background, how much we fear burglary, whether we feel alarms or guns are an effective deterrent, or whether they make us feel more secure. The conclusions reached relate to far more than just the reality of risk or security – they relate to our feelings of security, weighed up against the exchange.
Humans have an innate capacity for such cost-benefit decisions, and we make such security exchanges multiple times every day without really noticing. For example, when I slept last night with the French doors to my balcony wide open, comfortable that the rear of my property is well enclosed, or when I double zipped my Kindle and wallet inside my bag when I rode the tube today knowing pick-pockets operate on the Piccadilly line around Covent Garden, or even when I keep my head high and adopt a slight swagger when bowling through certain areas of Tottenham, aware that any hint of vulnerability can be a enough to get you robbed. Think of Coursing even; the hare makes a security exchange between continuing to eat the grass or fleeing from the approaching Lurchers, those that make these survival decisions well live and reproduce, and those that don’t, either starve or get torn to shreds.
Yet, despite being one of the planet’s most booming species, humans are pretty poor at making these security exchanges. The reasons behind this lay in the distinctions made at the beginning; we tend to respond to the feeling, and not the reality of risk, threat, and security. Numerous psychological studies have found several recurrent cognitive biases which affect our risk assessments and security exchanges. Whilst downplaying ordinary and common risks, we often exaggerate and emphasise spectacular and rare risks – such as the risk of driving versus that of terrorism. We also perceive threats from unknown sources as more acute than that of familiar risks – such as the fear of violent or sexual assault from strangers when the risk of such attacks are significantly higher in the home. Furthermore, we view personified and branded risks as more hazardous, as well as under-estimating risks in situations we command, while over-estimating risks outside of our control. Another interesting phenomenon is the availability heuristic, where we estimate probability based on how easily we can bring illustrative examples to mind, our perception of which is often skewed by a sensationalist media who regularly report upon extremely rare risks. Additionally, as a species we are more amenable to anecdotes than figures, and, when it comes to quantitative assessment, we are generally better at calculating fractions and lower numbers – once required to compute the risk of one in, say, six-hundred-thousand, eighty million, or seven billion, we tend to place them all into the ‘almost never’ bracket.
Essentially, what factors such as our cognitive biases, fears, prejudices, societal moral-panics etc. do is to act as reality filters, and as such the feeling and the reality of safety, risk, and security can become incongruent to one another, resulting in either a false sense of security or insecurity. They essentially create an uninformed, incomplete, and generally inadequate framing of reality. Therefore, contrary to my opening statement, security has not two but three elements: feeling, reality, and framing. Feelings are perceptions of security, and frames are our models of security. Feelings are based on intuition, frames on reasoning – not to be confused with rationality! Both can change, evolve and be revised. In a modern and complex world we need such security models to appreciate many of the risks we face. We can view framing as the interpretation of our reality, limited by science, technology, intellectual understanding, cognitive and subjective bias’, but with the potential to supersede and alter our feelings. We get such frames from scholars, professionals, religious leaders, cultural figures, the media, elected officials, to name but a few, but also from our own experiences and empirical understanding. Frames eventually fade into the background as feelings adjust to become more in sync with our world-view. The instinctive eventually becomes the familiar, and as a model moves closer towards reality, converging and aligning with feelings, one is unlikely to even know it is there.
Outside ones daily subconscious choices, most security decisions have a number of people involved. Stakeholders nurturing particular agendas will try and influence these exchanges, undermining or marginalising particular frames, whilst promoting and advocating others, dependant on vested interests. Frames then can be inherently difficult to displace, particularly if they also equate to ones feelings, and in which case distinguishing between emotion, interpretation and reality becomes tricky. The 50 odd year development of our understanding of the risks associated with smoking is a case in point; it is an example of how the framing has changed, but also how an influential and extremely powerful group has resisted and fought the new frame. Here another cognitive bias has bearing, the confirmation bias, where we accept data and adopt assessments which confirm or validate our beliefs and world-views, but reject and deny information that contradicts them. Evidence disproving our frame may get ignored, even if persuasive and sometimes even if undeniable. Similarly, strong feelings and passions can create immensely powerful frames: 9/11 created a new security rubric for many people, as experiences of crime and victimisation can in the individual, as media health scares, natural disasters, and moral-panics can in the wider public.
Often we cannot know things directly ourselves, and rely on other people to inform our risk exchanges via proxy. When I purchase items from Boots pharmacy, I am reliant on government bodies and legislation governing pharmaceutical company to ensure products are adequately tested and won’t kill me. I don’t personally conduct a safety check of each train I ride on the Underground, but instead rely on other experienced and qualified groups to do it for me. I’m not concerned that the roof of my gym will collapse while I’m on the treadmill, as I trust the construction of the building conforms to building industry regulation standards. Many frames we must simply accept on faith. From a security perspective, what we are seeking is for people to get familiar enough with frames to have them reflected in their feelings, to allow them to make informed security exchanges. However, in our ever fluid world, our liquid modernity, the security ‘reality’ is changing also and is not the static, inert condition or achievable end goal we often assume it to be. Indeed, as feelings chase frames, frames chase reality, but reality constantly shifts, they may never converge. For those practitioners that work within the sector; who design security technologies, deal with security policy and strategy, or even look at public and social policy impacting security, both reality and feeling are equally important. If one’s feelings of security are about the equivalent to the reality, we make far better security exchanges. Our models, theories, and frames of security are one way to bring these two closer together.
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