Monday, April 09, 2012

The Macguffin methods.

Have you ever wondered why they make you remove the laptops before you push your bag into the X-ray machine at Airport Security? As every second passenger carries a laptop, this ritual holds up the queue and causes much annoyance.

Is it really necessary? Do laptops have some special components that can defeat an X-ray machine, if kept inside a bag? Or do they help hide other dangerous items? What is the basis for the elaborate procedure?

Matt Richtel decided to investigate and contacted several agencies before publishing his findings in this piece in the New York Times. He writes:

As I did more reporting, the logic behind the rule grew as elusive as a free power outlet in the boarding area. Is size the issue? If so, security experts counter, today’s laptops are far thinner than they used to be.

Could it be because laptops, unlike tablet computers, have an easily removable battery compartment and hard drive that could be used to hide homemade bombs? But some netbooks and ultrabooks have similar compartments, and they don’t require separate screening. Strike two.

Perhaps, I thought, it’s because the circuitry of a laptop can be replaced with a device to send an electromagnetic signal to jam an airplane’s controls at takeoff or landing. But, as I soon learned, the same circuitry could be embedded just as easily in phones, watches or game players, all of which stay in the bag.
He finally stumbled upon the real reason:

. Until I happened upon a security expert who asked that he not be identified because he has worked on related issues with the Department of Homeland Security. He said that the laptop rule is about appearances, giving people a sense that something is being done to protect them. “Security theater,” he called it.
That’s it. The Security agencies merely adopt what Hitchcock described as a Macguffin technique in his thrillers. He explained that the plot was not so important. What was important was that the actors must be shown to be engaged in some plot, hurrying, agonising, fretting, fuming, etc. What they were hurrying for, agonising over, fretting and fuming about was immaterial.

Same it is with the Security agencies. What they are searching for or why they are searching for anything is not relevant at all. It’s the show that’s important. Seen those guys at the gate of a 5-star hotel searching under the bonnet of the car with a mirror? None of them know what they are looking for.

Not just Security, but almost all actions of the Govt follow the Macguffin method. When there’s an accident, even before the body count is done, an announcement will be made that “ Rs 1 lakh will be given to the family of the deceased”. When there’s a storm warning, TV ticker will proclaim that “fisherman have been asked not to venture into the sea”. All this is to give the impression that the Govt machinery is working and is responsive. But, nothing tangible needs to be done and the Govt knows this. The perception of action is what matters more than the action itself.


Anonymous said...

Hi Raj,

We have our BBMP and the Kar(Nataka) government as a supreme example here. Their standard response for any query is we are looking into it / an inquiry committee has been appointed / the material has been sent to a testing lab / our engineers or squad have been rushed to the spot / we are on top of the situation / et al....and we the people get fooled all the time !

Raj said...

Anon,sad but true.

Jeny said...

Nice rayos-x de seguridad