Securing our Subways
Present Methods Don't and Can't Work
Many subway stations in many cities are already
operating at full capacity. Anything that slows down
the flow of people will cause great problems.
Our society is increasingly
And so when unavoidable
security risks are exposed, such as by the Moscow subway
bombings, we clamor for safety in our travels, even if the risks
are much lower than those related to getting struck by
Unfortunately the public
pressure to feel safe causes law enforcement agencies to adopt
'feel good' responses that in reality provide no actual security
Here are some examples of the
ridiculous 'feel good' security we are offered, and how it is
they are of no real value. Please read on to the next two
parts of this series for some responses that might work.
This is part three of a
five part series on the risks in mass transit systems and how to
protect against them. If you've directly landed on this
page from a search engine, you might wish to start at
the beginning of the series and
Typical Security Responses
There are a number of
security measures often deployed, for short or longer terms,
when security is escalated on public transport.
Increased uniform police
This is perhaps the number
one typical response, combined with giving the police more
firepower and making them dress in more 'scary' combat type
As mentioned in the
second part of this article
adding more uniform police, whether they be ridiculously
over-armed or not, is of little value, because terrorists can
see the police and know to avoid them, whereas the terrorists
themselves are seldom obvious, especially when part of a crowd.
Having any number of police
can't do anything to stop a bomb going off or to reduce its
damage once the terrorist pushes the detonate button.
Increased undercover police
As again mentioned in the
preceding part of this series, increasing the number of undercover
police is a much better strategy than increasing the number of
Undercover operatives can do
their snooping and evaluating without being observed by their
targets. Undercover police can even 'accidentally' bump against people if
they suspect they might have an explosive belt underneath their
jacket, and possibly might have some sort of electronic
'sniffer' on them to surreptitiously test for explosive odors.
But, think of the numbers.
How many undercover operatives are needed to have a fair chance
of spotting potential terrorists among 5.2 million daily
passengers (on the NY subway system alone)? They have to
spread themselves over 468 stations, the multiple platforms on
each station, the 8200 train journeys each day, and the 6500
carriages in use each day, and over all 24 hours of every day.
Even with 10,000 or more
undercover officers always on duty (and a total staff of 50,000
or more to allow for always having 10,000 officers on duty), the reality is that many
times terrorists are not obvious or easy to recognize. They look
just like many other normal people, and they don't do anything
unusual or threatening until they press the detonator switch, an action which
instantly results in the lethal blast.
The TSA are keen on behavior
profiling activities at airports, although the only statistics
available suggest such activities are an utter and complete
waste of time and resource.
But even if behavior
profiling works at airports, it is unlikely to work in subways.
In an airport, there is much less rush and much less congestion,
and all passengers come face to face with and interact with
multiple TSA officials as they go through security.
Passengers then have an hour or more to display unusual behavior
while waiting for their plane, and the TSA can in a somewhat
leisurely manner watch and consider the possible threat posed by
any particular passenger of interest. Of equal value is
that they can intercede and interview passengers at any time,
and can almost always do so without causing the passenger to miss
But in a rush of people
moving purposefully and without pause through a subway station,
and with a broader spectrum of demographics applying to the
commuters than at an airport,
there is very little opportunity to carefully study and analyze
the people moving through the station, and no 'innocent' contact opportunities.
Furthermore, any passengers who are stopped and questioned will
almost certainly miss a train or two, and so the level of public
resistance to such actions will increase, making the security
personnel more reluctant to act on mild suspicion, a reluctance
already built upon layers of concern about being accused of
There's another problem too.
If a genuine suicide bomber is detained for questioning, what
will they do? Say 'it's a fair cop' and surrender,
carefully disarming their bomb? Or will they wait until
they are surrounded by police and then blow themselves up?
Explosive sniffing dogs may
have some limited value, but the problem is that terrorists can
see them. Unlike an airport where all passengers have to
pass through certain check points and choke points, and often in
close to single file, subway stations are designed to allow lots
of people to pass in unconstricted manner.
So if a terrorist with a
bomb sees a police dog on one side of the turnstiles, he'll
simply go through the turnstiles on the other side. If
there are police dogs on both sides, he'll go through the one in
If he sees a dog on a
platform, he'll go to a different platform, or stay at the other
end of the current platform, and so on.
Dogs have excellent noses,
but in a situation with a constant stream of people walking
past, with all sorts of different body odors and other smells
associated with the people, their belongings, any food they have
with them, and so on, and with the briefest of contacts with
each, they'll get overwhelmed and tired very quickly, and the
chances of the dogs detecting an explosive is like hearing a single
person's shout in a sports stadium full of cheering fans.
In addition, the number of
dogs needed to secure a subway system is enormous. There
would need to be multiple dogs at every entrance to every subway
station, and there would need to be multiple dogs working short
shifts - plus, of course each dog needs a handler, too.
Random station searches of all
On occasion the TSA has done
sudden saturation security procedures, without prior warning, at
public transport locations.
But this is an exceedingly
rare event, so the chances of one happening at the same time and
place as a terrorist plot was being executed is about the same
as the chance of you winning the lottery this week. Have
you ever encountered a TSA sweep when using mass transit?
No, I didn't think so.
Furthermore, as soon as
terrorists noticed something unusual occurring up ahead at any
station, they could simply turn around and leave, and come back
the next day (or simply move to another station), and phone
their accomplices and advise them of the problem too.
These occasional saturation
searches also sit uncomfortably in a free nation with some
remaining constitutional rights and expectations about freedom
from random search.
London in particular has a
stunning number of video cameras on its underground system (and
everywhere else in the city too), and
most other jurisdictions are continuing to add more and more and more
cameras to their systems.
There can be no doubt that
video monitoring is enormously helpful after an attack to
help identify who the suicide bombers were. But knowing
the identities of the now-dead bombers is cold comfort for the
relatives of the also now-dead victims.
If it is very difficult to
detect possible terrorists in person, it is even harder to do so
when looking at a tiny image on a television monitor.
And unless there's to be a
very high ratio of people monitoring the cameras, most cameras
will be unmonitored, and most of the people monitoring banks of
video screens will be so busy switching their focus from one
image to the next to the next that they're unlikely to pick up
on any subtle clues about a passenger acting suspiciously
(whatever such clues may be) because such clues are obscured by
the small images and need careful observation over time to spot.
Lastly, maybe someone does
notice something suspicious on a camera. By the time he
has contacted security staff in the station, and by the time
they have deployed to where the suspicious person is - oooops -
the person may have boarded a train and departed, or may have
detonated their device, or - upon noticing a throng of police
rushing at them, may immediately detonate their device,
killing not only themselves and other nearby passengers, but the
security officers too.
One also has to wonder just how
enthusiastic a minimum wage security officer will be to respond when told
'John, urgently run to this platform and apprehend this suspect
who we believe is about to blow himself up'.
So, if there are major
problems with all these traditional types of 'security', what -
if anything - can be done to protect us? Please read on to
the next part of our series for a discussion of
some promising new security
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2 Apr 2010, last update
21 Jul 2020
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