Security Overkill, Diaper-Changing Edition

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about security overkill. This includes not just the notion of “security theater” — security measures meant to inspire comfort by mere show of force/complexity — but the many instances in which someone places a layer of security between me and my everyday activities with no apparent benefit whatsoever.

My bank would surely argue that its many and various anti-fraud measures are valuable but in truth a) they are meant to protect the bank, not me; and b) they are cumbersome to the point of ridiculous. It’s gotten to where I can predict which credit-card charge will trigger the bank’s idiot algorithm and freeze my account because it didn’t like the Zip code where I used the card.

And security overkill has trickled down into the civilian world. When the class parents at my kids’ school send out a list of parent contact info at the start of each school year, it comes via a password-protected Excel spreadsheet. Keep in mind this list doesn’t contain Social Security numbers or bank information — just names, addresses, and phone numbers of the kids’ parents. I can imagine the day several months hence when someone actually needs to use the list and will find herself locked out by the long-forgotten password.

The most outrageous example of security overkill I’ve run across recently was at the 30th Street Station, the main train terminal, in Philadelphia. Here’s what I saw in the men’s room:

If you can’t make out the image — it’s a locked diaper-changing station with a handwritten message saying “see attendant for combination.” I’m sure we could dream up some bad things that might happen on an unlocked diaper-changing tray, and I’m guessing as with most security overkill this was inspired by one anomalous event that scared the jeepers out of someone (or got that someone’s lawyers involved). But still …

Please share your security-overkill stories in the comments below. And if you have pictures, send them to photo@freakonomics.com.

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  1. Donnie says:

    They probably had a problem with people using them to do coke.

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  2. DonBoy says:

    My first guess is that this is to prevent vandalism, not terrorism. It’s probably a lot of drunken fun to smash one of those platforms.

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  3. Nanno says:

    Our type of key (at work) for a single sheet glass door: http://www.google.nl/imgres?q=EVVA+3KS&um=1&hl=nl&sa=N&biw=1026&bih=606&tbm=isch&tbnid=j1akd5NPE2SqCM:&imgrefurl=http://www.tegge.com/inhalt/Zylindersysteme/mechanisch/EVVA/teg-000407.php&docid=fmEzuXkbByoy6M&w=300&h=399&ei=WquVTq7uMcHm-gaPtMGNCA&zoom=1&iact=hc&vpx=105&vpy=186&dur=4788&hovh=259&hovw=195&tx=114&ty=155&page=1&tbnh=135&tbnw=102&start=0&ndsp=15&ved=1t:429,r:10,s:0
    [Sorry for the unreasonably long link, I can't upload pictures in my post]

    I understand your frustration with overly complicated and plain obsolete protective measures, especially since really sensitive digital information way too often isn’t properly secured. (Our government, of the Netherlands that is, recently had a string of critical failures)

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  4. jonathan says:

    Idiots break these off or deface them so no one would dream of putting their baby on it. Security for the changing station, yes. Security in the sense you used it, no.

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  5. Craig says:

    I wonder how long it would take to just try every combination. I would be sorely tempted to just crack the combination the hard way and write it down next to the message.

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    • Brian says:

      Well my guess it is a four number combo. If I set the combo I would make it spell out a word using the numbers on a phone. What diaper changing four letter words would you choose?

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  6. Mike B says:

    A lot of what might be mistaken for security theatre is simply nudge style behavioral economics. If you increase the cost of an act of theft or vandalism you will eliminate most so called crimes of opportunity. Remember that most physical security devices are easy to defeat for an attacker with a modicum of time, skill or effort. The reason that society isn’t completely dysfunctional is because A) a majority of humans are honest and B) a majority of those that are not lack the basic skills, motivation and concentration to defeat security precautions.

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  7. Consumer says:

    There are two reasons for this:
    #1 (human nature) People tend to become overprotective on the basis of a single adverse event.
    #2 (US nature) Liability. In USA (and Canada) the threat of a liability lawsuit makes people do crazy things.

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  8. Jeff says:

    One time a guy name Richard Reid tried (and failed) to blow up a plane with a bomb planted in his shoe about 10 years ago.

    Now, *every* single person that flies on a plane in a country with 300 million citizens has to take off their shoes before they can get on a plane.

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    • Vicki says:

      Leading to amusing situations in other countries where people sometimes have to be reminded “You’re not in the US. You don’t need to take off your shoes…”

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