Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Let's talk about Security (3)

Over the past few weeks, luggage scan machines have been introduced at most of Beijing's subway stations.

We've only just had them installed at my local station - and (at the entrance I usually use) it's been intelligently located at the far side of the ticket hall from the entrance. In fact, it's so inconspicuous and out of the way that a small squad of white-uniformed flunkies is kept busy ushering people across the hall to the machine. At busy times, it's quite easy to avoid their attentions and just walk through the barriers without running your bag through the scanner - although more and more people seem to be accepting their patriotic duty and queueing up placidly for the rigmarole (the gaggle of people waiting around the machine regularly blocks the exit barriers on that side of the hall!).

Many other stations seem to have sited these machines in similarly stupid places - such that it is quite easy to walk right past them and not even notice that they are there. The 'This Way, Please' flunkies seem to have been upping their diligence of late, but they're not exactly coercive...... not exactly efficient. Compliance is still largely down to the personal whim of the passenger.

I'm not sure if they even have these machines at the larger stations (I hardly ever board at Xizhimen or Dongzhimen). I just can't see it being feasible to bag-check everyone during the rush hour.

And are there any guidelines as to what sort of bags need to be checked? I haven't seen any. Again, that seems to be down to the discretion of the individual passenger/terrorist. Backpacks, even small ones, should, of course, be checked. But fanny-packs? And handbags (or man-purses?)? Well, those seem to get ignored (at least, the smaller ones). My laptop case seems to be a threshold item: sometimes it arouses suspicion, sometimes it is ignored. Carrier bags??? Uncertain.

What about prohibited contents? I usually carry a large water bottle with me (since Beijing is appallingly sweaty in the summer, and you can't ever rely on the people you're visiting to provide you with a drink), but this doesn't seem to arouse any interest. I occasionally visit one of the city's foreign grocery stores and bring my shopping back by subway; as often as not, this includes a bottle of whisky - which is, of course, moderately inflammable. But I don't think that would be a problem either.

The thing is - rather as with the similar scanners which have long been in place at the entrances to Beijing's two main railway stations - the staff who man these machines are numb with boredom and pay absolutely no attention to the screens at all. None.

And they don't appear to have any more useful equipment, like chemical sniffers, to supplement the X-ray scan.

What they should really have are DOGS. Not because dogs are better at sniffing out explosives than high-tech machines that cost 10,000 times as much (although this is probably also true - assuming there are enough dogs with this kind of training available). No, just because dogs scare the shit out of people. But they tend to scare the shit even more out of people who feel guilty about something. And most people believe that dogs are uncannily shrewd at sniffing out explosives and such (even if the dogs haven't in fact been trained how to do this, who's going to know?). As I mentioned the other day, security is mostly about making the public feel safe and the bad guys feel threatened. Dogs are excellent for this.

And the main purpose of these blanket security checks is not to catch the occasional forgetful NRA member who inadvertently left a Colt .45 in his carry-on bag; it's to make bad guys so nervous that they give themselves away.

Are the security checks on the Beijing subway thorough enough to achieve this end? NO WAY.

[And, so far, they're also missing out on one of the most basic precautions that London has wised up to in the last few years: transparent trash bins.]

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