Physical Security

OPINION: Top Ten Myths Supporting Security Critiques


Well, this seems to be the season for “major” security breaches.  There seems to never be a week in the last few months some retailer or government entity isn’t revealing how it’s been penetrated. Along with those revelations comes the torrent of critics who ask “How could this happen?” and proclaim “This is the worst thing ever!….Incompetence!….This is epic!” Please, note the heavy amount of snark and sarcasm there. As one of a few people who sort of gets security, I often find myself getting increasingly frustrated about the growing number of amateur critics who have in some way implied “expertise” on a topic few professionals in the industry actually get. So in an effort to educate everyone and to vent (okay, mostly to vent), I’ve decided to do a piece on the myths surrounding security. Bear with me. If it feels like I’ve kicked you in your stomach, good – that’s why I’m doing it.

  1. Physical security is easy. Sigh. This is the most upsetting and doggone frustrating statement a security professional could hear. Contrary to popular belief, security is not easy. It’s pretty hard, actually. There’s a lot more that goes into security than just bag searches, menacing guards, cameras, and alarms. It encompasses multiple disciplines which contribute to the security mission. They range from everything from the information security to operations security to risk management to executive protection to physical security to personnel security to personal security. All of them bring something unique to the table. Each is an integral part of the total security package. It takes a professional versed in all of them to be able to deploy the package seamlessly.
  2. Anyone can do security. Ugh. Wait, no. Double – ugh!! Not everyone can “do” security. As I stated before, it’s hard. It’s not rocket science but if the only thing you’ve ever protected in your life was a bike in a bad neighborhood, you may not be as qualified as you think to speak expertly on matters such as the security surrounding rather complex and sensitive facilities as the White House or military bases. I know I just made a lot of folks in the DC press conglomerate very unhappy. So let me explain. You can have all of the facts on an issue but still not get the nuances behind how to properly execute an effective security plan or understand the stark realities those facilities face. As a matter of fact, there are people in the job who barely get some of these concepts which explains why so many security plans fail.I’ve been in this industry for 14 years and there are things I’m learning every day. I am no “expert” and I often eschew any effort to attribute me to that title. It is also my suggestion, given my background, if I admit to knowing far less than most “experts” with less experience are willing to, then maybe you should be questioning their “expertise” as well. Think you can “do” security? I’d happily place you in charge of physical security at the White House which receives MILLIONS of visitors every year and hosts the most targeted human being on the face of planet Earth. Good luck.
  3. There’s entirely too much security for this. Another sigh. Seriously, folks. Unless you’ve walked in the shoes of the person who designed the security apparatus for that facility or worked in a similar post, you may not understand the thought-process behind how security is set-up there. In order to better educate most folks who are not familiar on this topic, I’ll take a moment to digress and speak on the mission of security and how it is often set-up.Security’s primary mission, no matter the discipline, is pretty much the same minus some semantics. It is to detect, deter, delay, and destroy. There are professionals who will undoubtedly find issue with my choice of words here. My message to them is clear – I get it but let’s think more figuratively. While it is optimal in security to see the threat before he arrives, that may not always be the case. In fact, there is very little empirical data to suggest much of what is done in physical security actually deters the truly dangerous threat. However, what is quantifiable is delaying and subsequently disrupting or destroying the threat’s ability to continue their actions.
    A great example of classic defense-in-depth

    Finally, let’s examine what drives most security plans. Much earlier, in another post, I wrote extensively about risk management which is a process by which security professionals and their stakeholders ascertain the level of risk they’re able to maintain and the mitigators they plan to deploy minimize the risk.  As you can imagine, this process is what most security plans are derived from. Within those plans, therein lies the basic outline of how most modern security is implemented – defense-in-depth. This is best explained by asking you to imagine an onion. As you peel the skin on any onion, you’ll note the various layers contained. Security is much like that. Every protected resource has an outer layer of protection which supports the inner layers. The close you get to the resource, the more intimate the security. Imagine the White House. The far most outer layer of security there could be the scores of CCTV systems found all over the DC area. From there, the security mechanics become more intimate with their resource. Stop laughing. I hear the jokes. Serious. Stop it. The inner layers encompass a new level of protection more closer to the resource than the next. See, I cleaned it up for you.

  4. The security guys just need to do a better job. Really? Like seriously. What qualifies you to make statements like that? Have you examined the actual, no-kidding threat intelligence or data to understand the nature of the adversaries those “security guys” may face or the countless attacks which get thwarted. A great example of this is a conversation I had recently with a political website editor regarding how the United States Secret Service would be better served by doing a “better job of managing its fence” rather than deploying checkpoints further from the ones already at the gates closest to the White House. I strongly disagreed not because I love checkpoints (I don’t – see my thoughts on crowds) but because I understand (because I’ve actually done executive protection and physical security versus offering critiques about something I only read about) what drove the US Secret Service to acknowledge they were considering checkpoints. You would be remiss as a professional not to consider them as an option. I think we would all do a lot better to understand the difference between a consideration and an implementation.
  5. I have a PhD so I have the magic ability to know all things related to security, though, my PhD is in an unrelated field or I’ve written books non-security professionals think is dope. I won’t waste a lot of time and space on this but this is a growing issue throughout social media. Stop it. There are few things more irritating than to be dismissed by an academic or author who thinks their degree or books written provide them with omnipotent ability to know everything they need in order to criticize security. As I’ve stated before, you’re probably extremely smart in your area of expertise. This does not lend itself to transference into what I’ve done for 14 years. Sorry. But that’s the truth. Again, I don’t know a whole lot and there are guys in my field who are far more impressive than me. That being said, read this and #2.

  6. You say tomato and I say TOH-MAH-TO. Same difference. No, it’s not the same. In security, certain terms do matter. They really do. For example, I had a very good conversation with a national security pundit I follow on Twitter, Joshua Foust. Joshua is smart when it comes to matters of national security and almost ties John Schindler in trolls except Joshua doesn’t have a parody account yet and his and John’s tweets are thought-provoking.  That being said, our discussion this morning was about the efficacy of passport revocations. Joshua intimated revocations made jihadi terrorists stateless people. I find that most people confuse revocation of passports with revocation of citizenship. The two sound the same but are vastly different both in mechanics and impact. However, because they sound the same they are often confused. We saw this when Snowden’s passport was revoked. People claimed he had been stripped of his citizenship, although he never formally renounced his citizenship nor did Congress or the President revoke it. In fact, the passport revocation is nothing more than a travel restriction. You’re allowed to travel to other countries as long as your country provides you with a valid passport. If your country revokes your passport, you’re no longer able to travel and can only come back to your home country.Joshua would later admit the semantics were different and we both agreed there were mechanisms already in place with respect to fugitive warrants and the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation. Neither, from my limited knowledge, have been integrated when it comes to jihadi foreign fighters. Something, I’m sure the President and other leaders are seeking to change because the inherent value of Western foreign fighters for groups like the Islamic State is their passports. Western travel documents can gain you access to a variety of countries, if they’re not revoked or cancelled.
  7. I could take down security anywhere and I could break in there if I wanted to. Okay, that sounds very cool. I’m sure you could. However, taking down an unarmed security guard because he’s 75 years old with a bad limp is vastly different than being faster than his radio and being tougher than the eight burly deputies who will respond. You might also be able to break into a facility. That’s also great and amazing. However, keep this in mind – sometimes breaking into a facility has more to do with luck rather than skill or technical acumen – remember one of the latest White House fence-jumpers was a toddler. In other words, the sun shines on a dog’s rear every now and then. You also may not be as lucky as you think.

  8. OMG, this breach was the worst breach EVER!! Stop. Full-stop. Don’t move. Breaches happen all over physical security for a variety of reasons. Some are preventable, sure. Some are not. Some occur in ways professionals never thought of. Some occur because the security manager and his/her stakeholders accepted too much risk. All I ask is that before you roll up a physical security breach as the worst ever, analyze not only the breach but the totality of circumstances. Some people are making a big deal about the recent White House fence-jumper who made his way “into the White House”. I’ll take a moment and explain why this is wrong.Yes, the White House fence-jumper recently made his way to an inner layer of the mansion. Keep in mind what I said about layers. Here’s something most critics won’t acknowledge mostly out of ignorance. The doors, which I have pictured below, are actually an entrapment area. Wait. What? Yes, the North Portico doors are indeed an entrapment area. What does that mean? Simply put, the exterior doors remain unlocked so exterior personnel (security and non-security) can enter through them and gain access through the second set of doors which remain locked and more than likely, guarded by on-duty US Secret Service Uniformed Division personnel. In other words, someone or something would need to verify your credentials before allowing entrance into the interior.
    The diagram of the White House showing the doors.
    The North Portico doors UNLOCKED. But do you see the doors behind them?

    Scriven, how does this change the fact that he should have never gotten that close? It doesn’t. However, it’s always best to remember while this is the first time someone has made it to those doors, there have been other more egregious breaches. Thirty-three others, to be exact. Remember when the airplane crashed in the White House lawn? I digress. Did the USSS accept too much risk by keeping the doors unlocked? Sure, but I’m also aware these doors were probably unlocked more for convenience for certain non-USSS personnel. How do I know that? Because I’ve done something similar in a variety of security situations. So what does this little exercise tell us? First, it tells you I have entirely too much time on my hands and I spend a lot of time on Twitter. Second, it tell tells you exactly why layers exist and whether they function properly. In this case, a few layers were breached but the resource was secured by one. Third, a lot of people are making wild assumptions without having read the official report nor has there been an accurate articulation from which direction the jumper entered or whether he had been observed (my guess is he was). Also, some of these same people make all kinds of weird guesses about the nature of security at the White House based on rumor and what television and the movies convey. No, the President will not firing an RPG at multiple jumpers next time.

    Finally, it teaches us the value of relativity and complexity – this was bad but was it the worst? It’s all relative. Seriously, can you imagine managing the security of POTUS and his/her staff and guests AND the most iconic tourist attraction in the Western world? It poses some SERIOUS security challenges which are countered every single day, mostly with zero incidents. If this was the “worst”, then the Secret Service did an excellent job of containing the threat.

  9. Security is pretty simple. I can’t even.
  10. The Israelis do it better.

A Totally Awesome DIY Security Project – Raspberry Pi Face Recognition Treasure Box

As you know, I’m currently working on a few DIY security projects to share with you guys. My favorite place to go for inspiration has been, Make. These folks do some seriously awesome DIY projects. Most of them beginner to intermediate-level DIYers can do themselves. While perusing their site, I found this gem:


If I Had To Design A Parking Lot, This Is How I’d Do It

The other day, I noticed in a discussion group someone asked about designing a parking lot access control system. This got me to thinking about why security officials are often tasked with designing and deploying these systems and why they are flawed many times. Here’s the response I gave.

There is no technological answer for this. This would be dependent upon METT-TC (Mission, Enemy, Terrain, Troops—Time, Civilians). The best parking plans I’ve seen first started by looking at the mission of the facility.

  • This immediately beckons you to ask if any of the vehicles parked are or will at some point need to be mission critical. In other words, if this is a hospital, would it be prudent to have access control measures which take into account emergency vehicles? Will you have sufficient room in the lot to accomodate them and an emergency egress? I would also determine who NEEDED to be able to park in this lot. Not everyone needs to park in your lot though they may want to. This should create a decent entry authorization list wherein you can identify who will need an expedient, yet effective means of gaining access. How critical is the facility? Tech is great but sometimes having a guy at the gate is more prudent, with respect to handling visitors, LEOs/first responders without access control tags, etc.
  • It is also really helpful to not interfere with the mission of your facility, when designing your access control system whether for the parking lot or anywhere else. Seriously. I can’t overstate this enough. DO NOT make your system so cumbersome or strict that it impedes on the mission of those who do the work that pays you and your personnel. I have seen parking plans so restrictive that mission-essential personnel have been denied access to their facilities for things such as day-old expired vehicle tags and hours-old expired vehicle passes. Make sure your plan is flexible enough to accommodate those who need access right away but need to get their credentials in order.
  • Be wary of making it susceptible to social engineering, though. I find the best way to mitigate this is through codification of your policies with exceptions allowed to accommodate those whose credentials may be lacking but can be verified. NEVER allow anyone access without verification. Ensure your access control system has authenticators, whether it be electronic or solely paper-based. However, ensure your authenticators are never discussed with anyone. I’d suggest making this a definitive terminable offense. 
  • I’d also consider your threat profile. Who has an interest, as a nefarious actor, to gain entry to this lot or through this lot to your facility? How can you mitigate this, bearing in mind how they could obtain entry feasibly? Seriously. Don’t plan on ninjas and SOF to make entry if that’s not your threat. Plan physical measures with this in mind.
  • What’s the size of your lot? Has your lot grown to an extent where it requires fencing? If it does, how often do your security officers check that fence? No sense in having a fence if you’re not checking it. Remember fences are a demarcation AND a detection piece of your plan. Also determine if your lot is situated with any physical obstructions wherein you can’t observe who may have circumvented your parking plan. Consider CCTV or even a roving patrol to help if needed. Also, I find that if you use stickers, a few things tend to happen. One, people tend to park illegally and need to be towed. This takes up precious time and resources. And it could create confusion depending on how “creative” your sticker plan is. If you use stickers, keep it simple and wheel lock. Give each of your patrolmen a wheel locks and authority to deploy on cars illegally parked in select spots. Also address parking violations on a stakeholder basis as well. Talk to them about the potential loss in revenue should responders be delayed because of illegal parking in their reserved spots. Also describe what you’re trying to accomplish and how a sound parking plan can be a force multiplier (Boss, if our plan works, I can reduce the number of patrols and increase security efficiency and efficacy by x-amount).
  • Start thinking about how you want to accommodate vehicles in terms of their egress and entry. How long should it take them to leave and get in? Are there any chokepoints in the plan that can cause congestion and make for additional security heartaches?
  • Finally, consider the impact your plan could have on civilian or non-business related entities such as neighbors. Will you have to consider parking off campus? Will your plan cause congestion that impacts them? Will your plan address neighbors and their parking plans? Will your plan have a demarcation for neighbors to know where your property extends?

DIY Security Projects For This Year

Winter is sort-of, almost, hopefully over soon. Every summer, I set about teaching my son the various ways of my craft. Last summer, I did a DIY security project where me and my son built a booby-trap of sorts. We used Dollar Store magnetic window alarms, fishing line, and two-sided tape to create an audible tripwire alarm.

$3.00 Set-up Cost
Over the course of the last year since then, I have also created an audible duress alarm. I will post a video as well as a how-to later on.  Suffice it to say, this was an EXTREMELY fun project.
This year, I have several DIY security projects I’d like to build and deploy.
  1. A motion sensor alarm using Raspberry Pi. I haven’t decided whether I want the alarm to be just be audible or if I want it to be audible and tweet or send a text message when there’s been a breach.
  2. I created a duress alarm in my home, previously, using NFC tags in my car to be triggered when my phone made contact. This summer I’d like to expand on this with an NFC-enabled video surveillance system. More on this later.
  3. I’m also interested in putting together a much more comprehensive security system in my home using basic battery power, online-purchased sensors, control panel, and monitoring station. I have a rough idea as to what I want. I may do a series of articles about this.
  4. I’m also in the process of completing a covert surveillance project that has been demonstrated online.
  5. Next year, I will embark on my biggest project – my very own DIY drone. This will take considerable time but I think it could be well worth it.
  6. I also plan on doing a series of small but inexpensive (some FREE) DIY security projects. Look out for stories on DIY security containers and other cool stuff.
All of my projects are to help teach my son the ways of using inexpensive tools to provide sound mitigation and response to actual emergencies. I hope it will also demonstrate for him the value of doing things for yourself and how when done for providing protection for your family and yourself, it can be richly rewarding. Wish me luck and stand-by for a killer year.