Daily Archives: 2006-08-02

Security Theater at the Grand Coulee Dam

Security theater” is the term that Bruce Schneier uses to describe systems that look very exciting and dramatic (and make people feel better) but entirely miss the point in delivering any actual real world security. The world is full of systems like this and since 9/11 they’ve been multiplying.

Bruce also recently ran a competition for a “movie plot” security threat — the winner described an operation to fly planes laden with explosives into Grand Coulee Dam.

As it happens, I was recently actually at Grand Coulee Dam as a tourist — one of the many places I visited as I filled in the time between the SRUTI and CEAS academic conferences. Because this is a Federal site, provision was made from the beginning for visitors to see how their tax dollars were spent, and you can go on tours of the “3rd Power House” (an extra part of the dam, added between 1966 and 1974, and housing six of the largest hydroelectric generators ever made).

Until 9/11 you could park on top of the dam itself and wander around on a self-guided tour. Now, since the site is of such immense economic significance, you have to park outside the site and go on guided tours, of limited capacity. You walk in for about 800 yards (a big deal for Americans I understand) and must then go through an airport style metal detector. You are not allowed to take in backpacks or pointy things — you can however keep your shoes on. The tour is very interesting and I recommend it. You get to appreciate the huge scale of the place, the tiny looking blue generators are 33 feet across!, and you go up close to one of the generators as it spins in front of you, powering most of the NorthWest and a fair bit of California as well.

The security measures make some sense; although doubtless the place the bad guys would really like to damage is the control center and that isn’t on the tour. However….

… on the other side of the valley, a quarter of a mile from the dam itself, is a “visitor arrival center“. This contains a number of displays about the history of the dam and its construction, and if you have the time, there’s films to watch as well. On summer nights they project a massive laser light show from there (a little tacky in places, but they run white water over the dam to project onto, which is deeply impressive). You don’t have to go through any security screening to get into the center. However, and that’s the security theater I promised — you cannot take in any camera bags, backpacks etc!

No purses, backpacks, bags, fannypacks, camera cases or packages of any kind allowed in the visitor center.

What’s the threat here? I went to a dozen other visitor centers (in National Parks such as Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier, Mt. Rainier and Crater Lake) that were generally far more busy than this one. Terrorists don’t usually blow up museums, and if, deity forbid, they blew up this one, it’s only the laser lights that would go out.