"Against Security" and Our Locked Down Learning Content

What does public restroom design, airport screening procedures, subway safety planning, Ground Zero rebuilding, and New Orleans flood control all have in common?

March 3, 2013

Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger by Harvey Molotch

Published in August, 2012.

What does public restroom design, airport screening procedures, subway safety planning, Ground Zero rebuilding, and New Orleans flood control all have in common? According to sociologist Harvey Molotch, the disturbing thread that runs through all of these enterprises is a misguided and ultimately ineffective emphasis on security. Molotch trains his sociological lens on these disparate venues, discovering common themes of rigidity and fear based decision making in the development of security practices.

Against Security is worth the price of admission for Moltch's analysis of the TSA's airport screening system.   

In Molotch's estimation, the current airport security regime has had the perverse consequence of making the flying public less rather than more safe. The biggest risk that the security rules and procedures engender is to create a bottleneck where once none existed. Long lines at the ticketing booth and in the security line may make a soft and tempting target for anyone determined to create multiple casualties.  

Nor do the full body scans, laptop removals, or shoe rules provide a demonstrably higher level of safety.  A determined and disciplined terrorist could beat the system in numerous ways.  The current TSA system is inherently adversarial, raising the stress levels of all travelers while cutting off opportunities for communication between security professionals and flyers that may identify bad actors and potential problems.   

The most productive security methods are those that are flexible, resilient, and improve the experience of all participants in the system.   In reading Against Security I was constantly reminded of the decisions that we make in our academic learning and library procedures that are designed with security rather than usability in mind.

These decisions primarily involve efforts to lockdown our curricular or library content so that unauthorized users cannot access.   

To guard against course readings, class videos or captured lectures getting out into the world we disallow downloads, require authentication through virtual private networks, or restrict the IP range in which services can be accessed.  We make our students go through secure links, rather than download and share the original article, chapter or video as a file in our LMS's. 

The effect is that the learner is prohibited from working with the content in the way that suits her best.  She can't download it and take it with her on her device, ready to access if she is offline and traveling.  She can't read or watch the material on non-supported devices, as it is impossible to re-save the content into the file format that works best with her tools.   She can't edit or sample from the class content, as it is locked down to "viewing" or "streaming" only, a restriction that severely limits a learner's ability to create new work by mashing up existing content.

As with airport or subway security, we need to balance the needs of everyday users with those wishing to break the law or do harm. 

We should be asking ourselves is if our security procedures are truly effective against those who wish to steal our content?  Or are we mimicking the TSA in creating systems designed to give the appearance of security while really making life more difficult for our community?  

Does anyone believe that by locking down our course and library content that we will prevent a tech savvy user determined to "steal and share" our content from doing so?  Are we simply making life more difficult for all of our community, students and faculty with no interest in stealing but with a strong desire to access learning content on whatever screen they happen to be nearby and wherever they happen to be?  

Can we refuse to license locked down content, databases or services?   

Can we insist on the ability for offline access and option to edit, sample and re-mix as a standard to which we will adhere before signing licensing and purchase agreements?

Can we refuse to engage in the "security theater" of the TSA in how we provide access to learning materials?

When it comes to the distribution and sharing of our learning materials can we find methods to protect the legitimate concerns of  rights holders while standing up to the overblown security concerns of the vendors that license this content?
Reading Against Security is a terrific way for us to re-examine our assumptions and our methods.  This is a book that both informs about the microsytems of airport screening, subway platforms, and public restrooms while making us think about the larger societal tradeoffs we make to ensure our safety.  

Against Security will, I hope, be read and discussed on your campus and mine.

What are you reading?


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