Security Watch: Security, Hollywood Style

Tracing the source of mass security ignorance.
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Security Watch: Security, Hollywood Style

Mar 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Steve Filippini

Tracing the source of mass security ignorance.

A while ago, I sat on hold for 20 minutes and waited for a technician to offer me insight as to why my cable-based Internet service wasn't allowing me to surf the digital waves. When the call-center troubleshooter finally came on the line, he walked me through the usual basic steps. Nothing he suggested worked, which was disappointing but understandable. The modem that interfaces the PC with the cable system appeared to be unable to find its sync block, so we scheduled a field technician to swing by the house. Had the conversation ended there, my evening would have been quiet and relaxing. Instead, my long-distance technical support person launched into an explanation as to what the root cause of the problem was, and couldn't have been further off-base. Having spent a few years supporting video distribution and telephone systems on a national basis, I attempted to coach the young man with some well-chosen words of wisdom, all of which were quickly dismissed. He was the technician; I was the customer. He knew all the big words; I didn't know where the “any” key was on the keyboard. At least, that's how he spoke to me.

If one of my customers asked me a technical question when I was a field representative, it was my duty to provide accurate information and not feed them a line of manure. Security is a big part of my life, and I take it seriously. My wife has complained quite often about my habit of scoping out the security system of every business we walk into. I look at the way the door contacts are mounted, or the path of coverage for the motion detectors located throughout the stores. And, of course, I offer my own critique. “That's a hole in the system,” is usually followed with, “I could break in here undetected,” and almost always summarized with, “This wouldn't have happened in my day.”

Of course, after my rantings, I am the first to admit it did happen. It happened all the time, but at least when it did, we believed we knew how to explain it away. As we got older, we learned to read the documentation provided by the vendor and got smarter because of it. But this admittance of youthful ignorance has not lessened my frustration for uninformed technicians. Not so much for the newly discovered incorrect technicians, but for the folks who refuse to accept the truth even after it is properly presented to them.

Maybe it's the lifetime I've spent in the security industry that makes me do it, but it drives me crazy when I still see a blatant disregard for the technical facts as they pertain to alarm systems. For example, how many readers believe that the presence of smoke will activate a fire suppression sprinkler head and force a torrential downpour to flow from it? Most of us know it's heat from the fire's flame that melts away the fusible link that opens the sprinkler head, but how many believe that when one sprinkler head snaps open, the rest of the sprinkler heads will also spring open? Unfortunately, quite a few of you probably do.

I used to wonder who was at fault for this blatant disregard of the truth, but not anymore. I blame Hollywood.

I find it amusing that in a great many of the television shows or movies I've seen over the years, when rows and rows of flowing sprinkler heads are raining down on people, there are times when they are smiling, dancing, or embracing the indoor shower. In reality, the water that lives in those pipes is oily, stagnant, and extremely foul-smelling. Remember that the next time you see those wet folks standing open-mouthed underneath the sprinkler heads celebrating.

It doesn't stop there either. I was almost ejected from a theater during a showing of Beverly Hills Cop because of the manner in which Eddie Murphy's character, Axel Foley, circumvented an alarm system to gain access to a warehouse. Their point of entry was a window with security foil glued to the glass and a magnetic contact protecting the moving portion of the opening. Axel used the foil wrapping from a stick of gum to “magnetize” the window's contact and gain entry. Not even a hint of reality. I voiced my opinion and was immediately asked by several patrons to keep my spontaneous training session to myself.

Hollywood makes my job harder to do. Why? Because I have had many conversations with customers who were convinced the bad guys could bypass their alarm system by whipping out their handy-dandy glasscutters and etching out an opening in the pane so they can reach in and unlock the catch. Explaining that cut glass needs to be tapped apart from the other side of the etched pane usually didn't relieve their concerns. “I've seen them do it on the TV, Flip. Maybe you need to watch more police dramas.” And it doesn't stop there.

Hollywood also wants us to believe that all of those laser sensors or photoelectric beams that criss-cross over a famous work of art or span the corridor that leads into the central computer room of an international bad guy can be defeated with one or more carefully placed mirrors. Photoelectric beams come in pairs and consist of a transmitter and receiver. Obstructing the beam sets off the alarm. Bouncing the transmitted beam back into the lens of the transmitter will do nothing more than summon the police or security guard. And where can I get a pair of those goggles that when worn will show you the individual protection beams supposedly emitted from passive infrared sensors? The very term “passive” means there are no beams branching out from the device. No goggles? No problem. Get me a can of the compressed magic used to illuminate the beams when its contents are sprayed across the area instead.

My father, who always responded to my questioning outbursts with, “Hey, you just saw them do it,” with more than just a wink in his eye, explained it best. “The last thing Hollywood wants to do is educate the viewing audience on how to really defeat a security system.” I guess that makes sense.

For the record, I'm a big fan of suspending reality for the sake of a good story. I'm even writing a science fiction book for which I'm counting on the readers to look past a few stretchings of the truth. But I've always believed a good story needs its fiction to have a strong foundation of fact to make the mind accept it without too much hesitation. I freely accept electronic gadgets that decipher keypad combinations and computer tracking devices that display the precise location of every person inhabiting a building or complex. Those things are within realism, so I'll buy them. Police officers or security guards who respond to an alarm from a rich, single, attractive widow and disarm her security system with a passcode upon entry make me either think all of their customers have the same security code or accept that it's written in the script.

Since Hollywood won't keep it real, then all I can say is thank goodness for the Internet. Whether you are law-abiding in nature or not, the Internet offers an abundance of how-to books and videos that teach people how to crack open safes, pick locks, and defeat alarm systems. I've browsed through several “How Stuff Works” sites and am happy to report most of them get it right when they describe the operational aspects of security devices. But I laugh every time I read the disclaimers that remind the reader the posted information is for educational purposes only and not a promotion for people to commit a crime. Anyone who decides to begin a life of crime after browsing the Internet deserves to get caught. Anyone who plans the perfect crime after watching a Columbo movie on TV will most certainly get caught. Anyone who takes these rantings seriously needs to take a vacation. I am. I'll see you in a few months.

Steve Filippiniis a senior technician with more than 20 years of experience in the security and installation industry. He can be reached atulano5@aol.com.

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