Author: Mike Croll
Review date: 02/03/2024
No of pages: 268
Year of publication: 21/04/2023
Security has rarely been glamorous, but we’ve needed it since the earliest of times and it’s now one of the world’s fastest-growing businesses. As the title suggests, the question for Mike is ‘we always want more security’ – why? asks Mike Croll.
Mike’s lines about terrorism will be met with anger by some security practitioners, and Martyn’s Law campaigners. He says things people don’t want to hear; such as: had Martyn’s Law been in place for the past 20 years ‘there is scant evidence that it would have saved a single life, including at the Manchester Arena’. Mike’s verdict on the likely-looking new law, or Protect Duty, deserves quoting in full:
Rather than the government having prime responsibility for protecting the public from terrorists, the load is now placed on venue owners. The notion of owners having responsibility for securing their own private property is long established, and it works well for crime and safety. But terrorism is a political act that requires security measures that are well beyond the ability of owners. If a terrorist attack was “highly likely” at Manchester, there should have been armed police on duty that night, rather than leaving it to civilian security staff to face a suicide bomber.
Mike (whose background includes counter-terrorism search) points to ‘a clear disconnect between the reality and the perception of the terrorist threat’. He states that between 2000 and 2020, 88 people were killed by terrorists in the UK, 82 of them in just three attacks (7/7, Borough Market and the Manchester Arena). That’s on a par with deaths from cows, dogs and horses, and lightning; far fewer than are drowned, let alone murdered or killed on the roads. You are more than 50 times more likely to become a lottery millionaire than a die from terrorism; but security is not about rational probabilities, as Mike shows throughout. It would be a pity if his book and its messages got shouted down, because for all the hundreds of books reviewed by Professional Security Magazine over the last, say, 20 years, this best fills the major gap: a book that explains the security industry to itself, and (not the same thing at all) to the society that it serves and that pays for it, either directly in hires or indirectly in the extra proverbial penny on shop prices.
Mike brings the same easy style to his writing to his public speaking: the mass media, as he says, is ‘a rage farm’ that works up, and profits from, emotions, including around a terror attack. If you respond to an act or spate of terrorism by ratcheting up security, such as deploying armed soldiers on streets, how do you ratchet down – how can you say when the threat has lessened? The fear among politicians will be that another terror attack will happen after the troops are pulled out, making the politicians ‘soft on terror’.
Mike sensibly starts with definitions – security is tied up with safety, which is about protection from things (trips, tornadoes, and tigers), whereas security is about protection from people (mostly men, and cunning at that). He goes on to a brief history of civilisation, showing how security was among our species’ ‘basic instincts’. Mike’s history-telling is in parts slightly behind the times (scholars would rather we didn’t say ‘the Dark Ages’, it’s rather the ‘early medieval period’) but full of explanations of the sort that you didn’t get told at school (such as, the origin of phrases and words, such as posse – derived from the ‘Latin term for a force of able-bodied men raised to deal with an emergency’).
Mike pitches us into Victorian London, a time and place of growth and street crime; also ‘moral panic’ about what the world was coming to. “To capitalise on the anxiety, a handful of specialised burglary insurance companies targeted wealthy and middle-class households with more precision than a thief in the night.” He notes the ‘symbiotic relationship between insurance companies and security companies’; insurers insist on locks and bars on windows and so forth, if they are to pay out on your claim for burglary; security companies can sell you those products, and peace of mind. That’s a theme of Mike’s book; the physical and lately electronic and cyber products may develop, but they are giving us the same emotions: a feeling of safety (or rather, the quelling of the fear of loss, played up by advertising).
Mike argues that security ‘came out of the shadows’ between about 1950 and 2000, when security officers outnumbered police officers (from a relative handful after the Second World War). While that’s the orthodox story of the rise of security, and so often related because there’s truth in it, I would add that gated communities for instance go way back (what was a late Roman or medieval walled city like York, but a large single gated community, still with its streets named after gates today?).
Mike does however put his finger on the profound change in society’s appetite for risk – it’s not a patch on what it was. Mike has experience of that – he recalls his first job after school was ‘as a deckhand on a mud-scooping dredger on the South coast’. He got pitched off a ladder ‘into stinking, foaming, water, goop sliding from my hair’; had to swim for shore, jeered at by workmates, went home to change, returned to work with a ‘stern nod’ only from the skipper – no asking how he felt!? – and got docked pay. “I occasionally reflect on how the incident might be handled today.” The culture of safety, ‘a quiet revolution’ has saved lives; and changed wardrobes, as Mike aptly added. Mike sees it as part of ‘the wider rights revolution’, including women and minorities. I intend to contest that with Mike when I next see him as I would argue the opposite, that ‘elf and safety’ and fluoride in drinking water were part of the ever-more powerful state, including surveillance (CCTV) and double yellow lines, that rose from the 1960s (calling into question how liberal a decade that actually was). In fact Mike goes onto surveillance, a chapter that he trialled at an ASIS UK seminar last summer, so I’ll pass over it.
We come nearer to the present with a chapter on hijackings; and the most infamous of all, of internal air flights on the morning of September 11, 2001. That led to what Mike uncompromisingly – even disrespectfully – calls ‘the 9-11 bonanza’. In the aftermath taxpayers’ money was no object and ‘few were in the mood for discussing liberties’. Remember sky marshals? If you’ve flown since 2001, you want to forget the queues to go through security screening. As Mike points out, it’s hard to ‘calibrate spending to ensure that precisely nothing happens. Security is not an exact science. It’s hard to judge if you are paying more than you should. And even so, it is often better to overspend than to underperform’. How to balance security, resources, and liberty? Mike returns to the reason he’s writing; we cannot satisfy our wish to be secure.
He contrasts the United States, where 9-11 seemed to come out of nowhere, with Britain, that had suffered from bombing in two world wars and decades of IRA bombs; making the July 7, 2005 suicide bombings in London ‘shocking, but not surprising’.
There’s some enjoyable archives photos also, for example of Chubb (around the 1960s, the premier and all-round security company, the equivalent of G4S or Securitas today, spanning guards, monitoring and alarms), now kept at the London Metropolitan Archives – Mike and I were among attenders at a ‘history of security’ seminar by Dr David Churchill there last September.
Arguably the best chapter, after one on the law (such as, the ‘duty of care’) covers Silicon Valley tech firms’ security, informed by Mike’s years working in that field. Some years ago he blogged on Linkedin about it, the best insight bar none into corporate security (if you want to avoid paying for the whole book, go hunting for that essay).
Mike began his book by setting out that he wrote to help debate about the implications of our insatiable appetite for security, ‘the surveillance culture that has quietly been gathering intensity in recent decades, our attempts to eliminate even the most unlikely risks, and the profound impact of new technology’. He was speaking to the ‘general reader’ how security has become such a major factor in our lives, and to encourage security professionals and students, to think more widely about the subject. Also, having found most of what is written about security to be somewhat dry and inaccessible, he tried to provide ‘perspective, context, colour, and occasional glimpses of levity’. Those who post-covid have heard Mike speak to the Security Institute, ASIS UK, the Olympia expo and elsewhere, know he is well able to do all that. My favourite quip of Mike’s is that doormen became SIA-badged ‘door supervisers’, ‘but they kept the same hairstyles’.