Lessons from the origin of democracy

I was visiting Greece last week to spend some time with my family. I’m always amazed at the tenacity and inventiveness of my fellow Greeks. They actually manage to get things done in a system that makes it look impossible to achieve much at all. Most westerners probably would just raise their hands in surrender after a single day trying to drive around Athens or deal with Greek government bureaucracy. But even Greeks have their limits.

In the past few years, serious crime in Greece has increased. As was the case in the 1920s in the United States, crime is getting organized and criminal gangs are getting more and more daring. Last year, for example, there was a cinematic breakout by helicopter from a maximum-security jail. Greek law enforcement, however, is not getting organized as fast as it did in the 1920s in the United States. One of Greece’s fastest-growing crimes appears to be bank robberies. Once extremely rare, they became a weekly event until they even ceased being front-page news because of robbery-fatigue.

What intrigued me was the Greeks’ solution to the robbery crisis. Unable to depend on a fast response from the police, banks are installing man-trap doors in all branches. The man-traps consist of separate entrance and exit paths with double doors. Each door can open only if the other door is closed, so that each customer is stuck in limbo between doors. During the entry limbo, customers must look up into a camera, which photographs them. Presumably, the camera has the same goal as those found in U.S. taxis — post-crime identification. I wonder if this “solution” doesn’t in fact make it even more dangerous to visit a bank: It creates a possible hostage situation.

The problem with this solution goes beyond the risk analysis. On several bank visits, I saw a line of more than a dozen customers waiting to get in. Just like a security line at the airport, there are expert users who know the drill and can execute it quickly and efficiently. Also like at the airport, there are newbies who get awfully stuck. I watched with growing frustration as several people got stuck for minutes at a time, while everyone behind them sighed in unison each time they stepped out for another go.

Meanwhile, inside the bank, the unlucky soul who has a desk closest to the doors becomes the de facto tech-support person for those having trouble with the system. Because they have no intercom, however, they have to shout at each other through inch-thick bullet-proof glass. Hilarity ensues.

Security so often is seen as a technical issue, when in fact it is much more about process and user culture. When a good technical solution meets untrained users, it often can fail in spectacular ways. Pretty soon users will find ways to work around the problem, and that becomes a security risk in itself. In security, the user interface is not a secondary consideration — it is the most vital consideration.

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