Too Much Security

Measures taken to ourselves from risks often cause more harm than the risks themselves.

When does too much security become, well, too much? According to Steve Riley, senior security strategist at Microsoft, it becomes too much when the cost of mitigating the risk outweighs the cost of that which you are trying to protect.


Steve applied this same train of logic to other, more worldly scenarios. Child kidnapping for example – apparently American parents are paranoid about kidnapping, and so forbid their children to talk to strangers. The result, according to Steve, is a generation which can’t ask for help when the only source of help is a stranger, and a general and unacceptable reduction in human interaction which is the basis of any civilised society. He prefers to tell his own kids that “…most adults are kind and honest and will help you if you need helping. But no adult needs your help to find their dog.” Teach them to recognise the attacks, rather than react negatively to an imagined fear.

And this goes all the way up to the US’s so-called “War on Terror”. According to Steve, are any of us really made safer by taking our shoes off to go through metal detectors? Surely X-ray scanners which can see right through people’s clothing is an unacceptable breach of privacy? At the very least, do we want to live in a society where this is the accepted norm?

James Fallows cites “the recent impossible legislative requirement that every single shipping container entering the United States be scanned before it leaves a foreign port” as another example of “the unthinking attempt to remove all possible security threats [which] often destroys the efficiency, value, and integrity of the thing you are trying to ‘protect.'”

This is hardly a novel concept; it’s Economics 101, really. Still, it’s often forgotten.

UPDATE: Jonathan Last points to another example: a treatment for Restless Leg Syndrome with side effects seemingly far worse than the disease itself. My parents, who don’t fast forward through commercials via the magic of TiVo, were chuckling over that one during our recent visit.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. M. Murcek says:

    The institutional preference for mindless application of “zero tolerance” policies instead of common sense and intelligent interpretation of flexible, intelligent rules is insidious and endemic in America, and probably other places too…