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Security and the Illusion of Control

Over the past several days, we have seen a series of events that should remind us all that no matter what we poor humans may do to the contrary, there is no such thing as 100 percent security. And to think we have total control over any situation is but an illusion.

The United States and other nations around the world have spent billions of dollars assuring airliner security. We have collectively purchased metal detectors, security guards with weapons, background checks capabilities and massive crosschecking multinational computer lists. We have hardened cockpit doors and have established ample personnel screening for pilots. Yet, one man from Germany got around the system and in a suicidal rage killed 150 people by flying into a mountain snuffing out his pain and their lives in moments.

News reporters and experts tell us it is different in the United States. We have more systems in place for control over pilots. More screenings and sharing of information about pilot mental health. I believe them. We probably do. I hope we do.

Then, I read our White House computer system has been hacked by the Russians. Unclassified, but sensitive, so were these systems described. Still, despite security measures, they gained access to – among other things — the advance copy of the President’s daily schedule. And, these same hackers who were also behind the State Department hack of a few months back. We know who they are and we are tracking them down, we are told.

And, yesterday, in the quiet Maryland suburbs of DC, a power substation went down. No malice involved. A mechanical failure caused an explosion that tripped circuits. The “tripping” proceeded to take out power in a fair portion of the nation’s capital with lightening speed – including the White House, the FBI, the Capitol, the subway system and a large number of other government buildings in downtown DC. We were even treated to the sight of our First Lady being hustled away from a local blacked out theater to the safety of the White House – where back up generators no doubt had kicked in.

I offer all these events not as a proof of incompetence or malfeasance – just simple fact. There are many good people trying to protect us from the bad guys every day. But there are many bad guys trying to harm us as well. And, sometimes, things happen like power grids going down.

What I do suggest, however, is we move beyond the illusion of total control in our security efforts. We can and need to manage risk. We can and need to mitigate risk. But we can never get rid of risk – however much we plan, spend or hope.