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London layers

In early August the British Museum began a visible extra layer of security. That so many of its fellow landmark visitor attractions in London could not, shows the problems for security managers at prestigious sites, seeking to counter terrorism, writes Mark Rowe.

Before early August, if you came into London into one of the northern mainline stations on your way into central London and had the time to walk, you could take a short cut by going through the British Museum. From early August, the short cut became not quite as short, because instead of walking through the northern entrance and through the museum and out the other side, perhaps stopping only inside the door to have your bag checked, post office and airport-style queueing tape directed you to a marquee, at either entrance. To take the larger set-up at the main, Great Russell Street, entrance. Instead of walking through the gates directly to the front entrance (pictured) you were directed parallel to the railings beside the street to a white marquee, past signs saying no photography (which I resisted taking a photograph of) and asking that you did not bring in large bags (for they pose a safety as much as a security risk to the museum; it does not want people having checked out of their hotels wheeling their luggage around, banging into other visitors’ ankles or the Elgin marbles). Once inside the marquee, more queueing tape brought you to wooden trestle tables, where the security officer asked if you had any sharp objects inside your bag, made a search, and let you go out, to continue your walk to the entrance proper.

Since at least last year, many visitor attractions in London have been searching bags on entry: the National Gallery, the Imperial War Museum at Lambeth, and the British Library, to name three. In all cases the tables and searching officers have been just inside the doors. That makes sense – it would be unreasonable to expect visitors to wait and officers to stand in the wet and cold. However, the flaw is that even if the searching does uncover the threat that you are acting against – whether a knife or gun or bomb – it’s already inside the fabric of the building. Security risk management is all about pushing the threat as far away from your assets – whether the exhibits, the building itself or the staff and visitors – as possible. In central London, so full of people and ‘crowded places’ to use the official CPNI jargon, that does raise the uncomfortable question that has an equivalent in loss prevention – by pushing the threat away from your asset, or deterring the thief from your shop, you simply push it nearer to another asset, or the thief goes into another shop. To use another, uglier piece of jargon, a city such as London is so ‘target-rich’ that there’s not a lot you, the security manager of a site, can do about that; it is in any case someone else’s job.

Readers familiar with all four sites named so far may have spotted already that most other sites in central London do not have the option of the British Museum. The National Gallery only has two sets of steps to its main entrance, and you are then standing in Trafalgar Square. The IWM and British Library does have some grounds, before the entrances, where in theory they could site marquees for searches similar to the British Museum’s. The National Portrait Gallery, like many places, has its entrance directly on the street, and has no choice but to have any access control at or inside the door.

And take another example, from the April and June 2016 print issues of Professional Security; the Crick Institute, the building with the British Library at St Pancras and St Pancras railway station where charities, the University of London and government is bringing together several bodies of researchers to seek a cure for cancer. Typically such a building would be in a science park in a shire; there you could have the traditional ‘onion rings’ of layered security, taking your choice of a gatehouse to check vehicles, fencing, PIDS (Perimeter Intrusion Detection Systems), patrolling guards, all with the aim of pushing the threats, whatever they are, far from the actual buildings. The Crick decided, a decision taken at a level well above the security department, to turn its back on that – for sound reasons; the University of London, after all, and some of the research buildings that are being amalgamated into the St Pancras site are already in central London. It does mean however that the Crick at St Pancras lacks the luxury of physical space to put distance between it and threats. At the main public entrance facing the railway station, it has been able to put some distance between it and for example vehicle-borne threats, by installing anti-ram bollards and more subtly planters that not only are pots for greenery but can help stop any vehicles driven deliberately at the building in their tracks. And around the corner, on the northern side of the building, facing Somers Town, you can stand on the pavement (yes, covered as the site is by Axis network CCTV cameras) and look through the glass as the workers drink coffee. So in theory there is nothing to stop animal rights or any other protesters shouting and waving banners at Crick staff sitting only yards away. The Crick has not only lacked the physical footprint to keep outsiders at a distance, it has sought to make a virtue of that; to be as transparent as it can reasonably be.

None of this is to give away any security secrets; it’s all visible to any visitor, or indeed someone carrying out hostile reconnaissance, to use another piece of counter-terror jargon. There is the basic problem for security and counter-terrorism; that balance between wanting to be an open city and society, not wanting to give in to terror; and being secure. For what are the other options?

The other option is to do a bag search badly, for instance because where you set up your tables and officers is too physically wide, so that visitors – not even out of malice, but because they are in a hurry – are able to slip around it and avoid it, especially when a lot of people are arriving (in other words, when the security is most necessary, and is on show to most people). Such a scenario happened at the Excel Centre during IFSEC 2016.

If we were to mark the British Museum’s extra layer of security out of ten, it would score highly. We might criticise it on aesthetic grounds – when you walk inside the marquee, the flooring sounds creaky and temporary; the trestle tables are what they are. In fairness, to put up a permanent and more elegant structure (in keeping with the surrounds, as would be required to gain planning permission, which takes time) might be unnecessary, if the threat level changes, or security technology, or even fashion. Airport-style technology for searches is in use besides at airports, for example for people paying to go up The Shard; and lately after the Paris attacks of November 2015, at major sports matches as at Wembley, which (like the Stade de France, that did have a suicide bomber detonate) does have the luxury of space to push the threat away from the actual building. Another possible criticism can be extended to the similar set-up at the Houses of Parliament; it’s fine, when the weather’s fine. Professional Security entered the British Museum after 9.30am when the doors open and before 10am when the galleries proper open, so that there was no queue. For much of the day you would be waiting for a minute or two at least in the open; what if it rains?! Typically if you’re going into the House of Commons, whether you want to visit the tea shop (for the cheapest tea in London) or see an MP, from the street you are directed to a walkway and have to queue – it soon feels a long time – before you enter the marquee and go through the airport-style searches and have a photo-access pass printed. If you have arrived in a taxi and are in your best clobber, and who wouldn’t be when visiting Parliament, you don’t much care for being rained on while you wait for the privilege of visiting, after all, your political representatives that we voted and are paying for. It just isn’t very classy; and it’s in the name of security. Would it hurt to have a roof over the walkway?

Say that a product came on the market that allowed you to carry out a check of bags and persons for metal, as they walked – with or without pausing, overt or covert – through the gates. You might want that product to tell apart a knife that the visitor wants to use to peel an apple to eat on the steps of the museum with a coffee from the nearby barrow, from a dangerous knife. Maybe it would take a human to make that judgement. Even if a gadget could judge, you would still need a human to stop the suspect and do something about the threatening item. And throughout the capital – at theatres, embassies – there is no avoiding having people inside your building, or at least as far as the threshold, as at any hospital, railway station, bank or supermarket; on trust.

More on physical security

For documents and advice on physical security, besides cyber and personnel, visit the official CPNI (Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure) website www.cpni.gov.uk.


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