Effectiveness of security controls in physical security

Lately I have been giving some thought to effectiveness of security controls in relationship to physical security.

To do so requires a definition of what one will consider “effective”. If we can accept that an appropriately motivated and well-funded attacker can bypass all mitigations our definition of effectiveness must be based on the skill and motivation of our attacker.

This also means we must give thought to how quickly we can respond when we become aware of an attack.

This is in essence the same approach we take when designing secure software systems. The core difference being we also have to consider the physical properties of the space we are protecting along with the human factors of the design of the system.

On the topic of physical properties of the space we have to consider the materials it was constructed with. One of my favorite examples here is how in the movie Sneakers Robert Redford’s character bypasses a security keypad by kicking the door down.

In this case even if appropriate door hardware was in place he could have simply gone through the wall like in this case of the recent burglaries of some Best Buy stores.

The state of affairs with home security is even in worse shape. Locks on doors are often of low quality and are trivially bump-able the plethora of home alarms that are installed typically use wireless sensors that can be bypassed with just a few dollars of electronics, garage doors can often be bypassed with nothing more than a bent hanger and if that wasn’t enough just throw a rock through a window.

So given this sorry state of affairs what should we do? First we need to be realistic about what the risks, the assets we have to protect and the value to the attacker. Then we should only invest proportionally to those variables.

To do this we need to develop a solid plan of what intrusions we have a chance of detecting, when we do detect them how quickly we can do so and then what our response will be in each of those cases.

For this reason a good quality alarm system is very important but they don’t do much good if they are not activated. Once activated we need to think about how long it takes for the monitoring service to be called, once contacted what do they do and how long does it take? Also In some cases the police will refuse to respond to a call that has not been confirmed by someone on-site and if they do often times responses can take hours. With that said knowing what the response time is is invaluable to understanding how long your mitigations will need to withstand attack.

But if as they say “Locks are for honest people” why do we bother at all?

The answer is that well-thought out mitigations do act as meaningful deterrents that can significantly reduce your risk but more importantly having proactively considered the risks and built the corresponding mitigations you are positioned to reduce your exposure (see my recent posts on Why shouldn’t you use safe-deposit boxes to store Bitcoin? and Insurance and Bitcoin) and ensure that such events are survivable.


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