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‘Storm Area 51, they can’t stop all of us’

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‘Storm Area 51, they can’t stop all of us’

19 Sep 2019

When procedural Security is Not Enough

The idea was simple enough.  The US military are hiding extra-terrestrials in a secret base in Nevada but if enough of us show up (currently planned for September 20th), and storm the base we will discover the truth.  It started as a joke but the ‘meme community’ picked it up and within a week 2 million people bought into it.  The FBI are not taking it as a joke.  Although local hotels have benefitted from a surge in bookings it seems likely that it will morph into a festival and area 51 will remain unstormed.  So is that it, panic over?  No, this incident points us to a growing phenomenon where the internet has the ability to connect entire populations who are increasingly disinclined to follow the script or are increasingly inclined to make a script of their own.  Think Brexit, Trump, the Gilets Jaunes and more recently Hong Kong’s umbrella protests.  Some of it is harmless (remember Boaty McBoat Face?) and most of it is unpredictable and random.  Do we need to adjust our security planning to take account of this?

‘Harambe’ is case in point.  In 2016, a child fell into the gorilla enclosure at Cincinnati Zoo and one of the gorillas - called Harambe - appeared to protect the young child. Despite the parental instincts shown, Harambe was shot dead as a precaution which, whilst regrettable, was perfectly understandable.  However, the internet meme community disagreed and the #JusticeForHarambe hashtag and other similar messages flooded social media for months after.  People were naming their children Harambe, there were T-Shirts made, Cincinnati Zoo was subject to daily protests outside.  A short while after it appeared to calm down, another gorilla was put down in a different zoo and the internet was up and running again and still to this day, Cincinnati Zoo staff receive death threats.   The internet never forgets. 

Traditional security thinking focuses on tangible and usually very predictable threats from protest groups and terrorists in terms of their intent and capability, but without the benefit of knowing the time and place of execution.  The nature of this threat is almost the polar opposite in that the time and place are known but the exact nature in terms of intent and capability is unknown.  Area 51 will only find out on September the 20th if or in what form this attempted assault will actually take place.  It is reasonable to assume that Area 51 (whatever it is) and Cincinnati Zoo did not have these incidents on the risk and threat register.  Terrorists which are part of organisations have an agenda.  Agenda’s can be predicted, even manipulated, and organisations can be spied on and penetrated by the security services.  We now have a situation, however, where the merely whimsical can emerge from nowhere and be highly destructive.  An idea going viral cannot be predicted or countered by any of the traditional security methods.  The events industry needs to take this seriously.  The concept of ‘Storm *INSERT YOUR EVENT HERE*, they can’t stop all of us’ is an event security nightmare waiting to happen.  If this seems fanciful, footage of a festival was recently released where a group of young people showed up and stormed the festival and the only person the security managed to stop had a prosthetic leg.  (You really cannot make this stuff up).  Just Google ‘Absolute Mayhem at the Walls of Lollapalooza ‘ and view it on the ‘Barstool’ Twitter clip.  So, whilst a viral meme has no predictable pattern and is virtual in nature, the consequences can be very physical. 

Assuming that you discover that your event has been swept up in this internet frenzy, what can you do? Remember, ‘Trespass’ per se is not a criminal offence (at least in UK), and the police or authorities cannot get involved unless it gets violent so once they are in, you really cannot ‘stop us all’.  Groups like Extinction Rebellion only need to get in and then lie down stopping traffic to totally disrupt the event without committing a crime.  How long before a terrorist group deliberately creates this situation as a cover for gaining entry and tying up all of the security assets whilst they prepare and deliver a preplanned deadly attack?  This scenario for an attack is being taken seriously by the security services.

It will probably turn out that at Area 51 they can actually stop all of them.  The facility in question has large physical barriers and a typical US military tight security regime so nothing – not even 2 million anarchists are going to get through.  In any case, breaking into a secure military facility goes well beyond mere trespass.  The problem is that physical barriers like this (with the possible exception of high end sports stadia) are not normally part of event security arrangements.  We rely a great deal on the fact that people will be compliant.  A uniformed steward is normally enough.

So what can be done?  Our greatest weapon is that, whilst terrorists do not publish their planned intentions on the internet, the time and place has to be published to create a hostile viral meme that targets an event so we will know in advance though the notice could still be quite short.  Monitoring the internet for this type of activity should be part of our security arrangements.

However, you do not need to stir up 2 million anarchists to storm most events.  A crowd of fifty could do it in most cases in which case there will no advanced warning.  Many venues have little in terms of actual physical barriers and we should not assume that they will come in the front entrance.  We usually respond to an increase in the perceived threat by increasing the numbers of security officers on duty.  Whilst this is a rational response we also need to look at the physical barriers that can be brought into play.  Event venues are, after all, designed to let large numbers of people in.  We need to ensure that aggressive protestors and terrorists do not turn that to their advantage.

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