Kurt McKee

lessons learned in production

Hey there! This article was written in 2007.

It might not have aged well for any number of reasons, so keep that in mind when reading (or clicking outgoing links!).

Northwestern's fire door policy

Posted 10 April 2007 in intrusion, mary-desler, northwestern-university, politics, safety, security, and virginia-koch

Bruce Schneier wrote about CYA Security in February. From his post:

much of our country's counterterrorism security spending is not designed to protect us from the terrorists, but instead to protect our public officials from criticism when another attack occurs.

This is where Northwestern University's officials are at: implementing ineffective measures that in no way increase security. However, if they're going to shell out cash for a private consulting firm to tell them what to do, you'd better believe they're going to follow the recommendations given them. Lock fire doors? Oh yeah! Install cameras? Oh yeah! Pay for security guards in the dorms? Sure!

Here's the situation as I understand it: in May 2004 at 9:00a a six-foot-tall man entered the women's restroom on the fourth floor of Allison Hall and threw back a shower curtain to look at a girl in the shower. In April 2005 a six-foot-tall man entered the women's restroom on the second floor of Allison and threw back the shower curtain to see a girl in the shower. That same week another man entered two unlocked rooms. Both of the April events occurred after the fire doors were locked.

The Daily Northwestern reported on these events, and one article in particular stood out to me: Recent incidents show holes in dorm security. In that article were several quotes from a Northwestern official by the name of Virginia Koch:

  1. The university probably won't be increasing security unless the problem escalates.

  2. "You have to decide what's a cost-effective way of ensuring security."

  3. "The student taking responsibility for their own dorm is the most important thing."

Right you are, Ms. Koch. The university pretty much did nothing because the intrusions were anomalies caused by students letting people into the dorm who didn't belong there. The problem escalated in the form of a losing PR battle. As a result, Northwestern hired a private consulting firm to help them plug the holes. The first step to a safer dorm is to lock more doors, apparently. It's also super cost effective! Educating indifferent students about social engineering is a financial black hole, after all.

The doors are being locked, even as the rate of crime in Evanston decreased for the eighth year in a row. From the linked article: "EPD Chief Frank Kaminski said in a press release that community policing efforts in the past few years helped to decrease the Evanston crime rate." The emphasis here, as with Virginia Koch, is that the community needs to actively participate in safety and security. Otherwise, measures will fail, as noted by Ms. Koch: "If students don't act more carefully, no amount of security will ever be enough."

What reasons have been presented to justify locking the fire doors, which were previously open from 8:00a to 8:00p? "Safety", an argument I find specious and highly doubtful. I contacted Mary Desler, the Associate VP and Dean of Student Affairs at Northwestern University, and asked her how a dorm might go about convincing the administration to unlock the doors again.

Ms. Desler : "We won't consider arguments about "inconvenience"."
Me : "What arguments will you consider?"
Ms. Desler : "Safety."

As easy as buying into party lines would be, I'm not satisfied with the response given.

Suppose we were talking about viruses infecting students' computers, and the administration decided to shut down internet connections to all students' dorm rooms. "Go to the library to check your email!" The students would complain bitterly, but the administration would deflect our outcry with "We won't consider arguments about "inconvenience"."

Northwestern University, I expect more of you. You've locked many of the most useful doors on campus, stubbornly refused to listen to reason, and all in order to save face. You cannot solve a social problem with technical measures. Period. You're practicing CYA security, and it's a serious ~~inconvenience~~ threat to students' safety.

[CYA]: Cover Your Ass [PR]: public relations [EPD]: Evanston Police Department [VP]: Vice President