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Why the Thalys rail attack is a gift to idiotic security barons

madrid train bombingBy Simon Davies

This weekend’s thwarted attack aboard a high speed train in northern France has raised the spectre of a further disintegration of civil liberties and privacy across Europe.

Belgian and French authorities have already stepped up rail security, with increased baggage and identity checks and an escalation of armed security at rail terminals. Western European security agencies are meeting to agree a series of harmonised measures.

Although the scale of the Thalys attack was never likely to match the horrific outcome of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, there’s no doubt that under different circumstances it could have ended as a massacre.

You can bet that anyone who ever submitted a rail security proposal is dusting it off right now and re-submitting it with an “I told you so” note prominently attached.

Nonetheless, authorities have been aware for many years that the rail network is particularly vulnerable to such attacks. In late 2013, citing intelligence sources, the German tabloid Bild reported that jihadists had targeted Europe’s high-speed rail network.

There are two obvious threats that arise from the Thalys incident. The first is that in an effort to assure the public, governments could repeat the often farcical and illusory kneejerk security responses adopted in the aftermath of 9/11. Or, as my esteemed colleague Bruce Schneier might express it, “security theatre”.

The second threat is that security agencies could use the incident as justification to extend their mandate and budgets at the expense of privacy and freedom of movement. You can bet that anyone who ever submitted a rail security proposal is dusting it off right now and re-submitting it with an “I told you so” note prominently attached. As you read these words, governments will be pouring over reams of industry recommendations for real-time passport checks, data sharing programs, ID-linked ticketing systems, behaviour recognition software and – who knows – even miniscule bomb-sniffing drones.

The first risk appears to be the most immediate, indicated by the instant security focus on the Thalys line (as opposed to the thousands of other EU rail routes). Perhaps this decision was brought by force of necessity. Policing of European rail networks is already a logistical nightmare. With a quarter of a million kilometres of track, increasing passenger numbers, overstretched rail terminal infrastructures, tens of thousands of trains each day and hundreds of rail border crossings, the task of securing the network is inconceivably vast.

Terrorists could attack the network in numerous ways, including planting or carrying bombs – possibly in tunnels – or to try to destroy tracks or electric cabling. And while bombs are the preferred method of rail attack, one wonders what would happen if a heavy tree trunk was rolled downhill onto the tracks exiting a tunnel. We certainly have ample knowledge of what happens when lines are sabotaged. Meanwhile, little is said of the threat from sabotage of freight trains (that’s to say, little is done about it).

No, it’s far cheaper and more attractive for authorities to escalate surveillance of passengers rather than invest in the security of the rail infrastructure.

Little wonder. The task of securing the infrastructure doesn’t bear thinking about. Authorities already struggle to keep lines and facilities safe. Although the number of rail fatalities is generally in decline, a 2011 report by the European Railway Agency’s (ERA) railway safety performance report shows that there were 2,342 significant railway accidents reported in the EU resulting in 1,183 fatalities and 1,032 seriously injured.

As you read these words, governments will be pouring over reams of industry recommendations for real-time passport checks, data sharing programs, ID-linked ticketing systems, behaviour recognition software and – who knows – even miniscule bomb-sniffing drones.

It’s not even an issue of increased border checks. Ninety percent of rail travel is at the local or national level. In any case, Europe is already steeped in internal border checks on the rail network. Last year the Privacy Surgeon lodged formal complaints against four EU police authorities because of extensive and excessive border security measures.

The sad reality of free movement in Europe is that rather than being dissolved, the internal borders have been allowed to remain active, and activism on the legal right of “free movement” applies more to labour than travel. This is a bizarre situation, given that the dismantling of border controls and frontier posts has been an essential component of the idea of a single and united Europe since its inception well over half a century ago.

So, the measures that have been adopted this weekend have high visibility and immediate news value rather than being of real relevance to overall network security.

This view was echoed by Claude Moniquet, co-director of the European Strategic and Security Centre in Brussels.

“If you want to secure the line, you must secure each point of access. That means maybe two, three, four, 10, 15 stations, which is impossible,” he told RFI.

“If you instead control luggage randomly, that means it will be like a plane and you must go to the station one or two hours before boarding the train, which is just unthinkable because the train must be a speedy mode of transportation. If you slow it down (passengers) will lose interest.”

All that having been said, the statistical threat of rail terrorist attack is miniscule. Since 2000, worldwide, there have been less than twenty defined terrorist attacks on rail networks, resulting in around a thousand fatalities.

Whether the measures being contemplated this weekend will bring any genuine improvement to rail security is yet to be seen, but it’s certain those discussions will yield greater intrusion into the lives of passengers.