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Security of a Sort

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July 11, 2019
Michael Schubach - MichaelSchubach@me.com

Experts of every stripe will tell you that we live in an age where everything can be described as ‘unprecedented.’ I can’t say I entirely disagree; we live in an age where the rate of social and technical change is accelerating at a dazzling pace. Further, we stand at the threshold of the Artifi cial Intelligence Age. For better or worse, richer or poorer, the cohabitation between human and thoughtful machines has been going on for some time now, and we may be about ready to propose either slavery or marriage … or both. Unprecedented is a dramatic understatement. I wish I were younger; I envy the upcoming generations the adventure, if not the outcome.

All this newness – the uniqueness of our 21 Century lives – is forcing us into some startling situations and decision points. After all, once something unfortunate and unprecedented happens in our lives, it comes with a sudden side effect: hindsight. 

We worship at the altar of hindsight because everyone knows that it is the closest thing to perfect optics we are ever offered. The high priests of hindsight are lawyers, safety and security experts and risk managers. They review the casualty and losses in great detail, mutter ‘coulda-shudda-wooda,’ the litany of regret, over the remains, and then issue new policies and procedures that will forever prevent what has now become foreseeable.

The most well known example of this form of thinking is the 2001 episode of the unsuccessful “Shoe Bomber.” Ignoring the minutia, I’ll cut to the upshot: one person managed to find a security loophole, and now the chances that others will be inspired to do the same rise to one hundred percent. The result is that unless you are TSA PreCheck, you’re destined to have your shoes removed and examined for the rest of your air traveling life. End game: an edge case exploited by an extremist redefines the norm, and does so in perpetuity. 

I bring this post-modern quandary up in response to my most recent interaction with Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion: for every force and action, there is an equal and opposite force and reaction. The action I reference is the tragedy of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, a 10-minute massacre that claimed 58 lives and injured more than 800 other people. That event didn’t take place in the sky; it was on dry land, and, all the worse for the tourism and hospitality industries, it took place from a hotel room. 

And how can I be so sure of the forever time span? Easy: as we lay down precedent, we establish the ability to foresee. A lack of foresight is negligence, so if at anytime in the future someone else gets by the security team by doing the same or similar, then it must result from negligence, malfeasance or incompetence. All three of those conditions can result in hefty legal fees and damage rewards, so you and your shoes are destined to be separated at the airport until such time as we reinvent either the security or the footwear paradigm.

I will spare you a similar analysis of the 2009 exploits of the “Underwear Bomber.” It suffices to say that if there were some more practical security solutions to the problem of dangerous undergarments – meaning underwear that poses a threat to others besides their current occupant – then the pre-flight airport experience would be much different than it is today … and all of us would sign up for TSA PreCheck.

The high priests of hindsight are lawyers, safety and security experts and risk managers. They review the casualty and losses in great detail, mutter ‘coulda-shudda-wooda,’ the litany of regret, over the remains, and then issue new policies and procedures that will forever prevent what has now become foreseeable.

Our unprecedented ability to gad about the globe at lightning speed reinforces to us that tourism has become a handy target for those who prey on the unsuspecting and unprotected. Let’s set aside the fact that targeting tourism has been in vogue since well before Chaucer’s pilgrims headed off to Canterbury; let’s just go with the idea that it’s a brand new threat to the modern world. The specter of that event touched me during a recent visit to a colossally oversized Las Vegas casino hotel and convention center; it was the fi rst time in some time that I was in a hotel as a guest rather than an employee. There I noticed a small but sweeping change to a time-honored norm of guest accommodation. The equal but opposite reaction to the Las Vegas shooting is that now guests who occupy hotel rooms may be disturbed by the hotel staff at will. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the details of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, the important fact to know is that as soon as the shooter got to his room, he put out his “Do Not Disturb” sign, and there it stayed until after the deed was done. Owing to the fact that what happens in Las Vegas used to stay in Las Vegas, observing the sanctity of the “DND” sign was a well-known tradition. If you hung it out and double locked your door, you were on your own for your entire stay. In this case, guest privacy worked against the public interest: since no staff member ever entered his room, no one ever saw the weaponry the shooter had. No one helped him carry his luggage to his room – he brought his entire arsenal up from his car by himself, rifle after rifle, ammo box after ammo box, one suitcase or travel tote at a time. Unfortunately, there is nothing particularly unusual about a hotel guest walking through a lobby and up to his room with a piece of luggage.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s obvious that the time honored custom of not disturbing a guest was a terrible mistake. If a foolishly naïve hospitality industry just had been blessed with a little more foresight, it would have given up privacy concerns years ago. We “cudda” seen the whole thing coming, we “shudda” had somebody up in that room, checking things out and poking around. S/he “wooda” seen something, said something and prevented this whole sad, bloody mess from ever happening in the first place. 

Hindsight couldn’t be clearer: now that someone has done it, the chances of someone bringing heavy artillery to a hotel and turning it into a shooting gallery are 100 percent. If we fail to see, fail to act or fail to intervene, we’re guilty of negligence, malfeasance or incompetence. With one more edge case exploited by one more extremist, the norm has once again been changed for the ages.

Guests no longer have a DND door-hanger in their room; the verbiage has changed to make it a “Room Occupied” sign. The new sign tells the hotel’s room attendant or security officer that she or he should expect to find someone on the other side of the door when they enter. A small, tactful notice to arriving guests appears typically at the far end of the registration desk to inform them that they can no longer prevent staff entry into their room. However, it’s worded to assuage concern and promote public relations rather than put the guest on alert that the staff may be coming in no matter what sign you put on your door handle. 

During my Vegas visit, I happened to run into a security officer at my door as I was preparing to leave for the day. In Las Vegas, it’s not unusual for hotels to have a more-than-average security presence, given the sizeable sums of money that guests bring to hand over to card dealers and scantily-clad cocktail waitresses. I was nonetheless surprised to be visited by hotel security in my very own doorway. 

The officer informed me that he was there because I had been randomly selected for heavy disturbance – it was my turn to have my room visually inspected. I admitted him to the room and he spent thirty to forty-five seconds making sure all was well. We struck up a conversation and I asked him what he looks for while on inspection. He recited the short list for me: signs of drug trafficking, human trafficking, use of the room for pornographic purposes or illegal activities of any sort, and an abundance of weaponry. I asked if the searches produced results, and he would only go as far as to admit that the greatest return on his efforts seemed to be “peace of mind.”

I asked about what I considered to be the obvious shortcomings of the program. If a guest were to be trafficking in something, would s/he have simply opened the door to admit a security officer? I thought back to the dozens (hundreds?) of times when a hotel staff member knocked at my door when I was on a telephone call, working on an article, in the bathroom or not properly dressed. My answer was always, “can you please come back in an hour / this afternoon / tomorrow?” I did that whenever I didn’t feel like opening the door but I never played the “later” card because I was actively engaged in crimes against humanity. But if I had been, there is no earthly power that would have gotten me to open the door to an uninvited stranger on an unscheduled visit; even dumb criminals aren’t that dumb. So who, then, is the recipient of all this ‘peace of mind’? My guess is that it has to be the hotel’s insurance agent. 

My campaign of complaint is twofold: first, I am angry that the job of crime fighting is being passed down to hospitality specialists. Yes, we all have a part to play in hotel security, and seeing something means saying something. Nonetheless, I am concerned about turning hotel guest services into reconnaissance missions. Most hotels don’t have the on-staff security presence to conduct daily guestroom examinations, so the hotels adopting this kind of program typically assign primary inspection responsibility to the room attendant, as if we didn’t already ask enough of that team already. 

It has been my experience that housekeeping teams are already extraordinarily good at speaking up when something untoward is going on in a guestroom, but asking them to enter rooms where guests have asked to be left alone leads me to my second complaint. Who is at fault if the hard-to-detect goes undetected by a room attendant? If the answer to that question is that no one is at fault if we fail, then why are we doing it in the fi rst place? It strikes me that this kind of program is structured solely to provide plausible deniability. It exists so we can tell people that we’re not ignoring crime, but neither are we crime solvers, so what we are doing isn’t likely to alter outcomes. It’s the “better than nothing” excuse. If you’re genuinely going to inspect a room because you suspect ill health, misuse of the facilities or the possibility of felonious crime, then send up a well-trained and well-equipped police officer or first responder.

One security director told me the story of a room attendant who knocked twice at a guestroom door bearing a “Room Occupied” sign and got no response. She entered the room, only to be staring at a guest with his handgun drawn and trained on her, prepared to defend himself against his trespasser. We seem to overlook the citizens who travel armed, not to commit a crime but to defend themselves against one. Logically, a guest with only one gun is far more common and therefore statistically is far more dangerous to our staff and guests than a heavily armed mass shooter. However, logic has nothing to do with the situation.

If we truly live in an age that can change everything, then it stands to reason that assisted by the miracle of artificial intelligence our future selves will find a way to acquit ourselves of an ancient societal problem that has stubbornly defied centuries of change. Perhaps subsequent generations will manage to free at last an incredible nation that has been hamstrung and immobilized by an 18th Century vision of citizen warfare that has resulted in exactly that. 

I wish I were younger – I envy the upcoming generations the adventure and the outcome.

©2019 Hospitality Upgrade 
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