08 May 2016

Boston Insecurity

[ Ed note: This has been bouncing around my desk, mostly finished, for two weeks. I hadn’t published it because, frankly, it’s too long, and I wanted to cut it down. Today I say, “So what?” It’s got to be said, so invest an additional three minutes and ponder… ]

The third post-bombing Boston Marathon has come and gone, thankfully incident-free. This could be due to the sheer unlikelihood of another attack; after all, even after that horrific day we were only one-for one hundred and seventeen, and hopefully those odds or better will carry on long into the future unscathed. Or it could be due to enhanced security enacted since that day acting as a deterrent, or, in fact, having broken pending plots which were not (perhaps rightfully) made known to the public. I’m not in a position to say.

I am in a position to say that while many facets of that enhanced security enacted after 2013 made sense and continue to do so, others never did and still don’t. Further, gaps still remain. Long-time readers of this column know that I’ve been vocal in my reactions to Boston’s security enhancements, and while it might sound a bit repetitious, I’m revisiting the topic. I’m of the view that acceptance is the wrong path; continued attention should be drawn to areas that need improvement. Humor me while I relate previous statements to this year’s reality on the ground.

Let’s put the positives on the table. Some changes made sense. Increased security presence, both uniformed and plain-clothed, among the crowds at busy places is the obvious right thing to do. Nothing tops human intelligence or the knack of a trained, vigilant person to detect something awry. Increased video surveillance is an obvious plus. And asking those in the crowd not to bring items that might raise suspicion is fair game. Overflights with detection equipment that enhance the ability to find things that shouldn’t be happening are a good use of technology to increase safety. This year an aerial radiation scan was done before the race to establish a baseline against which any unusual emissions could later be measured. Smart. Human eyes in the sky and more perched on buildings, some even armed, provide real security and the ability to respond in a crisis.

So far none of these actions touched the runners. But some must, and that’s perfectly acceptable. The chief sensible change is a reasonable check of runners entering the Athlete’s Village (or for practical reasons, as they board the buses to the Village). We like to think of runners as good folk, but we shouldn’t assume that out of thirty thousand people there won’t be a few imbalanced ones, and there’s no reason not to take action to assure that one of them doesn’t see a field of people at the village as a rich field of sitting ducks. Scanning runners on the way in won’t entirely eliminate the ability of someone to sneak in via an alternate path, but it’s a reasonable thing to do.

Further, it’s not off-base to limit the runners from brining certain things to the Athlete’s Village and the race. Big costumes that can easily conceal nasty things? OK, I’m with that, they’re not needed in a race. Weight vests? Absolutely. Let’s face it, they resemble things that go boom in certain parts of the world, and again are not needed in a race. If you want to challenge yourself by piling on an extra fifty pounds, do it in your training run – there is no “Weight Enhanced” award category at Boston or any other race I’m aware of.

But we now cross the line from the positives to the areas that still need improvement. I’ll focus on four: two that I’ve harped on before, and two that have become apparent in recent years.

First, the harping: While it’s not off-base to limit runners from bringing things that aren’t needed for the race, it certainly is off-based to limit runners from bringing things that are needed. The current rule is that you can bring only what you can wear. On a warm sunny day, this works. On an ugly wet day, it’s entirely unclear if you can even bring a pair of dry shoes in a plastic bag (I tried to get clarity on this from the BAA in 2014 without success). And if the weather is uncertain when you depart your home or hotel, you’ll have to guess on the proper race attire and hope you’re right, because you can no longer check a bag at the Athlete’s Village with items you don’t need for the race, or, for that matter, items you do need at the finish. I don’t mind tossing “rental clothing” in the donation bin before the race (this year’s shopping for that stuff was rather fun), but I’m not willing to toss away good racing jerseys and clothing should the weather change. Limiting runners from selecting what they need at race time has the potential to impact their race performance. And on a seriously hypothermic day like we had last year, not being able to send dry clothing to the finish exposes runners to entirely unnecessary discomfort and potentially serious risk.

I’m fortunate to have a club willing to carry a bag of dry clothing into the city for me, and many have friends or families able to perform this task. But many do not, and the BAA has eliminated this nearly universal marathon courtesy. They do provide a bag check – but only if you can get to the Boston Common early in the morning. This is entirely impractical for anyone living or staying near the starting line or further west. And even for those who can take advantage of this limited service, while it can provide dry togs at the far end, it doesn’t solve the game-time gear decision problem.

How, I ask, does the elimination of the bag check in Hopkinton enhance security? Since they still run a baggage check, the risk of nefarious cargo still exists, and there are still queues of people arriving to check bags and pass the pre-bus security scan. As we were reminded after the attacks at the Brussels airport, which occurred outside of the secure area, mayhem can be perpetrated outside the security perimeter just as effectively as inside. You cannot eliminate the perimeter.

Perhaps the thinking is that this reduces the amount of material coming into the Village? But can’t a reasonable balance be struck? It’s enlightening to look elsewhere for comparison. The New York City Marathon tried eliminating the Athlete’s Village baggage check entirely in 2012. As this was before the Boston bombings, their intent appeared to be logistical convenience rather than security. But in the face of massive protest, they reversed their decision. Today, they offer the choice of either bag check service or, if you opt not to use it, an enhanced poncho at the finish to try to stave off hypothermia (noting that Boston’s enhanced heat sheet paled compared to New York’s version, and failed utterly in last year’s post-race nastiness). But here’s the kick: In New York, even if you opt not to check a bag, you’re still allowed to bring the clear checked baggage bag they provide to the village with your dry shoes or other gear. It’s not a big bag. You are limited in volume. But you can bring what you need.

Boston’s only softening this year was to allow a gallon-sized clear plastic bag for food items. It was a nice gesture, as I’ve known people who have had Dunkin’ Donuts muffins taken because they were in (gasp!) Dunkin’ bags. Until this change, no bags were allowed, save fanny packs (that weird oddity for all the competitive Boston athletes who race with fanny packs?). Even this softening, however, was applied with no leniency for reason.

This year, I left home with the clothes on my back and little else. Besides hand carrying my fuel belt (allowed, though nobody looked inside the pockets for contraband), I stuffed my pockets with a pre-race gel, a baggie of sunscreen, that ever-critical wide-mouthed bottle, and my starting line final layer of warmth and privacy, my rolled up black garbage bag. So equipped, I would have experienced nothing more than a two-second waving of a metal detector wand across my body. But at the last moment I decided it was likely that the garbage bag and the bottle might pop out of my pockets on the bus, so I grabbed a plastic grocery bag and popped those four items inside.

You can guess where this goes. I was stopped at security. The bag (which to be fair wasn’t clear, but off-white) was not allowed. Never mind that there were only four small items in it, items which I removed in front of the security staff and jammed back in my pockets without any staff examination. Never mind that one of the items was itself a bag! They took my grocery bag and sent me on.

This is silly. Search my stuff, I’m fine with that, but search it well; make it credible, not meaningless. But also be reasonable. Follow New York’s lead. Allow me to bring the bag check bag you gave me at the expo. Better yet, let me to check it. In short, stop getting in the way of my race.

Yet despite all of these things that the BAA does, what has become apparent in the last two years are the things they do not do. And that is making reasonable attempts to halt fraudulent runners, who enter the race using counterfeit bibs or fraudulent qualifying times.

After 2013, the time-honored tradition of running as a bandit was banned. The validity of that decision is a different discussion, but it suffices to say it upped the ante for people trying to run Boston without a valid qualifying time (or charity or club entry). The result has been an upsurge of counterfeit bibs and falsified qualifying times. One could say that this too is an entirely different discussion, but when security is paramount, it becomes important to know who you’re shuffling into the corrals. While, as noted, it’s entirely possible that one of thirty-thousand officially registered runners could be an unbalanced danger, it’s far more likely that someone trying to impart havoc will seek to gain entry without enduring the training and pain of actually qualifying for the race.

Thus, while the second item on the list – those running with falsified qualifying times – is the more vexing problem, it’s also the lesser of concerns when the question is security. Someone who has registered based on a fraudulent qualifying time is a cheater worthy of disqualification, derision, prosecution, and perhaps flogging. But when they pick up their bibs, they must show photo ID to prove (within the limits of what a race can police) they are who they say they are.

Catching their cheating becomes a post-event forensic exercise. The running community has responded with creative solutions. As an example, enterprising individuals have devised ways to filter results which are vastly different from qualifying times. Such discrepancies don’t always mean fraud; after all, everyone has bad days, but they do winnow out suspicious results. Social media has been abuzz with cases where such techniques have led to investigations of qualifying races, where examination of photos and timing mat data have found hired guns running qualifiers as well as course-cutting and other forms of outright cheating. These retroactive solutions don’t stop cheaters from running the race before they’re caught. But it would serve the BAA well to partner with these resources to turn the unregulated and error-prone court of the Internet into hard cases and publicly take action. The BAA needs to make some noise, prosecute a few for fraud, and make it known that they won’t stand for it.

That other item on the list, fake bibs, while equally rage-inspiring to truly qualified runners, is the far bigger issue so far as security is concerned, because it means that people who are entirely unknown to race officials are in the Village and on the course (and of course, stealing services and medals). Paradoxically, this is by far the easier one to solve.

There’s a chip on the back of a real bib. Use it.

The BAA goes to lengths to tell people not to post pictures of their bibs on social media in order to avoid having them copied. The BAA threatens people who have their bibs copied assuming that they must have been complicit – a fair act when directed at those who knowingly copy and sell bibs, but what also amounts to going after the victim of identity fraud rather than the perpetrator. Yet again this year, people found themselves numerically replicated when they pulled up their pictures on OverpricedRaceFoto.com. Wailing and lamentation was heard throughout the land! How could this have happened?

Let’s face it. A Boston bib – or most any race bib – is easy to fake. We’re not talking about finely detailed scrollwork and inscriptions like those on our currency. We’re talking about a bunch of big numbers and an Adidas logo on a colored background. Once you see one, you can create one that’s good enough to pass quick visual muster, on just about any computer, and you can put any number you want on it (which blows out the ‘prosecute the victim’ logic) in a few minutes. Print it on a color printer, on Tyvek if you want to be fancy, pin it on, and you’re off to the race.

Except that you have no chip.

I’m not going to say that the chip can’t be faked. In a world where just about anything else can be faked, so can a chip. But this would be a lot tougher, and it would easily thwart the typical counterfeiter. It helps to realize that each chip can be encoded not just with the bib number, but with a unique ID that would only tie to the actual bib number inside of the BAA’s database.

The rest is simple. While security is busy confiscating your four-items-or-less grocery bag, they can also be looking at the computer screen attached to the chip scanner stationed at the entry point. How easy is this? Easy enough so that at the New Bedford Half Marathon, chip scanners and monitors were set up both at the end of the finish chute and in the gym so that just by being in range, my name and results popped up instantly. How hard would it be for Boston security to set this up and assure that the number printed on your bib is real, because the chip reports your bib, name, and hey, if you want to get really over-the-top sophisticated, even a photo? But at remote locations? Hey, I can get a credit-card striper that works on my cell phone. Trust me, this is easy.

By taking this simple step, you’ll knock off the bulk of the fake bibs before those people board the buses to the Village. As a nice touch, have a few beefy guys handy to hustle the cheaters off for fraud prosecution. And while I won’t advocate a police state, heck, put a second station between the finish line and the medals and goodies chute to weed out those who jump in. Maybe they got to run, but you don’t have to give ‘em a medal.

None of these suggestions are perfect and they’ll never catch everyone, but if the BAA is serious about security, they’re easy and common sense answers that will enhance, not degrade, the runners’ experience. Do the smart stuff. And then get out of the way to let us run our peak race, properly equipped both for the race and afterward..

[ Ed. note: I told you this was too long. If you have read this far, kindly post a comment to humor me. And thanks for your time. ]

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