The term “security theater” is associated with security expert Bruce Schneier who uses it to refer to measures designed to make people feel more secure without actually making them more safe.
A prime example is the policy of “random” subway searches of briefcases, backpacks, handbags and other carry on items that was introduced in the Boston MBTA system briefly in 2004 and then again in 2006, and in Washington DC in 2010. It is difficult to imagine a “terrorist” standing in line to be searched when he or she could simply go to a different station where no search teams were in place. With subway systems in urgent need of infrastructural repair and suffering staff shortages, the policy appears to be a misallocation of scarce resources that is counterproductive in public safety terms.
Just imagine getting searched before boarding a train that crashes because the tracks are in disrepair. This is just one example of “security theater”: a ploy to make people think the government is doing its best to keep us safe, while simultaneously stripping us of our fundamental right to privacy and freedom from unreasonable searches.
In the video below, Bruce Schneier explains the difference between feeling secure, and actually being secure.