Tiffany's and the Problem of Security

After Sept. 11, the American system of government became crazy obsessed with security. The implementation has not only been brutal and contrary to human liberty; it has completely lacked creativity. Instead of real security, we get what’s called “security theater,” and at the expense of the customer, who feels the brunt of all the new impositions.

It was the stupidest decision ever to nationalize airport security after Sept. 11, for doing so guaranteed this result. Security is too important to be left to government. What does the cause of security have to learn from the private sector? Plenty.

I was just at a Tiffany jewelry store. If you know these places, you know that they have a serious security issue to deal with. What is the total value of the inventory? It’s a guess. It’s in the many millions, maybe tens of millions. And it’s all on display, out in the open, in a store that lives off its reputation for high-end products.

As soon as you walk in, your eyes are drawn to astonishing gleaming, sparkling, beguiling things that seem to be nearly dancing around the room. The treasures are in glass cases, but the glass is so clean that you almost don’t see it at all. The lighting is designed to draw attention to what is in the cases, and it works. They set the heart aflutter, enticing a material impulse that might perhaps be unlike anything you have ever felt.

As you make your way around the room, you come across what seem like the biggest diamonds in the whole world. They go from big to bigger to breathtakingly gigantic. It seems like these pieces should be in museums. It nearly takes your breath away to see them there out in the open.

A security problem? I would say so! They have to protect against stupid criminals with guns and bags, but also real-life versions of brilliant criminals such as the legendary jewel thieves we meet in James Bond and Mission Impossible. This is serious business.

As you look back at where you have walked, you see a nicely dressed gentleman by the door. Oh yes, he greeted you when you came in. But there is a little transparent coiling thing sticking out of his ear and leading inside his coat. He looks like Secret Service, sort of. He is friendly, but strangely powerful. Instead of being threatening, he actually makes you feel safe.

After all, a place like this does create a certain anxiety. Goods this expensive surely attract criminal elements, and customers are aware of this. The consumer himself has the desire to settle down and not worry.

A place like Tiffany actually delivers on what the TSA only sloganizes about.

The employees are extremely nice, but formal. They want to help you shop, but there is an atmosphere in the room that seems to guide what you say and do.

I noticed that all the customers were behaving as I was. We moved slowly. We spoke softly and politely. We smiled in the most civil way possible. We were all very interested in seeming as innocent as possible. We were all happy shoppers, but also we all watched our manners and ways.

And then you wonder about the cameras. Surely, they are everywhere. But where? Oh yes, just as in the Vegas casinos, there are rounded blue balls coming out of the ceiling. They are pretty shapes, but clearly not lights or speakers. Here are the cameras. They are part of the ceiling and are scattered throughout the entire place.

We were all being watched. But again, this was not annoying, but comforting, for we all knew that if anyone were to try anything funny or behave in an odd way, that person would be instantly called out and shown the door. This was not a scary reality, but rather a comforting one.

I struck up a conversation about all the security issues with both a salesperson and the security guard. They were reluctant to talk at all, of course, and I wondered if they were taken aback by my nice, but persistent questions. I explained how impressed I was at their ability to combine surveillance, consumer service and maximum safety. They all thanked me for my kind words, but had no interest in going into any detail.

To be sure, the model at Tiffany cannot apply in every respect to places like airports or bus terminals or stadiums. Every institution and situation is different. As a private store with special needs, Tiffany set out to blend consumer service and happiness with maximum safety and security. It can be done. Only the market can truly discover the right path.

Both the critics and proponents of the TSA imagine that there is always a trade-off between security and human rights. Opponents of the TSA express disgust and outrage at invasive scanning and indecent probing, and they are right that it seems abusive.

But how would a private security company ferret out bad guys at airports? How would they discover explosives and guns? It is unclear. It is not enough just to announce that there should be no pat downs or X-rays, for it might be that a private system would be invasive too. We really don’t know.

And that’s the real tragedy of the current system. It is stupid. It can’t learn. It cares nothing for the balance of rights and responsibilities. It is all about going through the motions and doing what the regulations require.

Tiffany’s security works because the company owns property and serves the public. TSA and the entire apparatus of Homeland Security does neither.


Jeffrey Tucker