New Worlds: Security Systems

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Keeping a place or an object secure largely consists of three elements: first, you want to discourage or prevent people from getting in; second, you want to know when they have done so; and third, you want to bring the hammer down on any intruders — whether that last takes the form of summoning police to arrest them, or killing them with a lethal trap.

How we weight those various steps depends a great deal on the time period and technology available, and also on what it is you’re trying to keep secure.

Take the average suburban house. How difficult is it to get inside? Not remotely. All you have to do is smash in a window. The reason more people don’t do that is because it’s noisy and will attract attention, or there might be an alarm system, or a large dog with pointy teeth. If they want to avoid these problems, they have to be more cautious and do things like disconnect the alarm or pick the lock on the door.

Which often isn’t that hard. I watched an interview with a longtime burglar (in the area where I grew up, no less!) who talked quite frankly about the weaknesses he regularly exploited in his work. But making houses more secure would involve either expense people can’t afford, or measures they don’t really want, like living with bars over their windows — which is more common in dense urban areas, as you may have seen, especially on lower floors.

Historically, physical barriers played a very large role in security. Castles and fortified cities had high walls that were (hopefully) difficult to scale, heavy gates at the entry points, and maybe moats or steep hillsides or something else protecting the approach. Houses frequently didn’t have much in the way of windows, and even less glass, so at night any such openings were covered with stout shutters that could, like the door, be barred. Locks, which we discussed last week, are another form of barrier, and valuable belongings might be kept inside a strongbox, thick wood banded with iron to prevent somebody from simply bashing it open.

But surveillance was also a huge part of it. We forget this nowadays, when motorized transport and ease of construction have spread our settlements out over much larger footprints, but it used to be that there was almost always someone around. Members of the family in or around the house, servants working in the mansion, guards on the castle, hawkers or beggars or passers-by on the street. Committing a crime during the day without being seen wasn’t impossible, but it could be quite hard. And measures like urban curfews were designed on the principle that most honest citizens had no need to be out and about at night, so anybody you saw after dark was probably up to no good. (There were exceptions, of course. The night-soil men that came up during the sanitation essay are an example, as are the patrols meant to catch any nefarious party.)

Alarms, however, are more difficult to arrange without advanced technology. Not impossible, mind you — at least in their simpler forms. Positioning an object where it will be knocked over if someone opens the door or climbs in the window is a primitive alarm, as is stringing a line across a probable route so that an intruder will yank on it and sound a bell or pull something to the floor. In Japan, nightingale floors may or may not have been an intentional design, but like creaky stairs, they make sound when someone walks on them. It doesn’t distinguish between authorized personnel and unauthorized criminals the way modern systems attempt to, but at least it lets you know someone is coming.

And then there are the measures that don’t alert you to a problem while it’s happening, but at least let you know after the fact that somebody got in. Seals (more on those next week) are a common example, but we’ve also done things like design locks that will show if somebody’s tried to jimmy them open. On a more primitive level, people will sometimes tape a hair or wedge a small bit of paper in the door frame so it will fall if the door’s opened, and doing something like dusting a floor with flour means that anyone coming in will leave tracks.

True security comes from layering such measures. The bedroom of a nation’s ruler will often be highly protected: walls, gates, locks, guards, controlled access points and people whose job is to notice anything that’s out of place. But of course there are ways past all of these things . . . and that’s where stories get interesting.

See, living under tight security is a pain in the neck. I’m not just talking about the ruler who can’t even go to the bathroom without a bodyguard standing over them; I also mean the security we encounter in our daily lives. How many of us use easily-guessed passwords and codes, even though we know we shouldn’t, because the harder ones are too hard to remember? How many people don’t lock up valuable things because it makes getting at them when needed too complicated?

And every system has its vulnerabilities. When banks began installing safes to protect their money from thieves, the thieves brought dynamite. Or liquid nitrogen, or fiber-optic cameras, or something else to help them get past the lock or the walls of the safe itself. Guards can be bribed, so you replace them with computerized surveillance and alarm systems; then someone hacks the computer. Slapping the hand or severed finger or eyeball of a dead enemy onto a biometric pad has become almost a joke in movies. Even a good system requires maintenance, and when that gets to be annoying and people let it slide, fortified cities fall to an enemy because their walls cave in at the first blow from a catapult.

So in the end, the security — or insecurity — of a fictional world is as much based on society and individual personalities as it is on technology. What do they choose to protect heavily, and what do they leave vulnerable because it’s not worth the expense and hassle of more stringent measures? Do they focus on deterrence, detection, or after-the-fact response? What kinds of protections do they place their trust in — inanimate objects, or the people around them? And when those things fail, where does that failure come from? There’s a difference between guards overwhelmed by a superior force vs. felled by poison vs. turning a blind eye in exchange for some coin in their pockets. And there’s a difference between the thief who brings a technological device to trick open a magnetic lock, and the one who simply kicks the door open instead. (Raise your hand if you’ve seen Sneakers!)

I did these essays a little out of order, and should have put this up first, before locks. Next week we’re going to go back to specific devices and techniques, and hit some lesser-known tricks from around the world for keeping objects safe, if not necessarily the people who own them.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Security Systems — 12 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Security Systems - Swan Tower

  2. Security for places and things is easy to describe and depict, but it’s nowhere near as much fun (or as difficult to depict with even a nod toward accuracy and technocultural fit) as security for information or people! Of course, there is overlap, implicit in the lock on the ruler’s bedroom door… but the whole “after-the-fact knowledge” issue doesn’t turn out so well with personal security.

    Information is an interesting target, because sometimes one wants the target to know it has been compromised; that might either cause a direct and hoped-for response or force use of an even-more-compromised backup system. It can also be used as the magician’s assistant to distract from other things (like a humint or personal-security flaw).

    • Information security will come up in the last post for this month — only in some aspects, because I can only fit so much in a given essay, but it’s coming!

  3. The other thing about night was that it was really dark in a way we don’t really get nowadays. Which is a factor in why crimes at night could be treated much more seriously than those in day. There are jurisdictions where burglary still has to be at night; daytime, it’s housebreaking. And killing intruders at night was much more leniently treated at law.

    • I always thought of that more as “during the day people are absent, so it’s just burglary for property. At night people are presumed home and asleep, so a home invader is assumed to have rapey murderous intent.”

      • In the times when those laws were in place, someone was virtually always present. Homes were work places, particularly for women.

        • Yeah, residential areas that are nearly empty during the day are really a modern thing. Before public transit really got going, most people worked much closer to home, which meant neighborhoods were a mix of shops, workshops, and housing, and a lot more work got done out of the house. The house of an unmarried farmer might well be deserted while he’s out in the fields, or the whole family be gone at harvest-time when everybody’s bringing the crop in, but if you’re looking at a village or town or city rather than isolated homesteads, you’ve probably got somebody around.

  4. I think the most common alarm system was a dog. Or sometimes geese or chickens.

    Breaking through physical barriers would also likely be an alarm.

    If you don’t mind the frequent noise, cords with bells/wind-chimes that have to be walked through are cheap (depending on bell costs, may be modern bias) and easy, and hard to avoid if they’re inside an inside-opening door. Also a problem for invisible intruders.

    • It was probably a big step in the domestication of the dog when the wolves that humans would follow to find prey, and that would eat up the rest of the prey after humans had butchered, started to hang out near enough to human campsites that they would notice a dawn raid and start barking at the intruders.

      • Barking is specifically a result of domestication, as is meowing: the wild relatives of domesticated animals usually don’t vocalize as frequently as the ones we’ve bred for our use. It tends to be a juvenile behavior they outgrow, but we’ve selected for them to keep it. (Or in the case of cats, they’ve self-selected; there’s evidence that they meow at a frequency which echoes the crying of a baby, because they’ve learned it’s good for getting human attention.)