Stephen Dann



Life, Liberty and the Pursuit by Security

I have a propensity to give into my curiosity and explore places that most people don't even notice, let alone think are worthy exploring and certainly don't think are works of art and beauty. This means that I will periodically encounter some well meaning security guards who are doing their job to the best of their ability, and doing that job often means asking me to leave.

That's fine by me. One of the things that I really try to remember when I'm face to face with security is that they're paid to stop people from doing things that aren't within a very narrow band of accepted behaviors. Consequently, giving the security staff a bad time won't help anyone else caught in a similar situation.  I've written up my notes on how I've social engineered my way out of trouble in various occasions over the years.

Note: Security in the post-9/11/2001 environment has become a lot more problematic. In a sense, everyone is seen as a guilty party until temporarily presumed legitimate.  Official documentation is being scrutinized more carefully, and you're more likely to cop grief with legitimate ID than you are if you're trespassing, since the official identity indicated you should probably know better.  How long this climate of hostility to curiosity lasts isn't something I care to speculate on, I'm just aware that there is greater hassle to be found, and it is having a chilling effect on the urban exploration and urban photography I used to perform more freely.  That said, I still calculate the three dimensional maps of building in my head as I look for the hidden spaces and crawl ways, and work out the coverage patterns of security cameras (it's a fun game to play with maths, angles, and calculating fog of war maps in real time, real world places in your head). 

Note 2: No guarantees are implicit, implied or given except to say this probably won't work with police.  In the event of getting pursued by police, you're probably screwed anyway. They have radios, dispatch and a whole world of experience at catching people. 


Producing ID

If you read Schneier.com(and I do), you'll see the periodic discussion over ID, the production of ID and the right of government, agencies and individuals to demand ID.  One of the factors I've encountered with personal experience is that the ID card is a security placebo which works when you need to give someone a placebo.  A lot of my advice with security involves coughing up an ID card and being ready to ID who you are and why you're there, and what you're doing and the sorts of questions that you're usually advised to STFU by a lot of places.

For me, as a white mid 30s male, defeating the expectations of security means flipping the script on what they expect me to do - standing when I'm meant to run, cheerfully greeting them when I'm meant to be hostile, and producing ID when I'm not expected to do so and so forth - remember, this is a social engineering hack approach.  I don't advocate this because I think you have no rights in a situation, I'm advocating this because my experience with guards has been such that cooperating has thrown them off script. I've capitalised on the confusion and gotten away because I wasn't playing to the expected resistance-to-authority script.

Personally? I think the value of an ID as a security token is bloody useless. If they were useful, I wouldn't be using them for script-flipping social engineering attack, would I?


Dealing with Security

Over time, I've found a few consistent lessons when dealing with security guards when you've either run into them around a corner whilst exploring, or they've come charging up to you (whilst you were doing something and didn't notice them)


Social Engineering your way to freedom


Limited Risk of Hostility Scenario (Public, Semi public, and University properties)

  • Objective 1: Defeat their expectations. 
    • Keys to remember: The purpose of security is to secure. This means buildings, and it means people. Making people feel secure is part of the security mandate.
    • How: Be pleased to see them.  Be friendly. Hold your ground and wait for them to arrive, and greet them. Make them feel that they're making you feel safer by being there.  Get your ID out and be ready to give it to them when they arrive.  People doing something wrong do not produce ID without being asked (make it look like this is just one of those annoying but incredibly normal parts of the day, like producing a student card to get a book from a library)
    • Why: They're rarely expecting people they've called to halt to be pleased to see them, and certainly not expecting people to willingly offer ID up.  This throws them off their game. Last few times I've done the ID trick, they've given the documents a cursory glance and handed them back without noting anything down.  Mileage will vary though.


  • Objective 2: Build their trust and support
    • Keys: Remember, you're exploring for free and they, they're paid to stop your exploration. Let them do their jobs, and make it easier for them to appreciate that they've just found an ally, not an enemy.
    • How: Concede social ground. If they're at the bottom of the steps, walk down to them slowly (with hands visible. They're already spooked, and it's your job to settle them down so you get to walk away). Ensure they have the higher ground on a hill. Give them the perception of power in the encounter.
    • Why: Once the encounter is underway, you'll be pumped, they'll be pumped, and they have the authority on their sides.  Defusing the situation is the priority, so their heart rates slow, they're thinking with their checklists and paperwork in mind, and not reacting on instinct.  Bring the encounter under your control, and limit the tension.


  • Objective 3: Build the rapport
    • Keys:  Understand that they're doing their jobs. Work to the expectations that come with the pay cheque, and remember that their jobs are a long string of boredom punctuated with interesting bits. Currently, you're playing the part of the interesting bit of their jobs.  Make yourself boring, and boring quickly.
    • How: Confide in them that you're really pleased to see them since this place is quite scary when you're wandering around lost. Improvise. Talk to them, listen for the social cues, cop the earbashing etc
    • Why: Demonstrate that you understand that they're doing their jobs, and that if there is a problem, it's the fault of "the man" or "the administration".

If things are going well...

  • Objective 4: Swap confrontational for curious
    • Keys: Start trying to convert from confrontation to conflict resolution if you can (and if you can't, damage limit)
    • How: Apologise.  If you're confident you are in the right, get your ID out and ask if there's a way to get clearance. Ask questions. Listen to the answers and ask more questions.  Get them talking to you rather than wanting to hit you.
    • Why: You're the interesting thing for them right now in a long boring shift.  Be interesting in a different way by getting them to talk about themselves, the rules, the managerial structure, anything but asking you what you were doing.

If things are going sour

  • Objective 4b: Tone it down and take the low moral ground
    • Keys: Avoid esclating the confrontation if you can. Someday, you're not going to get anywhere even with good behaviour.  If things are going wrong, and there's aggro, shutting up and letting people vent isn't pleasant, but when you're low on options, it's always an option. 
    • How: Apologise repeatedly, drop the body language to defeated, sink the chest and roll the shoulder forward. I don't know if crying helps, but nodding, shutting up and responding with sir often works on people doing the vent-for-ego boost routines.
    • Why: You're the target. At this point, you are in a hostile and bad place, and the options are so limited that being a worthless target is about the only way to get this scenario moved from "worse" to "bad". You'll be unlikely to make it out to good.


  • Objective 5: Get them talking about themselves buy in on your "project".
    • Keys: Like any good relationship, the opposite partner is much more interested in themselves than they are in you.
    • How: Let security talk about themselves for a bit, and be a good listener.
      • Ask questions about who they think you should speak to about getting the appropriate clearance.
      • Ask for the details of who you should be speaking to about official clearance
        • Don't ask for the guard's names and id numbers, and if they're wearing ID badges, don't write down those details when they are speaking to you. That's usually a sign you plan on complaining, and it will escalate hostility. 
        • If they are being jerks, memorize the names, then write them down after the incident, because if they're going to give you grief, with their names and ID numbers in full view, your notepad won't deter them. If the situation is hostile, forget the documentation.
      • Ask, nod, take notes, and make it clear that this was a terrible mistake on your behalf, but if they could be so kind as to point you in the right direction, so you won't waste their time in future etc.  Make it about them, and how they can help you avoiding causing them problems.
    • Why: Shifting the social dynamic from security as enforcer to security as educator defuses the hostility, boosts their sense that you're genuine about being an accidental tourist, gets them to show off their knowledge, and indicates (rightly or wrongly) that anyone asking how do I get to do this so I don't mess up your day? is a decent sort of person, and not the type to be doing wrong.  Plus, you might actually be able to get official clearance, and security sanction (or even security escort. They tend to know the cool places to explore as well).  It's social engineering under pressure, and if you can convert the security team from hostiles to allies, then there's a good chance you'll get off with a warning or some helpful advice.


  • Objective 6: Leave on good terms
    • Keys: Close the sale. You've gone from being a problem to being interesting to be a friend. Now close the sale with the GTFO Of Dodge move.
    • How: At the end of the encounter, when they've said their piece and you've said yours, and assuming you're about to be free to move off, shake hands with the security guys. Thank them sincerely. 
    • Why: They're so used to hostility and hassle, that the pleasantry and friendliness often distracts them entirely from calling in the report. If they wander back to the office remarking on how unusual it was that they weren't given grief, by the time it gets to writing up the incident report, they'll hopefully skip on the paperwork, details and just stick with the surprise at the warm fuzzy feeling.


  • Objective 7: GTFO
    • Once you can leave, get out as fast and direct as possible.  None of the above works twice in the same encounter.  If you can wrangle it, ask for help to get out of the area (ie, volunteer for a security escort off the property. Shows you were lost, and also lengthens the time you have to befriend them, plus, lengthens the time between them encountering you, and getting back to put a report together).

Hostile Encounter (in the wrong, and needing to leave)

  • Don't run unless you've planned an exit strategy
    • Only run if you are 100% certain you're going to get away.
    • Running is taken as a sign of guilt.
      • Of course, if you're guilty, that's entirely your fault.
      • In which case, run. Run like hell. Plan or no plan, if you're sufficiently dumb to have gone into somewhere without a plan, and are doing something criminal and jail worthy, you're not going to be the type to listen to advice. Just run and hope.
    • You may as well bet on the above social engineering strategy if you can't guarantee an escape
  • Personal Factors to consider when planning to run.....
    • Fitness
    • Speed
    • Local knowledge of the location
    • Do the guards have backup? radio? Cars? Police support?
      • If they can call in support, speed is not remotely useful
      • If you're somewhere new, you will get lost. They won't get lost as easily since they work there. 


  • Terrain Factors
    • Broken ground is not your ally
      • Sprained ankles mean getting caught and being in pain.
      • You won't have time to look carefully while running and trying to calculate an escape
    • Flat ground is easier for you
      • It's also easier for cars, bikes and security to use when they chase you.
    • Stairs
      • Going up stairs gets you away from vehicles, although this relies on you having somewhere upstairs to go (either horizontal or vertical again)
      • Stairs can trap you into a blind alley or against a locked door, or onto a landing or walkway.
      • Going down stairs gets you away from cars and bikes so long as it doesn't lead to a closed door or gate.  Then you're trapped in a fixed location.
    • Right angles
      • Rapid turns beat cars.
      • Multiple right angle turns don't help as you end up back where you left security


  • Calculating the exit strategy on the fly is not possible. 
    • If there's time to debate, there's time to walk out calmly.
    • If you can't quietly and calmly walk away, you can't rationally plan an escape.
    • Social engineering is easier when you've got a lungful of air to use to explain yourself.

Exit Vector Planning

Even if what you're doing is legal, if you're working in a team, plan your strategy and stick to it.

  • Are you in a group?
    • Forget running unless you've preplanned your escape route together
    • Pairs, trios, four person squads.  Divide, plan, and be able to improvise. 
    • Talk it through with the team. Know your role, and be ready to hold your ground or run together.
  • Are you relying on a group member to get you out?
    • Sticking together whilst outrunning guards is harder than it looks, and the temptation to separate to make more targets for the security is strong when running at pace
    • Do you go back for one of your own?
    • Do you abandon everyone to their own devices?
  • Are you running solo
    • Do you know your way out?
    • Can you get to an alternate exit?
    • Are you sure you can get away?
  • What about the equipment ?
    • It will weigh you down if you need to run
    • It has your fingerprints on it
    • It may even have your name on it.
    • Dropping equipment will leave evidence behind
    • You paid money for it, and you'll definitely never see it again if you have to drop it to run.
  • Runtime Strategy
    • Run for somewhere that isn't your car.
      • Get away first, then go back for your transport
      • Licence plates can be found, tracked and generally used to hunt you down, especially if you have been trespassing. 
      • If your car is parked legally, you can leave it for a few hours, and wait for the heat to die down before you go back for it. 
      • Get a friend to pick it up and drive it off (so long as that friend wasn't running offsite with you)
    • Have a designated meeting point and a meet there.
      • Don't go back in unless you've established the plan to go back for each other, or surrender together.
    • Remember: The slowest runner is the speed of the fastest runner if you're in a group.  There are no point scouts, rear guards or any other positions. There's just caught and uncaught.


Potential Hostile and / or Getting caught when running

  • Step 1: Be semi-hysterical when first caught.  Panic, and be afraid. Freak out
  • Step 2: Calm down when security identify themselves.  Calm down rapidly, and with massive sighs and clutching of the hand to the chest. Make it clear you were expecting the worst by your body language.
  • Step 3: Talk to the security team and explain immediately that you didn't recognise them as security, and that you were scared by them, but now they're here, you feel much better.  Apologise. Apologise a lot for having panicked and having made them chase you around.
  • Step 4: Be pleased to see them.  Concede social ground to them by explaining how you freaked out, you were scared, but they've made you feel safer.  Security has two purposes - to secure an area, and to provide a sense of safety to the staff working in that area.  Acknowledge they've provided you with a sense of safety now you've realised who they are.
  • Step 5: Apologise
    • Be reasonable. 
    • Be apologetic.
    • Be embarrassed as hell.
    • Play to their sense of pride as those who serve and protect
    • Build on the newly acquired understanding that you were scared, and they're the protectors and now it's much better and much safer.
  • Step 6: Social Engineer your way to freedom
  • Step 7: Have a better plan for next time.

In the times I've been chased by security, this has worked for me in the past where I've explained the security guys that I was scared, and I reacted the way advised in the campus/employee/student safety manual.  Despite me being absolutely in the wrong, the security guards have usually apologised to me for the misunderstanding.


The Way the World Has Changed: Political considerations

  • Post 9/11 is an excuse, not a reason
    • It'll be in the security lexicon as a rationale for why they won't let you photograph a building or do what you were doing.  This is a bogus reason for you, and a daft rationale for their management, but for the most part, the security guard is likely to have accepted that they're doing their part to make the place safer.
    • Excuses are just excuses. Reasons can be negotiated, excuses can be accepted.  Don't bother trying to point out the insanity of 9/11 as a justification for why you can't photograph a public building. It's not a sane reason, it's an emotional excuse.
  • If you are in the wrong, trespassing or doing something illegal, then it's your fault if you get into trouble.
  • If you are in the right, yield and concede to the guy on the ground, even if they're wrong.
    • They have no ability to change policy anymore than the counterclerk at McDonalds can get the company to adopt more green policy. 
  • If you're in the right, and the ground troops are wrong, ask them politely who you need to see to get permission to do what you wanted to do
    • Ask nicely.  Carry a notepad so you can take down the details.  Thank them for their help.  This gains you buy in with the guards, and when you do see the people at higher level, thank them for the helpfulness of their security team
    • Don't ask for the name of their manager/boss/team leader. That'll be seen as a hostile approach. Ask them for help in working out who you should see to get official clearance.  Discuss what you do, why you do it, and chat with the security teams.  Chances are they're bored, you've been their excitement for the night/day, and now you can provide a bit more interest for their day by talking to them for a bit.


These aren't foolproof guidelines by any means.  This is a set of notes from my experiences of running like hell from security

There will be a chance the guard is on a powertrip, had a bad day and wants to kick some ass to feel better or is just a jerk who does the job for the powertrips.  On the other hand, the guard could be a reasonable person, doing the work to fund their way through college/university or be a retired police/military officer who still believes in duty.  Good and bad people are guards, just the way good and bad people are stopped by guards.  It's a question of how well you convince them that you're the good guy when it happens that determines the outcomes as much as what you were doing in the first place.

My great escapes

  • Shell Oil Refinery Emergency Escape Bridge (Non refinery side).
    • I'd been out on a seek and shoot photo safari with my partner (now my ex) when we came across this ludicrously over secured metal bridge from the roadside onto an island.  The stupid part was that it was very easy to wade across the 10 meter or so of water. I grabbed a couple of snapshots, and then we noticed the Jack Daniels promotional sticker on the gate of the secured bridge.  Sensing a great photo, I went in closer and took a few more snaps - right in the line of sight of the security camera on the other side of the bridge.  Few minutes pass, and we get back to the car when I see a white ute barrelling down the road towards where we were parked. Gut feeling was that this was some form of security, and they were going to want to have a chat.  Told the partner to hang on, and I back the car up, as the ute slammed into the space we'd been in.  Guy in a security uniform leaps out, there's a BP security logo on the ute, and my decision was to run like hell. I knew as well that with my car in a better position to accelerate, and the security guy having to get back into the car, pull a three point turn and then chase me, I had the advantage to run.

      Key take outs

      • I was lucky. If I hadn't spotted the incoming vehicle and had my car running, primed and pointed to go, they'd have caught me clean.
      • Gut feelings and trusting my instinct beats rules lawyers. My ex-partner protesting about rights to photograph and freedom and how she'd talk to that person was a waste of oxygen. I'm glad I ignored her.  When security is doing 120km in a 60 zone, they're not about to negotiate.
      • Local knowledge for the escape and win. I knew to drive towards the docks where there were more turns and twists, rather than relying on open straight road. Sure, I could get to 120kph on the open straight, but so could the security guy. What he couldn't do was follow me once it turned into fast corners and multiple options as to which road I had taken.
      • Speed is no match for sneaky.
    • I elected to run, and I had a run strategy. That's how I got away.


  • UQ St Lucia Campus, 1993
    • This is where I perfected the fear defence as an explanation for running like hell from security.  I was out doing a chalk squad run when I heard someone call "YOU! STOP". Naturally, I did the sensible thing and bolted. Unfortunately, my chalksquad partner was slower to react, and was caught.  I got a few paces away from him when I realised he'd been nabbed, and it was my responsibility to go back for him. 
    • When I got back, Security was towering over him, doing the big macho tough guy act.  I put on my best scared voice, told the guard that I'd freaked out, and that I didn't realised he was security and he'd scared the shit out of me and hit the trembling notes in the voice.  By the time I'd finished explaining, he went from chest puffed out tough pose (standing at the top of a set of stairs) to walking down the steps to us, and changing his body language to conciliatory.  (Of course, I still lied about my name and my student id, but that's not the point. I had an alias prepped for the scenario). The guard went from aggro to apologetic because his job was about securing the campus as a safe environment, and by making me feel unsafe, he felt he'd failed me.  Once that was resolved, we were let off with a warning and told to be on our way.
      • Key lesson: We'd not discussed mutual responses. We'd agreed to stick together, but not talked about running versus surrendering. Big mistake.
      • No strategy, no plan = Fail.
  • UQ St Lucia Campus, Semper.
    • Very late one night, my coeditor and I decided it would be a good idea if we climbed from our office balcony onto the neighbouring balcony of the Treasurer's office, and taped a stuffed rabbit at eye level to her desk (for the record, it was a good idea, and she screamed wonderfully loudly the next morning).  In the process of climbing back, Security saw us, challenged us, and came racing up to the Semper office to demand to know who we were and why we were in the Semper office at 3am.  Cleverly, I didn't have photoID on me to prove my identity and legitimacy as editor of Semper.  Amusingly, I could prove who I was by opening a recent issue to where there was a photo of me as one of the co-editors. 

      Having verified who I was, I then thanked the Security guy for his work.  I really emphasised the fact that as someone who was working late hours and odd times, I felt a lot better about my safety because they'd challenged us and gone through the security process.  Sure, I was entitled to be in the office, and I could have gone and made a fuss, but the bottom line simply was - we were acting oddly at an odd time, and Security reacted to the stimulus in the appropriate manner.  Reacting to them in a polite and professional manner, and thanking them for their work in making us feel secure went a long way to establishing a good relationship with the campus security.
  • Griffith University Campus, Night Shift Security
    • By the end of my time at GU, I knew most of the night security guys by name, and they'd often joke about leaving me to lock up the campus after they went home.  Getting to know the security team at the place you work cuts you some additional slack you may not otherwise earn - simply because you can cheerfully chat to them about the physical infrastructure of the place, and express your love of locations, security guards will often know of some rather cool spots. Usually spots where they tend to head if they want a quiet cigarette or a 10 minute break on the rounds.  It also helps to walk with the security team a few times, if you're finishing up when they come around, walk along with them, and get to know the crew.  They're usually a bit lonely on the patrols, and someone being friendly and interested in the work goes a long way to brightening a shift.


    • However, knowing the crew won't always help out in a tight spot.  I had one incident with the GU security team after I was hauling borrowed gear back on campus one night.  Somebody had seen me carrying loads of computer gear (six cases, three monitors and two large black bags of keyboards and mice etc) from my car back to my office.  Early that week, there had been a robbery of computers from somewhere on campus, and the person who saw me put two and two together for a score of five.  Computers+person = crime was the logic, not considering that the computers were going INTO campus from a car, and not the criminally logical reverse. I'd finished hauling all the junk up to my office when there was a knock at the door. Given it was rather late at night, and I was in a roomful of expensive toys, I ignored the knock.  Next thing I know, there's a fumbling of keys at the door, and the sound of the lock.  I grab the nearest large weapon (Hint: This is not recommended practice for greeting security), leap across the room to open the door to see if it was fight or flight time.  Security identified themselves and I discarded the weapon to open the door.  At this point, I was pumped because I thought they were hostiles. They were pumped because they thought they'd caught a thief. 


    • Here's where it got interesting and tricky - once again, I didn't have my staff id with me, so I had to prove who I was (photo ID licence verified I was Stephen Dann), why I was here (returning computer gear) and whether I was entitled to be here (the sign on the door and the keys to the office).  Security were not amused with me this time, for several reasons:
      • I lacked the proper authentication protocols. No official ID when they wanted the GU approved ID
      • failure to respond to the door immediately
      • moving through campus in a manner that was different from usual
      • failure to be intimidated by their presence.
    • This situation was turned around entirely when I thanked the security team for checking in on the situation.  I opened the door to the room up, showed them just how much gear I had in there, and explained how I really appreciated the fact they did check I was legitimately entitled to be doing what I doing.  This was not the response they were expecting - most academics who had been challenged in their offices would have been angry at the implied accusation.  I thanked the security guys, explained that I did appreciate the professionalism, how they'd handled the situation, and that given the amount of gear I had, I was glad they cared to check, and I asked how I could do things differently next time to avoid suspicion. 
  • Queensland University of Technology, Gardens Point Campus,
    • The first major post9/11 run in with security involved being stopped by guard at QUT because I was doing night photography of one of the buildings.  Their rationale was that I was:
      • taking photos at night, of a stair well
      • listening to something on headphones
      • answered a mobile phone, then proceeded to continue taking photos
      • was dressed in dark colors
      • During the encounter, I did the ID trick (producing ID in advance), plus walking up to security as they approached me (Admission that I was aware that something might be problematic in my actions, and being willing to explain myself, and listen to reason and talk to the guards about why I was acting out of the normal).
      • I asked about appropriate channels, authorizations and the proper protocols, and security helpfully gave me a list of names.  When I started following up the channels for authentication, what I discovered was that there was no protocol. There was nothing anyone could find officially to prohibit me from taking photos on campus, but at the same time, there was nothing authorizing my behavior. In the absence of authorisation, and the absence of prohibition, I was in the grey zone of "Not permitted because it's not authorised but it's not something we can authorize because it's not prohibited".
      • 9/11 was invoked as the reason for the prohibition on unauthorized permitted behavior.


    • ANU, 2006-2007
      • I've had two encounters with Security at ANU.
      • First was in my office at some ungodly hour of the morning as I was working away on a deadline, and Security swung by for the first (and only time thus far) I'd seen them in the building.
        • I had legitimate cause to be on Campus, I was carrying ID which I volunteered, and I was clearly working in an office in a building with swipe card access.
        • Security was far more hostile to me than on most occasions because they were disappointed that I was legitimate, and that was their interesting thing for the evening ruined.
        • Second security encounter on ANU involved walking into the allegedly secure carpark around midnight just after someone had called in a break in on the cars in the carpark (my car was damaged in the attack)
          • Again, I was somewhere I was entitled to be, but not at a standard time. I had my ID tags, could verify my identity, and my ownership of the car.
          • I was challenged to tell Security my car space number and my car registration plates before I was greeted with less open hostility and left to go back to my car. What was most interesting about that particular exchange was that I was well aware the security officer couldn't validate my information - I was being tested on my response speed to see if I was lying (slow response would've meant they suspected I was lying)
          • Both encounters have been interesting for the fact I've had official identification to prove my legitimacy and it's been less valuable for defeating the role expectations than the lack of ID was in the pre-9/11 world.