'Security Theatre' was a term coined by Bruce Scheiner in his book Beyond Fear and basically describes a situation, where a security countermeasure offers little or no protection from a real threat, but is simply applied in order to increase the feeling of being secure.
The term has generally been applied to many of the counter-terrorism scenario's we now face during our daily lives. An example could include the sight of armed guards at airports (when really they're carrying unloaded guns) or the stop and search mentally of police forces (when in fact very few people are charged from this).
However, this approach is often being used by organisations in an attempt to secure corporate information assets. Let me take for example, the Sarbanes Oxley Act of 2002, which saw many financial services organisations hurriedly implement new teams to manage the access review and control processes for their SOX 'critical' application estate. Budgets became skewed and if any project or programme had a SOX related requirement, it was certainly handled with a lot more haste and attention than one with out. Whilst SOX is a US federal law, there is a stringent requirement to comply, otherwise face the consequences.
SOX ten years on, has generally been merged into the 'business as usual' approach to information security, with the requirements wrapped up in the operational and risk management catalogue. Whilst finite budget is spent on one aspect of information security, it can't be spent twice and is therefore is unavailable for other emerging threats, legacy risks and other general BAU activities.
Whilst SOX was the 'buzz' of say 8-10 years ago, 2012 will probably be focused on BYOD, cyberthreat, APT and 'hacktivism'. Whilst each in their own right are credible threats, affecting each organisation in a different way, an information security policy cannot secure against every potential new or emerging threat simultaneously. The cost would be prohibitive.
This can often leave information security departments in a situation where they are propelled to develop a countermeasure of some level, in order to either satisfy internal board level pressure or simply look as if they're acting in a controlled and responsible manner.
The theatrical countermeasures could simply be procedural changes, but they are often highly visible in order to represent an increased 'feeling' of security. For example - all intranet connections must use an HTTPS connection with perhaps a self-minted certificate. It 'looks' secure. End users who are unaware of the complexities of IT and information security, see the padlock within their browser and make a connection with the thought of security. The process is in effect potentially fruitless, if for example, the web server is not hardened, or shared passwords are being used to access or maintain it. But the required result, is the 'feeling' of being secure.
IT and information security departments are often seen as a cost centre to the organisation - they cost money but don't generate revenue. Whilst this is a short term and inaccurate view, many smaller and medium sized organisations are often constrained by this approach.
Whilst 'security theatre' can at times have the desired affect, a true information security approach must be based on a continually changing risk framework for the organisation, to help identify where the true threats and vulnerabilities lie. This can then help align counter measures, that are not only cost effective, but truly help improve information asset protection and not just act as the sometimes welcomed 'placebo effect'.