The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32

The assumption that all doors are locked

This multi-faceted post on security—from physical to digital and back—by Tim Maly is terrific.

The practice of locking the front door baffles me. It seems to me that, if you lock your front door, you are saying you believe that, at some point, someone will come along and jiggle your door-knob. Someone will give it a try. And I just can’t believe that’s the case. I mean, what, do villains just cruise down the block, jiggling door-knobs in sequence? Of course they don’t!

Now, you could say no, that’s not it at all; instead, locking the front door is a ritual we all perform which provides a general assumption of front-door-locked-ness. Almost like vaccination. One person does it, it’s meaningless; everybody does it, it’s a big deal. And also like vaccination because, once everybody does it, you largely get the benefits even if you don’t!

Locking the front door as collective action. Hmm. I still don’t think it makes any sense. I still do it.


Actually, most burglaries are crimes of opportunity. Burglars *do* go down a street looking for accessible windows, unlocked doors. If a house is locked, it’s more trouble than it’s worth for most burglars to break in.

This makes me think of the Jane Jacobs-ian argument that the safest kind of street is the kind that has people around all the time — mixed-use zoning as security scheme.

That is precisely the Jane Jacobs argument, right in the beginning of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”.

On a small scale, it is the reason you should invite people in your apartment building to your parties and get to know them. They are a great line of defense.

Brian says…

Security is about costs. Locking the front door has a small cost. Buckling your seat belt has a similar cost, and even though you don’t need the added protection 99% of the time, most people spend the 3 seconds to do it every time they get in a car.

Bergamot says…

You lock the front door because, if someone steals all your stuff and there’s no sign of forced entry, your homeowner’s insurance company will laugh in your face.

Heh heh, very true, but it’s that “if someone steals all your stuff” conditional that I just can’t get around. I don’t think anyone has ever tried to steal my stuff 🙂

I suppose it gives you a sense of direct control over who enters your house, as opposed to just assuming (though perhaps reasonably) that no one will try. The benefit, at least to me, is not reduced risk of burglary but increased peace of mind.

Unfortunately, people have stolen a lot of my stuff, and I also know, from other people’s experience, that some people do, in fact, jiggle your front door. I know all too well that they will even walk around your house and systematically check which windows are open or can be forced open easily.

The lock-picking example always struck me as silly because, in a front door situation not during sleeping hours, you need it to be good at picking the lock in under a few minutes. Anything more than a small amount of time risks being seen doing a very odd and noticable motion in front of the door. A thief that doesn’t want to risk getting caught isn’t going to try that, but walking up to your door and *trying* to open it is a much safer bet. (The usual technique is actually ringing the doorbell to make sure no one is home, jiggling the door, leaving, and sending someone else, a little while later, to do the actual walking-in.) Lock bumping is faster, but there are locks that are more immune to it. Again, lighting and visibility are also key, as well as neighborliness. Obviously, in the middle of the night, thieves are going to be less afraid of getting caught (and much faster about jiggling doors) so that’s why people who leaving overnight often get house sitters. (Or alarms.)

Since security through obscurity is, essentially, the evolutionary strategy of many sorts of prey, and the social strategy of generations of women, I wouldn’t knock it so completely. If you are weak and easily tackled, you are going to go for what you can get. I’d love to see a survey of who reacted to Streetview in which way, broken down by age, gender, household status, income, and stalking history.

See, that’s what I was looking for. Actual verification of door-jiggling. Thanks for the notes/perspective, Saheli.

I also would really like to see reactions to street view broken down by the demographics you mention. That would be a really interesting set of data.

In contrast, I have friends who keep their cars unlocked on certain streets in certain neigborhoods because the break-in rate is so high. The logic is: keep nothing of value in the car, and you save yourself the trouble of fixing a broken window. Just grant the curious thieves access and disappoint them when all there is to steal is Tic-Tacs. It’s creepy knowing someone is looking for your stuff (my friends have noticed open doors or Tic-Tacs actually missing). but it does lend credit to the “jiggling” theory. I guess the bottom line is everyone is always trying to steal your stuff so we all need to be paranoid all the time 🙂

Joanna says…

Huh. In one 2-year period in San Francisco, our house was broken into 5 times, twice by someone who broke the front door down with a crowbar. We know this because he/she left the crowbar: our neighborhood junky. You’d think there’d be nothing left to steal, but they managed to get something different every time. My mother finally got an alarm, which of course was set off by the cat, the wind, and when we forgot the code.
In Minneapolis, they don’t jiggle your front door, they jiggle your back door, or slit the screen on your porch window if the window is open during the summer.

WHOAH! Yes, see, I’m obviously suffering from a lack of data points here. A crowbar?

Robin, I think your feeling of safety also comes from the Richmond District’s reputation for being a low burglary neighborhood. It lacks the grittiness of the Mission and and the schmanciness of Pac Heights to make it a huge target for break-ins, so from what I remember, house break-ins were rare in the Avenues.

Definitely true. However, I also lived in Cole Valley and on the sketchiest street ever—McCoppin, just at the crook of Valencia and Market—and I didn’t feel like my door was getting tested there. Maybe it was!

I still like the idea that the systemic effect of ALL doors being locked is the real deterrent.

Also note that theft is not the only outcome. Someone could enter your home and wait for you to return. Or they could rearrange or tamper with your stuff to mess with you. (This is particularly a danger in college dorms.)

The dorm example is an interesting one, because that’s a situation where it’s actually legitimately believable that someone would take the time to learn to pick locks and then open your door and do some prank.

Like the Tim who works here, I really like the vision of locking one’s door as a kind of collective act. And there seems to be some truth to that in the world of crimes. Lots of people have alarm systems or at least the appearance of alarm systems and maybe you get to know that certain neighbourhoods aren’t worth the bother of trying to steal from.

But unlike a vaccination where the community benefits from me being vaccinated, there’s a sense in which security measures are kind of a way of saying “look, go steal from someone else”. If a lot of the crimes are crimes of opportunity, then locking your door makes sense because maybe they find someone whose door isn’t locked, so they go steal from there. If everyone’s door is locked, then they wander around the houses to see who left their windows open. Etc.

The world isn’t full of only nice people and at least some of them live in Brooklyn, where I keep my stuff.
People steal our packages all the time on the off chance that something good is in them. They push doorbells on the building until someone buzzes them in, then they go to all the doors that didn’t answer and jiggle handles.

There are differences between places, differences in culture, security, and various norms.

Your statement seems like someone who is tech-literate, has smart friends, and one day thinks “How do spammers make any money since no one ever responds to spam?”

That’s fair, as evidenced by the comments here. I’m actually very surprised to hear them. I’ve lived in some scummy/shady places in both St. Petersburg and San Francisco and never felt like my place was being cased. So either I was a) lucky or b) wrong.

However, I will say that one of my biggest pet peeves (it’s bigger than a pet peeve; a wild peeve?) is the approach to the world that says: People are out to cheat me, to rob me. Give ’em an inch and they’ll take everything. Hobbes in the city. I think it’s false and corrosive.

And I like your invocation of Jane Jacobs up above, Matt. I think most people actually want to help protect you — so we just have to set ourselves up to make that more possible.

Just piling on: My little neighborhood newsletter had an item recently on the fact that the most common denominator in local burglaries was leaving doors and windows unlocked. I’ve been extra-vigilant ever since, even though my block never seems to show up on the crime map, even for larceny. (There was once apparently a major, middle-of-the-night pot bust right outside my house, though.)

Anonymous Dude says…

When I was in school, I would walk down the halls and try to open every locker. When I found one that was unlocked, I’d take anything valuable that I found. I was always surprised how many people would not bother to lock them, but would leave money inside. I never graduated to robbing houses, but I think the same approach would work.

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