Security at mega-events has been much on the minds of Canadians this year, as we host the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the upcoming G8 and G20 summits in Huntsville and Toronto at the end of June. These events have been secured at huge tax payer expense – pushing a billion dollars each. What are we getting for the money and is it worth it? Why is security so expensive?

It’s very difficult to estimate security costs. Governments and militaries are reluctant to disclose costs for fear of revealing operational secrets – especially before the event happens. Cost estimates are usually aggregated and not very specific. They are based on a projected threat assessment – an estimate of the expected threat which is used for planning purposes. For the G20, planners are assuming that the threat level will be medium. If the actual threat assessment at the time of the event turns out to be more severe, or if a security incident requiring a response happens, costs may be even higher.

Here’s some of what we do know about security costs for the G8 and G20:

The overall budget is already estimated at $833 million dollars, with an extra $100 million in reserve. Of that, $450 million will go to the RCMP, with most of that being spent on personnel costs: it is estimated that it costs about $500 per day to employ a police officer for the G8/G20, and 19 000 of them are reportedly being used for the G20.

The 5 500 gas masks they will wear cost $350-$400 each. The Toronto Police’s share is$122 million, also mostly to be spent on personnel ($82 million) rather than equipment ($40 million). Their equipment costs include the price of three smaller “Long Range Acoustic Devices,” or sound cannons at about $10 000 each, and one larger one at about $25 000. The famous security fence surrounding the Metro Convention Centre will cost $5.5 million in materials alone.

Documents obtained by the National Post report that Public Safety will spend nearly $300 million, probably to support municipal police departments including the Toronto Police. National Defence will spend about $75 million, Industry Canada will upgrade its equipment and monitor radio frequencies during the summit, CSIS will spend nearly $3 million dollars to provide intelligence and accreditation, Canadian Border Services and CATSA will spend nearly $1.4 million between them, and transport Canada will spend just over $1 million. Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada are responsible for, among other things, health-related contingency plans, health surveillance, and the design of health emergency training scenarios at a cost of just over $2.5 million dollars.

Why does security for mega-events like the G8 /G20 summit cost so much? The first thing to note is that since this is the first time the G8 and G20 have been held concurrently, so the average cost for each event is roughly $450 million dollars. This makes the Ontario summits only astronomically more expensive than other recent summits, not unfathomably more expensive. London’s G20 summit reportedly cost about $11 million(£7 million) in security, and the Pittsburgh summit reportedly cost about $20 million. It’s hard to know exactly how well these numbers compare because of the difficulties in getting accurate information about security costs – but it seems safe to say that Toronto and Huntsville’s operations are more expensive by far.

Several factors might explain the higher costs of security. Indirect costs like insurance and overtime can vary from place to place. Each city has a different geography and different potential costs of security. Incomplete information at the early stages of planning can lead to incorrect estimates. We usually don’t know if there are specific threats facing an event until (long) after the fact. But something else seems to be at work here. We have attached such symbolic importance to security that it becomes difficult to question or criticize spending for security. Not to spend the money would be “utterly irresponsible”, according to Stephen Harper. If a low-probability but devastating event like a terrorist attack or an assassination does take place, security officials want to be able to say that they took every possible security precaution, even if the resulting spending looks absurd. At the same time, the use of new state-of-the-art security technology becomes a way for a city and a state to demonstrate their power and prestige globally. University of Alberta sociologists Kevin Haggerty and Peter Boyle argue that because it is impossible to attain total security, officials focus on maintaining “the appearance of absolute security.” Thus mega-event security embodies a peculiar paradox: it aspires to visibility, or spectacle, at the same time as officials proclaim that the security effort should be invisible at its best. The focus on unsuitable risk management paradigms, the liberty-security trade-off, and keeping up with the neighbours is probably the biggest contributor to overblown budgets and what is commonly known as security theatre.

The good news is that most of the security apparatus for the G8 and G20 is temporary. While the long-range acoustic sound cannons are an important exception, for the most part police and other security officials aren’t acquiring new pieces of equipment they will use against citizens on a permanent basis. This is important from the perspective of balancing security, privacy, and civil rights. Summit security is expensive, but will largely disappear in a few weeks. For Toronto at least, many of the same issues are likely to arise again in relation to hosting the Pan American Games in 2016. Will the public backlash against massive security budgets have shifted the way we plan for security by then?

Veronica Kitchen is a research associate of the LCMSDS and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo. Her book “The Globalization of NATO” was released by Routledge in 2010. Her current research concerns the role of cities in international security.