Criminals will go to any lengths to get their thieving paws on high-value assets. Powerful institutions, meanwhile, have secrets to guard and V.I.P.s to protect. Over the centuries, that’s created a kind of arms race between the bad guys and the security experts. Whether it’s Fort Knox, Buckingham Palace or the White House, protective measures seem to get stricter by the year. Read on to see the lengths people go to in pursuit of perfect security.
20. The White House
We’ve come a long way since President James Madison ordered 100 volunteer militiamen to guard the White House from imminent attack by the invading British in 1812. In the event, the defenders retreated in the face of the advancing British forces. Today, the Secret Service provides the strict security that keeps President Biden and his family safe.
Unsurprisingly, the Secret Service is tight-lipped about the precise complement of officers that guards the White House. But we know that armed emergency response teams patrol the grounds and snipers are stationed on the White House roof. Other security measures include the steel perimeter fence, an array of sensors to detect intruders and bulletproof windows. Sounds like the Secret Service is taking no chances.
19. R.A.F. Menwith Hill, U.K.
From a distance, the Royal Air Force Menwith Hill base in the northern English county of Yorkshire looks as if some giant golfers are about to tee off. In fact, the massive globe-shaped structures are radomes, outer skins protecting radar equipment. What do these structures, often likened to golf balls, actually do? In 2020 The Yorkshire Post newspaper quoted from official documentation stating that the base is a “communication intercept and intelligence support service for both the United Kingdom and the United States of America.”
In other words, it’s a massive spying facility. It was established back in 1954 at the height of the Cold War and it’s still going strong today. Given its purpose, the tight security around the base comes as no surprise. A formidable 10-foot-high razor-wire fence protects the perimeter of the 545-acre site. Inside Menwith Hill, armed military police are on 24-hour patrol, and cameras mounted on poles scan the perimeter. Visitors are definitely not welcome.
18. Lascaux Cave
The Lascaux Cave is a complex of underground caverns in southwestern France’s Dordogne region. But it’s not just any old subterranean labyrinth, it’s home to some of the most extraordinary cave art anywhere in the world. Stunning images of bison, ibexes and horse dating back as much as 20,000 years adorn the walls. So it’s no surprise that these priceless artworks, first discovered in 1940, are well protected.
Steel doors stand at the cave entrance and the watchful lenses of security cameras keep guard. Unfortunately, these paintings, some of Homo sapiens’s earliest artworks, have been under threat from a microscopic plague – unwanted microbes causing mold formation. These were introduced to the cave in the time when as many as 2,000 visited each day. But the caves were closed to the public in 1963, and now human visits are strictly limited for conservation and academic purposes.
17. Fort Knox
Although it has something of the appearance of a massive mausoleum, Fort Knox in Kentucky contains not human remains but gold bullion. A lot of gold bullion. According to the MoneyWise website the value of all the 27½-pound gold bars stashed there is around $190 billion. That amount of loot calls for very careful guarding. Which explains why the main vault door weighs in at 20 tons.
Fort Knox’s walls are made from granite with a concrete inner layer and overall the building includes 1,420 tons of steel. Guard posts overlook the entrance gate to the vault grounds which, are surrounded by a steel fence, and the building itself has sentry points at each of its corners. When Fort Knox opened for business in 1936, the authorities imposed a strict rule, still in force today. In the terse words of the U.S. Mint’s website, “No visitors are permitted in the facility.”
16. Houses of Parliament, London, U.K.
The House of Lords and the House of Commons sit in separate chambers in the magnificent purpose-built Gothic pile completed in 1860. It’s set on the River Thames and is watched over from the landward side by a statue of Sir Winston Churchill. It has had its share of attacks over the years, although it was a different building that was nearly blown up in the Gunpowder Plot led by Guy Fawkes in 1605. He and his co-conspirators were apprehended and put to death.
Nowadays, the chances of anyone managing to smuggle explosives into Parliament’s basement as Fawkes did are pretty much nil. Tight security surrounds the building and although visitors are allowed they have to go through strict checks. If you visit, you’ll pass through a scanner to confirm that you’re weapons free. Once inside the building, you’ll be covered by cameras at all times. You’ll also notice armed police patrolling.
15. City 40, Russia
During the era of the Soviet Union in 1946 an entirely new city arose in the Ural Mountains, some 900 miles to the east of Moscow. It was kept completely secret, marked on no maps and named simply City 40. So what was going on there at the time of the Cold War? The answer is: production of nuclear weapons. No wonder it was such a sensitive location for the Soviets.
The people who lived and worked in City 40 enjoyed higher living standards than their compatriots in the Communist state. But there was a price. Movement was strictly curtailed. Residents were not allowed to talk about their lives to outsiders, including family. Even today, now that the city is known as Ozersk, restrictions still apply. Visitors need a permit from the Russian secret police – good luck with that. Filming is outlawed, and the city is surrounded by a double barbed-wire fence watched over by armed guards.
14. Bank Of England Gold Vault, London
Bank of England Gold Vault sits beneath the institution’s imposing headquarters on London’s Threadneedle Street, where it’s been since 1734. The current vaults were constructed in the 1930s, and today there are some 400,000 gold bars stored there. That’s about $280 billion worth of the glistening yellow metal. Which would surely be a tempting target for any bank robber?
But the chances of any criminal making off with any of the Bank of England’s gold are vanishingly slim. Indeed, thanks to the rigorous security, no one has ever succeeded in stealing so much as a shaving of a gold bar. For a start, the vault’s walls are eight feet thick. The doors require keys that are a foot long and only open if voice-activated software recognizes your dulcet tones.
13. Granite Mountain Records Vault, Utah
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon Church as it’s better known, has its main temple in Salt Lake City, Utah. It’s an impressively pinnacled building reminiscent of a European castle. But there’s another Mormon facility, much less well known and set in the mountains near Salt Lake. It’s the Granite Mountain Records Vault, opened in 1965. This vault is carved some 700 feet into the heart of a mountain, has 14-ton doors and is said to be nuclear-bombproof.
But the Mormon secure vault doesn’t store anything as vulgar as worldly wealth. Instead, it houses the Church’s archives which include extensive genealogical records of the sect’s adherents. Altogether there are some 3.5 billion images recorded on microfilm which is in the process of being digitized. But why are family records stored in this high-security setting? It’s because Mormons want to trace ancestors who lived before the religion was established. They can then be baptized posthumously so that they will enjoy eternal salvation.
12. ADX Florence Prison, Colorado
The ADX Florence Prison in Colorado hosts some of the most dangerous criminals in the world. The Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, 9/11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui and Mexican cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman are some of those passing their days in America’s highest security prison. Called by some “The Alcatraz of the Rockies” the forbidding institution includes 12 gun towers, which are supplemented by armed patrols on the ground.
Once you’re locked up in ADX Florence, you’ll be spending up to 23 hours each day in a cell measuring 7 feet by 12 with solid concrete furnishings. When you leave your cell, you’ll be wearing leg irons and handcuffs with waist chains. The prison includes 1,400 electronically operated doors and is surrounded by a 12-foot razor-wire fence. Even for notorious prison escapee El Chapo, ADX Florence is the end of the line.
11. Buckingham Palace, London
Buckingham Palace, of course, is the principal residence of Queen Elizabeth II. It’s a magnet for tourists, attracted by the pageantry of the changing of the guard. But as a residence of the monarch, the palace is also one of the most closely guarded locations in the U.K. High walls topped by barbed wire and security cameras surround the palace grounds.
Senior members of the royal family are protected round the clock by security personnel specially trained by the SAS. These guards take their jobs very seriously. According to a report from 2017 in British newspaper The Times this devotion to duty once nearly backfired. It seems that, unable to sleep, the Queen went for stroll in the Buckingham Palace gardens at 3:00 a.m. A guard challenged her, realized it was his monarch and cursed and blurted out, “Your Majesty, I nearly shot you.”
10. Area 51
As far as those conspiracists who claim official cover-ups of alien visits to our planet are concerned, Area 51 is at the very heart of things. It’s the place, some contend, where the U.S. government hides evidence of visits by beings from other galaxies. In fact, the Area 51 location in Nevada, 75 miles north of Las Vegas, is a military base. It’s a kind of annex of Edwards Air Force Base in California.
The U.S.A.F. says the base is merely a test flight facility. The U-2 spy plane flew test flights from the base as did the F-117 Stealth fighter, which may explain why there have been so many alleged UFO sightings in the area. There’s no doubt that work at the base is highly confidential, and that’s why security is exceptionally tight. Fierce notices, armed guards and high-tech surveillance equipment keep the public at bay, and flying over the site is strictly forbidden. But does the base conceal alien and UFO remains? Probably not.
9. The Bunker, Kent, U.K.
The Bunker is set in the English county of Kent, about 75 miles southeast of London. It’s a secure data storage facility located in a hardened nuclear shelter formerly used by the Royal Air Force as a radar post. It was established during the Cold War as a safeguard against surprise nuclear attack. Now surplus to R.A.F. requirements, it’s been transformed into a secure hideaway for digital data.
The three-floor Bunker lies 100 feet below the surface of Kent, and it’s protected against biological and chemical attack as well as nuclear bombs. So if you store your data there, you can be sure it will survive even the most extreme attack. You will probably have been wiped from the face of the Earth, but you can take comfort in the knowledge that all your important data will still exist.
8. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway
It’s easy enough to understand the impulse to protect gold bullion, important data and national leaders, but what about seeds? Well. It turns out that one of the world’s most secure locations is expressly designed to preserve seeds. The Global Seed Vault is on the Norwegian island of Svalbard, which lies about 650 miles from the North Pole. In essence, it’s a giant secure refrigerator filled with seeds.
The Svalbard Vault contains some 930,000 varieties of crop seeds, stored at the end of a tunnel that runs for 430 feet into a mountain. Much of modern agriculture depends on a very few plant strains. So this massive seed bank is a kind of insurance policy against catastrophic crop failure. As one of the vault’s managers, Brian Lainoff, told Time magazine, “Inside this building is 13,000 years of agricultural history.”
7. The Kremlin, Moscow
The Kremlin, the Russian president’s official residence in central Moscow, is actually a whole estate with some 15 different buildings. The complex includes gardens, museums and churches. Overlooking the Russian capital’s Red Square, the Kremlin covers 68 acres and is surrounded by a 1.5-mile long wall. In some places this formidable barrier is as thick as 21 feet.
A special unit of elite troops guards the Kremlin. An unusual qualification each of them must reportedly have is the ability to hear a whisper from a distance of 20 feet. There are said to be around 500 soldiers attached to the Kremlin’s dedicated guard unit. And if that’s not enough to repel any threat, special forces are on call nearby, not to mention tanks and armored vehicles.
6. Iron Mountain, Boyers, Pennsylvania
The large hole in Iron Mountain, which looms over Boyers, Pennsylvania, was originally an iron ore mine. In 1936 a man called Herman Knaust got his hands on the by now defunct mine which extended 220 feet below ground. He decided that it was the ideal place to start a mushroom farm, and did just that. His business was a success at first and earned Knaust the title of “Mushroom King.”
But sometime in the 1950s, the mushroom business began to wilt and Knaust needed to find another use for his ex-mine. That’s when he hit upon the idea of storing documents and valuable items such as historic photos in his secure hole in the mountain. Of course, now that we’ve moved into the era of digital data, the mine is being brought up to date with the installation of secure servers. From mushrooms to megabytes, it’s been quite a journey.
5. Chinese naval base, Djibouti
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy – quite a mouthful – completed its first overseas base in 2017. It’s located in Djibouti, a postage stamp of a nation at the southern end of the Gulf of Aden. Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia surround its landward borders. Forbes magazine reported that work on the base was continuing in 2020. And it seems that the Chinese navy is taking no chances when it comes to the defense of their new base.
A fence surrounds the establishment, then there’s a second inner fence, and that’s placed outside high defensive walls. Massive sandbags held in place by wire mesh form these walls. If you were trying to break in, after penetrating those three barriers, you would at last reach the main wall. It’s concrete and features battlements and guard towers at its corners. Within is a detachment of Chinese marines equipped with everything from assault artillery to anti-tank armaments.
4. Communications Security Establishment Canada H.Q.
Communications Security Establishment Canada H.Q. – the very name has a somewhat opaquely sinister ring to it. So what is it? Basically, it’s where some 2,000 of Canada’s military spy guys hang out. The futuristic building is in Ottawa and it’s been dogged by controversy. In particular, campaigners strongly objected to its $1.2 billion cost at a time when government was cutting spending elsewhere.
Security features include special glass – the building has a lot of glazing – which has unspecified abilities to prevent spying eyes, or devices, from seeing in. But the building is not all about the daily grind of espionage. The complex reportedly includes relaxing gardens, nature walks and even a couple of duck ponds. After all, even spies engaged in critical secret work need to let their hair down sometimes.
3. Cheyenne Mountain Complex
When it all goes belly-up and all that’s left of America is a pile of smoking ruins, surviving citizens will be able to take comfort from one fact. An entire military surveillance unit will be safe and sound in the Cheyenne Mountain Complex at Colorado Springs. They’ll be stowed away in a nuclear-bomb-proof bunker gouged into the 9,565-foot mountain, protected by 2,500 feet of solid granite.
The bunker is protected by two 25-ton doors separated by a chamber. And sign at the entrance informs visitors that guards may use deadly force. To keep those sheltering beneath the mountain alive if Armageddon hits, six million gallons of water are stored in rock pools. But life will hardly be luxurious. Food will be in the shape of military rations: “meals ready to eat.” Much worse than that, soldiers will be isolated from their families, likely not knowing if they are dead or alive. Let’s hope it never happens.
2. Federal Social Readaptation Center Number 1, Mexico
You might have to think twice to realize that the obscurely named Federal Social Readaptation Center No. 1 is simply a jail. But Altiplano, as it’s also known, is not just a run-of-the-mill prison. It’s one of Mexico’s highest-security lockups, some say the most secure. Opened in 1991, it’s designed to be completely escape-proof.
Security measures for the highest-risk prisoners include specially trained dogs, constant human surveillance and frequent cell moves. There’s also a no-fly zone above the jail, and cell phone signals are blocked. This regime resulted in no escapes. Or it did until July 12, 2005. That was when notorious drug lord Joaquin Guzman – “El Chapo” – disappeared into the night via a mile-long tunnel.
1. Federal Reserve Bank of New York Gold Vault
Fort Knox may be the best-known U.S. gold stash but the vault at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York actually contains more of the yellow metal. The loot is stored deep beneath the Federal Reserve Bank’s downtown New York headquarters at 33, Liberty Street. The vault lies some 30 feet below the city’s subway system. Think about that next time you ride the rails beneath New York’s Financial District.
In fact, not all of the 6,190 tons of gold stored at Liberty Street belong to the U.S. government. Much of it belongs to foreign powers and international organizations, which obviously believe New York is a safe place for their bullion. According to the Fed’s own website, the vault entrance is protected by “a 90-ton steel cylinder… set within a 140-ton steel-and-concrete frame.” Motion sensors, armed guards and cameras monitored round the clock complete the security picture.