Entries Tagged "accountability"

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The DoD Isn't Fixing Its Security Problems

It has produced several reports outlining what’s wrong and what needs to be fixed. It’s not fixing them:

GAO looked at three DoD-designed initiatives to see whether the Pentagon is following through on its own goals. In a majority of cases, DoD has not completed the cybersecurity training and awareness tasks it set out to. The status of various efforts is simply unknown because no one has tracked their progress. While an assessment of “cybersecurity hygiene” like this doesn’t directly analyze a network’s hardware and software vulnerabilities, it does underscore the need for people who use digital systems to interact with them in secure ways. Especially when those people work on national defense.

[…]

The report focuses on three ongoing DoD cybersecurity hygiene initiatives. The 2015 Cybersecurity Culture and Compliance Initiative outlined 11 education-related goals for 2016; the GAO found that the Pentagon completed only four of them. Similarly, the 2015 Cyber Discipline plan outlined 17 goals related to detecting and eliminating preventable vulnerabilities from DoD’s networks by the end of 2018. GAO found that DoD has met only six of those. Four are still pending, and the status of the seven others is unknown, because no one at DoD has kept track of the progress.

GAO repeatedly identified lack of status updates and accountability as core issues within DoD’s cybersecurity awareness and education efforts. It was unclear in many cases who had completed which training modules. There were even DoD departments lacking information on which users should have their network access revoked for failure to complete trainings.

The report.

Posted on April 17, 2020 at 10:35 AMView Comments

Marriott Was Hacked — Again

Marriott announced another data breach, this one affecting 5.2 million people:

At this point, we believe that the following information may have been involved, although not all of this information was present for every guest involved:

  • Contact Details (e.g., name, mailing address, email address, and phone number)
  • Loyalty Account Information (e.g., account number and points balance, but not passwords)
  • Additional Personal Details (e.g., company, gender, and birthday day and month)
  • Partnerships and Affiliations (e.g., linked airline loyalty programs and numbers)
  • Preferences (e.g., stay/room preferences and language preference)

This isn’t nearly as bad as the 2014 Marriott breach — made public in 2018 — which was the work of the Chinese government. But it does call into question whether Marriott is taking security seriously at all. It would be nice if there were a government regulatory body that could investigate and hold the company accountable.

Posted on April 2, 2020 at 11:33 AMView Comments

IRS Security

Monday is Tax Day. Many of us are thinking about our taxes. Are they too high or too low? What’s our money being spent on? Do we have a government worth paying for? I’m not here to answer any of those questions — I’m here to give you something else to think about. In addition to sending the IRS your money, you’re also sending them your data.

It’s a lot of highly personal financial data, so it’s sensitive and important information.

Is that data secure?

The short answer is “no.” Every year, the GAO — Government Accountability Office — reviews IRS security and issues a report. The title of this year’s report kind of says it all: “IRS Needs to Further Improve Controls over Financial and Taxpayer Data.” The details are ugly: failures in identification and authentication of network users, failures to encrypt data, failures in audit and monitoring and failures to patch vulnerabilities and update software.

To be fair, the GAO can sometimes be pedantic in its evaluations. And the 43 recommendations for the IRS to improve security aren’t being made public, so as not to advertise our vulnerabilities to the bad guys. But this is all pretty basic stuff, and it’s embarrassing.

More importantly, this lack of security is dangerous. We know that cybercriminals are using our financial information to commit fraud. Specifically, they’re using our personal tax information to file for tax refunds in our name to fraudulently collect the refunds.

We know that foreign governments are targeting U.S. government networks for personal information on U.S. citizens: Remember the OPM data theft that was made public last year in which a federal personnel database with records on 21.5 million people was stolen?

There have been some stories of hacks against IRS databases in the past. I think that the IRS has been hacked even more than is publicly reported, either because the government is keeping the attacks secret or because it doesn’t even realize it’s been attacked.

So what happens next?

If the past is any guide, not a lot. The GAO has been warning about problems with IRS security since it started writing these reports in 2007. In each report, the GAO has issued recommendations for the IRS to improve security. After each report, the IRS did a few of those things, but ignored most of the recommendations. In this year’s report, for example, the GAO complained that the IRS ignored 47 of its 70 recommendations from 2015. In its 2015 report, it complained that the IRS only mitigated 14 of the 69 weaknesses it identified in 2013. The 2012 report didn’t paint IRS security in any better light.

If I had to guess, I’d say the IRS’s security is this bad for the exact same reason that so much corporate network-security is so bad: lack of budget. It’s not uncommon for companies to skimp on their security budget. The budget at the IRS has been cut 17% since 2010; I am certain IT security was not exempt from those cuts.

So we’re stuck. We have no choice but to give the IRS our data. The IRS isn’t doing a good job securing our data. Congress isn’t giving the IRS enough budget to do a good job securing our data. Last Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee urged the IRS to improve its security. We all need to urge Congress to give it the money to do so.

Nothing is absolutely hacker-proof, but there are a lot of security improvements the IRS can make. If we have to give the IRS all our information — and we do — we deserve to have it taken care of properly.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

Posted on April 15, 2016 at 6:52 AMView Comments

Accountability as a Security System

At a CATO surveillance event last month, Ben Wittes talked about inherent presidential powers of surveillance with this hypothetical: “What should Congress have to say about the rules when Barack Obama wants to know what Vladimir Putin is talking about?” His answer was basically that Congress should have no say: “I think most people, going back to my Vladimir Putin question, would say that is actually an area of inherent presidential authority.” Edward Snowden, a surprise remote participant at the event, said the opposite, although using the courts in general rather than specifically Congress as his example. “…there is no court in the world — well, at least, no court outside Russia — who would not go, ‘This man is an agent of the foreign government. I mean, he’s the head of the government.’ Of course, they will say, ‘this guy has access to some kind of foreign intelligence value. We’ll sign the warrant for him.'”

There’s a principle here worth discussing at length. I’m not talking about the legal principle, as in what kind of court should oversee US intelligence collection. I’m not even talking about the constitutional principle, as in what are the US president’s inherent powers. I am talking about the philosophical principle: what sorts of secret unaccountable actions do we want individuals to be able to take on behalf of their country?

Put that way, I think the answer is obvious: as little as possible.

I am not a lawyer or a political scientist. I am a security technologist. And to me, the separation of powers and the checks and balances written into the US constitution are a security system. The more Barack Obama can do by himself in secret, the more power he has — and the more dangerous that is to all of us. By limiting the actions individuals and groups can take on their own, and forcing differing institutions to approve the actions of each other, the system reduces the ability for those in power to abuse their power. It holds them accountable.

We have enshrined the principle of different groups overseeing each other in many of our social and political systems. The courts issue warrants, limiting police power. Independent audit companies verify corporate balance sheets, limiting corporate power. And the executive, the legislative, and the judicial branches of government get to have their say in our laws. Sometimes accountability takes the form of prior approval, and sometimes it takes the form of ex post facto review. It’s all inefficient, of course, but it’s an inefficiency we accept because it makes us all safer.

While this is a fine guiding principle, it quickly falls apart in the practicalities of running a modern government. It’s just not possible to run a country where every action is subject to review and approval. The complexity of society, and the speed with which some decisions have to be made, can require unilateral actions. So we make allowances. Congress passes broad laws, and agencies turn them into detailed rules and procedures. The president is the commander in chief of the entire US military when it comes time to fight wars. Policeman have a lot of discretion on their own on the beat. And we only get to vote elected officials in and out of office every two, four, or six years.

The thing is, we can do better today. I’ve often said that the modern constitutional democracy is the best form of government mid-18th-century technology could produce. Because both communications and travel were difficult and expensive, it made sense for geographically proximate groups of people to choose one representative to go all the way over there and act for them over a long block of time.

Neither of these two limitations is true today. Travel is both cheap and easy, and communications are so cheap and easy as to be virtually free. Video conferencing and telepresence allow people to communicate without traveling. Surely if we were to design a democratic government today, we would come up with better institutions than the ones we are stuck with because of history.

And we can come up with more granular systems of checks and balances. So, yes, I think we would have a better government if a court had to approve all surveillance actions by the president, including those against Vladimir Putin. And today it might be possible to have a court do just that. Wittes argues that making some of these changes is impossible, given the current US constitution. He may be right, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good ideas.

Of course, the devil is always in the details. Efficiency is still a powerful counterargument. The FBI has procedures for temporarily bypassing prior approval processes if speed is essential. And granularity can still be a problem. Every bullet fired by the US military can’t be subject to judicial approval or even a military court, even though every bullet fired by a US policeman is — at least in theory — subject to judicial review. And while every domestic surveillance decision made by the police and the NSA is (also in theory) subject to judicial approval, it’s hard to know whether this can work for international NSA surveillance decisions until we try.

We are all better off now that many of the NSA’s surveillance programs have been made public and are being debated in Congress and in the media — although I had hoped for more congressional action — and many of the FISA Court’s formerly secret decisions on surveillance are being made public. But we still have a long way to go, and it shouldn’t take someone like Snowden to force at least some openness to happen.

This essay previously appeared on Lawfare.com, where Ben Wittes responded.

Posted on January 20, 2015 at 6:24 AMView Comments

Today I Briefed Congress on the NSA

This morning, I spent an hour in a closed room with six members of Congress: Rep. Lofgren, Rep. Sensenbrenner, Rep. Bobby Scott, Rep. Goodlatte, Rep. Mike Thompson, and Rep. Amash. No staffers, no public: just them. Lofgren had asked me to brief her and a few Representatives on the NSA. She said that the NSA wasn’t forthcoming about their activities, and they wanted me — as someone with access to the Snowden documents — to explain to them what the NSA was doing. Of course, I’m not going to give details on the meeting, except to say that it was candid and interesting. And that it’s extremely freaky that Congress has such a difficult time getting information out of the NSA that they have to ask me. I really want oversight to work better in this country.

Surreal part of setting up this meeting: I suggested that we hold this meeting in a SCIF, because they wanted me to talk about top secret documents that had not been made public. The problem is that I, as someone without a clearance, would not be allowed into the SCIF. So we had to have the meeting in a regular room.

EDITED TO ADD: This really was an extraordinary thing.

Posted on January 16, 2014 at 12:27 PMView Comments

Restoring Trust in Government and the Internet

In July 2012, responding to allegations that the video-chat service Skype — owned by Microsoft — was changing its protocols to make it possible for the government to eavesdrop on users, Corporate Vice President Mark Gillett took to the company’s blog to deny it.

Turns out that wasn’t quite true.

Or at least he — or the company’s lawyers — carefully crafted a statement that could be defended as true while completely deceiving the reader. You see, Skype wasn’t changing its protocols to make it possible for the government to eavesdrop on users, because the government was already able to eavesdrop on users.

At a Senate hearing in March, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper assured the committee that his agency didn’t collect data on hundreds of millions of Americans. He was lying, too. He later defended his lie by inventing a new definition of the word “collect,” an excuse that didn’t even pass the laugh test.

As Edward Snowden’s documents reveal more about the NSA’s activities, it’s becoming clear that we can’t trust anything anyone official says about these programs.

Google and Facebook insist that the NSA has no “direct access” to their servers. Of course not; the smart way for the NSA to get all the data is through sniffers.

Apple says it’s never heard of PRISM. Of course not; that’s the internal name of the NSA database. Companies are publishing reports purporting to show how few requests for customer-data access they’ve received, a meaningless number when a single Verizon request can cover all of their customers. The Guardian reported that Microsoft secretly worked with the NSA to subvert the security of Outlook, something it carefully denies. Even President Obama’s justifications and denials are phrased with the intent that the listener will take his words very literally and not wonder what they really mean.

NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander has claimed that the NSA’s massive surveillance and data mining programs have helped stop more than 50 terrorist plots, 10 inside the U.S. Do you believe him? I think it depends on your definition of “helped.” We’re not told whether these programs were instrumental in foiling the plots or whether they just happened to be of minor help because the data was there. It also depends on your definition of “terrorist plots.” An examination of plots that that FBI claims to have foiled since 9/11 reveals that would-be terrorists have commonly been delusional, and most have been egged on by FBI undercover agents or informants.

Left alone, few were likely to have accomplished much of anything.

Both government agencies and corporations have cloaked themselves in so much secrecy that it’s impossible to verify anything they say; revelation after revelation demonstrates that they’ve been lying to us regularly and tell the truth only when there’s no alternative.

There’s much more to come. Right now, the press has published only a tiny percentage of the documents Snowden took with him. And Snowden’s files are only a tiny percentage of the number of secrets our government is keeping, awaiting the next whistle-blower.

Ronald Reagan once said “trust but verify.” That works only if we can verify. In a world where everyone lies to us all the time, we have no choice but to trust blindly, and we have no reason to believe that anyone is worthy of blind trust. It’s no wonder that most people are ignoring the story; it’s just too much cognitive dissonance to try to cope with it.

This sort of thing can destroy our country. Trust is essential in our society. And if we can’t trust either our government or the corporations that have intimate access into so much of our lives, society suffers. Study after study demonstrates the value of living in a high-trust society and the costs of living in a low-trust one.

Rebuilding trust is not easy, as anyone who has betrayed or been betrayed by a friend or lover knows, but the path involves transparency, oversight and accountability. Transparency first involves coming clean. Not a little bit at a time, not only when you have to, but complete disclosure about everything. Then it involves continuing disclosure. No more secret rulings by secret courts about secret laws. No more secret programs whose costs and benefits remain hidden.

Oversight involves meaningful constraints on the NSA, the FBI and others. This will be a combination of things: a court system that acts as a third-party advocate for the rule of law rather than a rubber-stamp organization, a legislature that understands what these organizations are doing and regularly debates requests for increased power, and vibrant public-sector watchdog groups that analyze and debate the government’s actions.

Accountability means that those who break the law, lie to Congress or deceive the American people are held accountable. The NSA has gone rogue, and while it’s probably not possible to prosecute people for what they did under the enormous veil of secrecy it currently enjoys, we need to make it clear that this behavior will not be tolerated in the future. Accountability also means voting, which means voters need to know what our leaders are doing in our name.

This is the only way we can restore trust. A market economy doesn’t work unless consumers can make intelligent buying decisions based on accurate product information. That’s why we have agencies like the FDA, truth-in-packaging laws and prohibitions against false advertising.

In the same way, democracy can’t work unless voters know what the government is doing in their name. That’s why we have open-government laws. Secret courts making secret rulings on secret laws, and companies flagrantly lying to consumers about the insecurity of their products and services, undermine the very foundations of our society.

Since the Snowden documents became public, I have been receiving e-mails from people seeking advice on whom to trust. As a security and privacy expert, I’m expected to know which companies protect their users’ privacy and which encryption programs the NSA can’t break. The truth is, I have no idea. No one outside the classified government world does. I tell people that they have no choice but to decide whom they trust and to then trust them as a matter of faith. It’s a lousy answer, but until our government starts down the path of regaining our trust, it’s the only thing we can do.

This essay originally appeared on CNN.com.

EDITED TO ADD (8/7): Two more links describing how the US government lies about NSA surveillance.

Posted on August 7, 2013 at 6:29 AMView Comments

The Public/Private Surveillance Partnership

Imagine the government passed a law requiring all citizens to carry a tracking device. Such a law would immediately be found unconstitutional. Yet we all carry mobile phones.

If the National Security Agency required us to notify it whenever we made a new friend, the nation would rebel. Yet we notify Facebook. If the Federal Bureau of Investigation demanded copies of all our conversations and correspondence, it would be laughed at. Yet we provide copies of our e-mail to Google, Microsoft or whoever our mail host is; we provide copies of our text messages to Verizon, AT&T and Sprint; and we provide copies of other conversations to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or whatever other site is hosting them.

The primary business model of the Internet is built on mass surveillance, and our government’s intelligence-gathering agencies have become addicted to that data. Understanding how we got here is critical to understanding how we undo the damage.

Computers and networks inherently produce data, and our constant interactions with them allow corporations to collect an enormous amount of intensely personal data about us as we go about our daily lives. Sometimes we produce this data inadvertently simply by using our phones, credit cards, computers and other devices. Sometimes we give corporations this data directly on Google, Facebook, Apple Inc.’s iCloud and so on in exchange for whatever free or cheap service we receive from the Internet in return.

The NSA is also in the business of spying on everyone, and it has realized it’s far easier to collect all the data from these corporations rather than from us directly. In some cases, the NSA asks for this data nicely. In other cases, it makes use of subtle threats or overt pressure. If that doesn’t work, it uses tools like national security letters.

The result is a corporate-government surveillance partnership, one that allows both the government and corporations to get away with things they couldn’t otherwise.

There are two types of laws in the U.S., each designed to constrain a different type of power: constitutional law, which places limitations on government, and regulatory law, which constrains corporations. Historically, these two areas have largely remained separate, but today each group has learned how to use the other’s laws to bypass their own restrictions. The government uses corporations to get around its limits, and corporations use the government to get around their limits.

This partnership manifests itself in various ways. The government uses corporations to circumvent its prohibitions against eavesdropping domestically on its citizens. Corporations rely on the government to ensure that they have unfettered use of the data they collect.

Here’s an example: It would be reasonable for our government to debate the circumstances under which corporations can collect and use our data, and to provide for protections against misuse. But if the government is using that very data for its own surveillance purposes, it has an incentive to oppose any laws to limit data collection. And because corporations see no need to give consumers any choice in this matter — because it would only reduce their profits — the market isn’t going to protect consumers, either.

Our elected officials are often supported, endorsed and funded by these corporations as well, setting up an incestuous relationship between corporations, lawmakers and the intelligence community.

The losers are us, the people, who are left with no one to stand up for our interests. Our elected government, which is supposed to be responsible to us, is not. And corporations, which in a market economy are supposed to be responsive to our needs, are not. What we have now is death to privacy—and that’s very dangerous to democracy and liberty.

The simple answer is to blame consumers, who shouldn’t use mobile phones, credit cards, banks or the Internet if they don’t want to be tracked. But that argument deliberately ignores the reality of today’s world. Everything we do involves computers, even if we’re not using them directly. And by their nature, computers produce tracking data. We can’t go back to a world where we don’t use computers, the Internet or social networking. We have no choice but to share our personal information with these corporations, because that’s how our world works today.

Curbing the power of the corporate-private surveillance partnership requires limitations on both what corporations can do with the data we choose to give them and restrictions on how and when the government can demand access to that data. Because both of these changes go against the interests of corporations and the government, we have to demand them as citizens and voters. We can lobby our government to operate more transparently — disclosing the opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would be a good start — and hold our lawmakers accountable when it doesn’t. But it’s not going to be easy. There are strong interests doing their best to ensure that the steady stream of data keeps flowing.

This essay originally appeared on Bloomberg.com.

Posted on August 5, 2013 at 6:02 AMView Comments

Transparency and Accountability

As part of the fallout of the Boston bombings, we’re probably going to get some new laws that give the FBI additional investigative powers. As with the Patriot Act after 9/11, the debate over whether these new laws are helpful will be minimal, but the effects on civil liberties could be large. Even though most people are skeptical about sacrificing personal freedoms for security, it’s hard for politicians to say no to the FBI right now, and it’s politically expedient to demand that something be done.

If our leaders can’t say no — and there’s no reason to believe they can — there are two concepts that need to be part of any new counterterrorism laws, and investigative laws in general: transparency and accountability.

Long ago, we realized that simply trusting people and government agencies to always do the right thing doesn’t work, so we need to check up on them. In a democracy, transparency and accountability are how we do that. It’s how we ensure that we get both effective and cost-effective government. It’s how we prevent those we trust from abusing that trust, and protect ourselves when they do. And it’s especially important when security is concerned.

First, we need to ensure that the stuff we’re paying money for actually works and has a measureable impact. Law-enforcement organizations regularly invest in technologies that don’t make us any safer. The TSA, for example, could devote an entire museum to expensive but ineffective systems: puffer machines, body scanners, FAST behavioral screening, and so on. Local police departments have been wasting lots of post-9/11 money on unnecessary high-tech weaponry and equipment. The occasional high-profile success aside, police surveillance cameras have been shown to be a largely ineffective police tool.

Sometimes honest mistakes led organizations to invest in these technologies. Sometimes there’s self-deception and mismanagement—and far too often lobbyists are involved. Given the enormous amount of security money post-9/11, you inevitably end up with an enormous amount of waste. Transparency and accountability are how we keep all of this in check.

Second, we need to ensure that law enforcement does what we expect it to do and nothing more. Police powers are invariably abused. Mission creep is inevitable, and it results in laws designed to combat one particular type of crime being used for an ever-widening array of crimes. Transparency is the only way we have of knowing when this is going on.

For example, that’s how we learned that the FBI is abusing National Security Letters. Traditionally, we use the warrant process to protect ourselves from police overreach. It’s not enough for the police to want to conduct a search; they also need to convince a neutral third party — a judge — that the search is in the public interest and will respect the rights of those searched. That’s accountability, and it’s the very mechanism that NSLs were exempted from.

When laws are broken, accountability is how we punish those who abused their power. It’s how, for example, we correct racial profiling by police departments. And it’s a lack of accountability that permits the FBI to get away with massive data collection until exposed by a whistleblower or noticed by a judge.

Third, transparency and accountability keep both law enforcement and politicians from lying to us. The Bush Administration lied about the extent of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. The TSA lied about the ability of full-body scanners to save naked images of people. We’ve been lied to about the lethality of tasers, when and how the FBI eavesdrops on cell-phone calls, and about the existence of surveillance records. Without transparency, we would never know.

A decade ago, the FBI was heavily lobbying Congress for a law to give it new wiretapping powers: a law known as CALEA. One of its key justifications was that existing law didn’t allow it to perform speedy wiretaps during kidnapping investigations. It sounded plausible — and who wouldn’t feel sympathy for kidnapping victims? — but when civil-liberties organizations analyzed the actual data, they found that it was just a story; there were no instances of wiretapping in kidnapping investigations. Without transparency, we would never have known that the FBI was making up stories to scare Congress.

If we’re going to give the government any new powers, we need to ensure that there’s oversight. Sometimes this oversight is before action occurs. Warrants are a great example. Sometimes they’re after action occurs: public reporting, audits by inspector generals, open hearings, notice to those affected, or some other mechanism. Too often, law enforcement tries to exempt itself from this principle by supporting laws that are specifically excused from oversight…or by establishing secret courts that just rubber-stamp government wiretapping requests.

Furthermore, we need to ensure that mechanisms for accountability have teeth and are used.

As we respond to the threat of terrorism, we must remember that there are other threats as well. A society without transparency and accountability is the very definition of a police state. And while a police state might have a low crime rate — especially if you don’t define police corruption and other abuses of power as crime — and an even lower terrorism rate, it’s not a society that most of us would willingly choose to live in.

We already give law enforcement enormous power to intrude into our lives. We do this because we know they need this power to catch criminals, and we’re all safer thereby. But because we recognize that a powerful police force is itself a danger to society, we must temper this power with transparency and accountability.

This essay previously appeared on TheAtlantic.com.

Posted on May 14, 2013 at 5:48 AMView Comments

Fixing Airport Security

It’s been months since the Transportation Security Administration has had a permanent director. If, during the job interview (no, I didn’t get one), President Obama asked me how I’d fix airport security in one sentence, I would reply: “Get rid of the photo ID check, and return passenger screening to pre-9/11 levels.”

Okay, that’s a joke. While showing ID, taking your shoes off and throwing away your water bottles isn’t making us much safer, I don’t expect the Obama administration to roll back those security measures anytime soon. Airport security is more about CYA than anything else: defending against what the terrorists did last time.

But the administration can’t risk appearing as if it facilitated a terrorist attack, no matter how remote the possibility, so those annoyances are probably here to stay.

This would be my real answer: “Establish accountability and transparency for airport screening.” And if I had another sentence: “Airports are one of the places where Americans, and visitors to America, are most likely to interact with a law enforcement officer – and yet no one knows what rights travelers have or how to exercise those rights.”

Obama has repeatedly talked about increasing openness and transparency in government, and it’s time to bring transparency to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Let’s start with the no-fly and watch lists. Right now, everything about them is secret: You can’t find out if you’re on one, or who put you there and why, and you can’t clear your name if you’re innocent. This Kafkaesque scenario is so un-American it’s embarrassing. Obama should make the no-fly list subject to judicial review.

Then, move on to the checkpoints themselves. What are our rights? What powers do the TSA officers have? If we’re asked “friendly” questions by behavioral detection officers, are we allowed not to answer? If we object to the rough handling of ourselves or our belongings, can the TSA official retaliate against us by putting us on a watch list? Obama should make the rules clear and explicit, and allow people to bring legal action against the TSA for violating those rules; otherwise, airport checkpoints will remain a Constitution-free zone in our country.

Next, Obama should refuse to use unfunded mandates to sneak expensive security measures past Congress. The Secure Flight program is the worst offender. Airlines are being forced to spend billions of dollars redesigning their reservations systems to accommodate the TSA’s demands to preapprove every passenger before he or she is allowed to board an airplane. These costs are borne by us, in the form of higher ticket prices, even though we never see them explicitly listed.

Maybe Secure Flight is a good use of our money; maybe it isn’t. But let’s have debates like that in the open, as part of the budget process, where it belongs.

And finally, Obama should mandate that airport security be solely about terrorism, and not a general-purpose security checkpoint to catch everyone from pot smokers to deadbeat dads.

The Constitution provides us, both Americans and visitors to America, with strong protections against invasive police searches. Two exceptions come into play at airport security checkpoints. The first is “implied consent,” which means that you cannot refuse to be searched; your consent is implied when you purchased your ticket. And the second is “plain view,” which means that if the TSA officer happens to see something unrelated to airport security while screening you, he is allowed to act on that.

Both of these principles are well established and make sense, but it’s their combination that turns airport security checkpoints into police-state-like checkpoints.

The TSA should limit its searches to bombs and weapons and leave general policing to the police – where we know courts and the Constitution still apply.

None of these changes will make airports any less safe, but they will go a long way to de-ratcheting the culture of fear, restoring the presumption of innocence and reassuring Americans, and the rest of the world, that – as Obama said in his inauguration speech – “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

This essay originally appeared, without hyperlinks, in the New York Daily News.

Posted on June 24, 2009 at 6:40 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.