Entries Tagged "air travel"

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Another No-Fly List Victim

This person didn’t even land in the U.S. His plane flew from Canada to Mexico over U.S. airspace:

Fifteen minutes after the plane left Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, the airline provided customs officials in the United States with a list of passengers. Agents ran the list through a national data base and up popped a name matching Mr. Kahil’s.


When the plane landed in Acapulco, the Kahils were ushered into a room for questioning. Mug shots were taken of the couple, along with their sons, Karim and Adam, who are 8 and 6. But it was not until a couple of hours later that the Kahils found out why.

Ms. Kahil and the children returned to Canada later that day and Mr. Kahil was put in a detention centre and his passport was confiscated.

Just another case of mistaken identity.

And here’s a story of a four-year-old boy on the watch list.

This program has been a miserable failure in every respect. Not one terrorist caught, ever. (I say this because I believe 100% that if this administration caught anyone through this program, they would be trumpeting it for all to hear.) Thousands of innocents subjected to lengthy and extreme searches every time they fly, prevented from flying, or arrested.

Posted on January 26, 2006 at 3:28 PMView Comments

Stupid Band Names

Be careful what you write in your journal:

An airline passenger with the words “suicide bomber” written in his journal was arrested when his plane arrived in San Jose, California, on Wednesday, but the words appeared to refer to music and he was later released, officials said.

…”Preliminary, what we believe is that that was the name of either a band or a song,” Quy said.

I’m not sure I want “Suicide Bombers” displayed on my iPod. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in a band with that name, flying around the country with crates of gear marked “Suicide Bombers.” That would be asking for trouble.

On the other hand, it’s pretty sad what is enough to get you arrested these days:

“A male was observed by his fellow passengers as having a journal and handwritten on the journal were the words ‘suicide bomber,'” FBI spokeswoman LaRae Quy said.

“That, combined with the fact that he was clutching a backpack, and then finally he was acting a little suspiciously” prompted law enforcement to act.

My guess is that it wouldn’t matter how he held his backpack; once the jittery passenger saw the words everything else was interpreted suspiciously.

Posted on January 6, 2006 at 12:00 PMView Comments

Bomb-Sniffing Wasps

No, this isn’t from The Onion. Trained wasps:

The tiny, non-stinging wasps can check for hidden explosives at airports and monitor for toxins in subway tunnels.

“You can rear them by the thousands, and you can train them within a matter of minutes,” says Joe Lewis, a U.S. Agriculture Department entomologist. “This is just the very tip of the iceberg of a very new resource.”

Sounds like it will be cheap enough….

EDITED TO ADD (12/29): Bomb-sniffing bees are old news.

Posted on December 28, 2005 at 12:47 PMView Comments

Weakest Link Security

Funny story:

At the airport where this pilot fish works, security has gotten a lot more attention since 9/11. “All the security doors that connect the concourses to office spaces and alleyways for service personnel needed an immediate upgrade,” says fish. “It seems that the use of a security badge was no longer adequate protection.

“So over the course of about a month, more than 50 doors were upgraded to require three-way protection. To open the door, a user needed to present a security badge (something you possess), a numeric code (something you know) and a biometric thumb scan (something you are).

“Present all three, and the door beeps and lets you in.”

One by one, the doors are brought online. The technology works, and everything looks fine — until fish decides to test the obvious.

After all, the average member of the public isn’t likely to forge a security badge, guess a multidigit number and fake a thumb scan. “But what happens if you just turn the handle without any of the above?” asks fish. “Would it set off alarms or call security?

“It turns out that if you turn the handle, the door opens.

“Despite the addition of all that technology and security on every single door, nobody bothered to check that the doors were set to lock by default.”

Remember, security is only as strong as the weakest link.

Posted on December 14, 2005 at 11:59 AMView Comments

A Pilot on Airline Security

Good comments from Salon’s pilot-in-residence on airline security:

In the days ahead, you can expect sharp debate on whether the killing was justified, and whether the nation’s several thousand air marshals — their exact number is a tightly guarded secret — undergo sufficient training. How are they taught to deal with mentally ill individuals who might be unpredictable and unstable, but not necessarily dangerous? Are the rules of engagement overly aggressive?

Those are fair questions, but not the most important ones.

Wednesday’s incident fulfills what many of us predicted ever since the Federal Air Marshals Service was widely expanded following the 2001 terror attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington: The first person killed by a sky marshal, whether through accident or misunderstanding, would not be a terrorist. In a lot of ways, Alpizar is the latest casualty of Sept. 11. He is not the victim of a trigger-happy federal marshal but of our own, now fully metastasized security mania.


Terrorists, meanwhile, won’t waste their time on schemes with such an extreme likelihood of failure.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for us. In America, reasoned debate and clear thinking aren’t the useful currencies they once were, and backlash to the TSA’s announcement has come from a host of unexpected sources — members of Congress, flight attendants unions and families of Sept. 11 victims.

“The Bush administration proposal is just asking the next Mohammed Atta to move from box cutters to scissors,” said Rep. Markey.

Actually, that Atta and his henchmen used box cutters to commandeer four aircraft means very little. Just as effectively, they could have employed snapped-off pieces of plastic, shattered bottles or, for that matter, their own bare fists and some clever wile. Sept. 11 had nothing to do with exploiting airport security and everything to do with exploiting our mindset at the time. What weapons the terrorists had or didn’t have is essentially irrelevant. Hijackings, to that point in history, were perpetrated mainly through bluff, and while occasionally deadly, they seldom resulted in more than a temporary inconvenience — diversions to Cuba or cities in the Middle East. The moment American flight 11 collided with the north tower of the World Trade Center, everything changed; good luck to the next skyjacker stupid enough to attempt the same stunt with anything less than a flamethrower in his hand.

And finally:

This is almost acceptable, if only there weren’t so many hours of squandered time and manpower in the balance. Nobody wants weapons on a jetliner. But, more critical, neither do we want to bog down the system. The longer we fuss at the metal detectors over low-threat objects, the greater we expose ourselves to the very serious dangers of bombs and explosives. TSA is not in need of more screeners; it’s in need of reallocation of personnel and resources.

It was, we shouldn’t forget, 17 years ago this month that Pan Am flight 103 was destroyed over Lockerbie, Scotland by a stash of Semtex hidden inside a Toshiba radio in a piece of checked luggage. Then as now, and perhaps for years to come, explosives were the most serious high-level threat facing commercial aviation. European authorities were quick to implement a sweeping revision of luggage-screening protocols designed to thwart another Lockerbie. It took almost 15 years, and the catastrophe of Sept. 11, before America began to do the same — and a comprehensive system still isn’t fully in place.

Flying was and remains exceptionally safe, but whether that’s because or in spite of the system is tough to tell. The “war on terror” has left us fighting many enemies — some real, many imagined. We’ll figure things out at some point, maybe. Until then, dead in Miami, Rigoberto Alpizar is yet more collateral damage.

Posted on December 12, 2005 at 1:21 PMView Comments

G. Gordon Liddy on Terrorism

I remember reading this fictional account by G. Gordon Liddy when it first appeared in Omni in 1989. I wouldn’t say he “predicted attack on America,” but he did produce an entertaining piece of fiction.

The rendering of U.S. jet equipment inventory unusable cannot be attributed to the events of second August. The intelligence community and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are, however, unanimously in agreement that the two are part of the same overall operation. This conclusion is based primarily upon the evidence taken from the body of a female slain by SEAL Team 3 on second August in the San Diego area while she was participating in the attack on the national electrical power distribution system (next heading). But for this fortuitous event, the sudden failure of several aircraft belonging to each U.S. carrier would still be blamed on age (a la the 1988 Aloha aircraft incident, when metal fatigue caused the roof of a Boeing 737 to rupture in flight). As it is, we have had to ground the U.S. civil commercial aviation fleet for an indefinite time, but at least we know what to look for. Japanese intelligence has confirmed that the body that the body of the woman slain by the SEALs is that of a member of their “Red Army” group. On her person was an item at first thought unrelated to her mission: what appeared to be a U.S.-made Magic Marker, which, although not dried out, did not mark. The fluid it contained has now been identified by researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as nearly chemically identical to our classified liquid metal embrittlement (LME) agent. Unfortunately, prior to being added to the classified technologies list, the LME agent was discussed in open literature.

Posted on December 9, 2005 at 4:16 PMView Comments

Sky Marshal Shooting in Miami

I have heretofore refrained from writing about the Miami false-alarm terrorist incident. For those of you who have spent the last few days in an isolation chamber, sky marshals shot and killed a mentally ill man they believed to be a terrorist. The shooting happened on the ground, in the jetway. The man claimed he had a bomb and wouldn’t stop when ordered to by sky marshals. At least, that’s the story.

I’ve read the reports, the claims of the sky marshals and the counterclaims of some witnesses. Whatever happened — and it’s possible that we’ll never know — it does seem that this incident isn’t the same as the British shooting of a Brazilian man on July 22.

I do want to make two points, though.

One, any time you have an officer making split-second life and death decisions, you’re going to have mistakes. I hesitate to second-guess the sky marshals on the ground; they were in a very difficult position. But the way to minimize mistakes is through training. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in this sort of thing read Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell.

Two, I’m not convinced the sky marshals’ threat model matches reality. Mentally ill people are far more common than terrorists. People who claim to have a bomb and don’t are far more common than people who actually do. The real question we should be asking here is: what should the appropriate response be to this low-probability threat?

EDITED TO ADD (12/11): Good Salon article on the topic.

Posted on December 9, 2005 at 1:28 PMView Comments

30,000 People Mistakenly Put on Terrorist Watch List

This is incredible:

Nearly 30,000 airline passengers discovered in the past year that they were mistakenly placed on federal “terrorist” watch lists, a transportation security official said Tuesday.

When are we finally going to admit that the DHS is incompetent at this?

EDITED TO ADD (12/7): At least they weren’t kidnapped and imprisoned for five months, and “shackled, beaten, photographed nude and injected with drugs by interrogators.”

Posted on December 7, 2005 at 10:26 AMView Comments

Airplane Security

My seventh Wired.com column is on line. Nothing you haven’t heard before, except for this part:

I know quite a lot about this. I was a member of the government’s Secure Flight Working Group on Privacy and Security. We looked at the TSA’s program for matching airplane passengers with the terrorist watch list, and found a complete mess: poorly defined goals, incoherent design criteria, no clear system architecture, inadequate testing. (Our report was on the TSA website, but has recently been removed — “refreshed” is the word the organization used — and replaced with an “executive summary” (.doc) that contains none of the report’s findings. The TSA did retain two (.doc) rebuttals (.doc), which read like products of the same outline and dismiss our findings by saying that we didn’t have access to the requisite information.) Our conclusions match those in two (.pdf) reports (.pdf) by the Government Accountability Office and one (.pdf) by the DHS inspector general.

That’s right; the TSA is disappearing our report.

I also wrote an op ed for the Sydney Morning Herald on “weapons” — like the metal knives distributed with in-flight meals — aboard aircraft, based on this blog post. Again, nothing you haven’t heard before. (And I stole some bits from your comments to the blog posting.)

There is new news, though. The TSA is relaxing the rules for bringing pointy things on aircraft:.

The summary document says the elimination of the ban on metal scissors with a blade of four inches or less and tools of seven inches or less – including screwdrivers, wrenches and pliers – is intended to give airport screeners more time to do new types of random searches.

Passengers are now typically subject to a more intensive, so-called secondary search only if their names match a listing of suspected terrorists or because of anomalies like a last-minute ticket purchase or a one-way trip with no baggage.

The new strategy, which has been tested in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Orange County, Calif., will mean that a certain number of passengers, even if they are not identified by these computerized checks, will be pulled aside and subject to an added search lasting about two minutes. Officials said passengers would be selected randomly, without regard to ethnicity or nationality.

What happens next will vary. One day at a certain airport, carry-on bags might be physically searched. On the same day at a different airport, those subject to the random search might have their shoes screened for explosives or be checked with a hand-held metal detector. “By design, a traveler will not experience the same search every time he or she flies,” the summary said. “The searches will add an element of unpredictability to the screening process that will be easy for passengers to navigate but difficult for terrorists to manipulate.”

The new policy will also change the way pat-down searches are done to check for explosive devices. Screeners will now search the upper and lower torso, the entire arm and legs from the mid-thigh down to the ankle and the back and abdomen, significantly expanding the area checked.

Currently, only the upper torso is checked. Under the revised policy, screeners will still have the option of skipping pat-downs in certain areas “if it is clear there is no threat,” like when a person is wearing tight clothing making it obvious that there is nothing hidden. But the default position will be to do the more comprehensive search, in part because of fear that a passenger could be carrying plastic explosives that might not set off a handheld metal detector.

I don’t know if they will still make people take laptops out of their cases, make people take off their shoes, or confiscate pocket knives. (Different articles have said different things about the last one.)

This is a good change, and it’s long overdue. Airplane terrorism hasn’t been the movie-plot threat that everyone worries about for a while.

The most amazing reaction to this is from Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants:

When weapons are allowed back on board an aircraft, the pilots will be able to land the plane safety but the aisles will be running with blood.

How’s that for hyperbole?

In Beyond Fear and elsewhere, I’ve written about the notion of “agenda” and how it informs security trade-offs. From the perspective of the flight attendants, subjecting passengers to onerous screening requirements is a perfectly reasonable trade-off. They’re safer — albeit only slightly — because of it, and it doesn’t cost them anything. The cost is an externality to them: the passengers pay it. Passengers have a broader agenda: safety, but also cost, convenience, time, etc. So it makes perfect sense that the flight attendants object to a security change that the passengers are in favor of.

EDITED TO ADD (12/2): The SFWG report hasn’t been removed from the TSA website, just unlinked.

EDITED TO ADD (12/20): The report seems to be gone from the TSA website now, but it’s available here.

Posted on December 1, 2005 at 10:14 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.