Entries Tagged "air travel"

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Australian Minister's Sensible Comments on Airline Security Sparks Outcry

I’m the first to admit that I don’t know anything about Australian politics. I don’t know who Amanda Vanstone is, what she stands for, and what other things she’s said about any other topic.

But I happen to think she’s right about airline security:

In a wide-ranging speech to Adelaide Rotarians, Senator Vanstone dismissed many commonwealth security measures as essentially ineffective. “To be tactful about these things, a lot of what we do is to make people feel better as opposed to actually achieve an outcome,” Senator Vanstone said.

And:

During her Adelaide speech, Senator Vanstone implied the use of plastic cutlery on planes to thwart terrorism was foolhardy.

Implied? I’ll say it outright. It’s stupid. For all its faults, I’m always pleased when Northwest Airlines gives me a real metal knife, and I am always annoyed when American Airlines still gives me a plastic one.

“Has it ever occurred to you that you just smash your wine glass and jump at someone, grab the top of their head and put it in their carotid artery and ask anything?” Senator Vanstone told her audience of about 100 Rotarians. “And believe me, you will have their attention. I think of this every time I see more money for the security agencies.”

The Immigration Minister also told of a grisly conversation with Mr Howard during a discussion on increased spending on national security.

Senator Vanstone said: “I asked him if I was able to get on a plane with an HB pencil, which you are able to, and I further asked him if I went down and came and grabbed him by the front of the head and stabbed the HB pencil into your eyeball and wiggled it around down to your brain area, do you think you’d be focusing? He’s thinking, she’s gone mad again.”

Okay, so maybe that was a bit graphic for the Rotarians. But her comments are basically right, and don’t deserve this kind of response:

“(Her) extraordinary outburst that airport security was a sham to make the public feel good has made a mockery of the Howard Government’s credibility in this important area of counter-terrorism,” Mr Bevis said yesterday. “And for Amanda Vanstone to once again put her foot in her mouth while John Howard is overseas for serious talks on terrorism is appalling. She should apologise and quit, or if the Prime Minister can’t shut her up he should sack her.”

But Mr. Bevis, airport security is largely a sham to make the public feel better about flying. And if your Prime Minister doesn’t know that, then you should worry about how serious his talks will be.

Vanstone has been defending herself:

Vanstone rejected calls from the Labor Party opposition for her resignation over the comments they said trivialised an important issue, saying she was not ridiculing security measures.

“If the day has come when a minister can’t say what every other Australian says and that is that plastic knives drive us crazy, I think we’re in desperate straits,” the minister told commercial radio on Monday.

Vanstone said she did not believe the security measures should be scrapped.

“What I have said is that putting a plastic knife on a plane doesn’t necessarily make you very much safer. Bear in mind there are other things that are on planes,” she said.

“People should not feel that because plastic knives are there, the world has dramatically changed — because there are still HB pencils.”

Plastic knives on airplanes drive me crazy too, and they don’t do anything to improve our security against terrorism. I know nothing about Vanstone and her policies, but she has this one right.

Posted on November 22, 2005 at 1:41 PMView Comments

Automatic Lie Detector

Coming soon to airports:

Tested in Russia, the two-stage GK-1 voice analyser requires that passengers don headphones at a console and answer “yes” or “no” into a microphone to questions about whether they are planning something illicit.

The software will almost always pick up uncontrollable tremors in the voice that give away liars or those with something to hide, say its designers at Israeli firm Nemesysco.

Fascinating.

In general, I prefer security systems that are invasive yet anonymous to ones that are based on massive databases. And automatic systems that divide people into a “probably fine” and “investigate a bit more” categories seem like a good use of technology. I have no idea whether this system works (there is a lot of evidence that it does not), what the false positive and false negative rates are (this article states a completely useless 12% false positive rate), or how easy it would be to learn how to fool the system, though. And in all of these trade-off discussions, the devil is in the details.

Posted on November 21, 2005 at 8:07 AMView Comments

Sky Posse

Counter-terrorist vigilantes, or people just trying to make flying safer?

The Sky Posse is an organization, not affiliated with anyone official, of people who vow to fight back in the event of an airplane hijacking. Members wear cool-looking pins, made to resemble a Western sheriff’s badge, with the slogan “Ready to Roll.”

Kind of silly, but I guess there’s no harm.

Posted on November 11, 2005 at 3:42 PMView Comments

Chemical Trace Screening

New advances in technology:

“Mass spectrometry is one of the most sensitive methods for finding drugs, chemicals, pollutants and disease, but the problem is that you have to extract a sample and treat that sample before you can analyze it,” said Evan Williams, a chemistry professor at UC Berkeley.

That process can take anywhere from two to 15 minutes for each sample. Multiply that by the number of people in line at airport security at JFK the day before Thanksgiving, and you’ve got a logistical nightmare on your hands.

The research from Purdue, led by analytical chemistry professor Graham Cooks, developed a technique called desorption electrospray ionization, or DESI, that eliminates a part of the mass spectrometry process, and thus speeds up the detection of substances to less than 10 seconds, said Williams.

To use it, law enforcement officials and security screeners will spray methanol or a water and salt mixture on the surface of an object, or a person’s clothing or skin, and test immediately for microscopic traces of chemical compounds.

As this kind of technology gets better, the problems of false alarms becomes greater. We already know that a large percentage of U.S. currency bears traces of cocaine, but can a low-budget terrorist close down an airport by spraying trace chemicals randomly at passengers’ luggage when they’re not looking?

Posted on October 14, 2005 at 1:56 PMView Comments

Jamming Aircraft Navigation Near Nuclear Power Plants

The German government want to jam aircraft navigation equipment near nuclear power plants.

This certainly could help if terrorists want to fly an airplane into a nuclear power plant, but it feels like a movie-plot threat to me. On the other hand, this could make things significantly worse if an airplane flies near the nuclear power plant by accident. My guess is that the latter happens far more often than the former.

Posted on September 29, 2005 at 6:40 AMView Comments

Secure Flight News

The TSA is not going to use commercial databases in its initial roll-out of Secure Flight, its airline screening program that matches passengers with names on the Watch List and No-Fly List. I don’t believe for a minute that they’re shelving plans to use commercial data permanently, but at least they’re delaying the process.

In other news, the report (also available here, here, and here) of the Secure Flight Privacy/IT Working Group is public. I was a member of that group, but honestly, I didn’t do any writing for the report. I had given up on the process, sick of not being able to get any answers out of TSA, and believed that the report would end up in somebody’s desk drawer, never to be seen again. I was stunned when I learned that the ASAC made the report public.

There’s a lot of stuff in the report, but I’d like to quote the section that outlines the basic questions that the TSA was unable to answer:

The SFWG found that TSA has failed to answer certain key questions about Secure Flight: First and foremost, TSA has not articulated what the specific goals of Secure Flight are. Based on the limited test results presented to us, we cannot assess whether even the general goal of evaluating passengers for the risk they represent to aviation security is a realistic or feasible one or how TSA proposes to achieve it. We do not know how much or what kind of personal information the system will collect or how data from various sources will flow through the system.

Until TSA answers these questions, it is impossible to evaluate the potential privacy or security impact of the program, including:

  • Minimizing false positives and dealing with them when they occur.
  • Misuse of information in the system.
  • Inappropriate or illegal access by persons with and without permissions.
  • Preventing use of the system and information processed through it for purposes other than airline passenger screening.

The following broadly defined questions represent the critical issues we believe TSA must address before we or any other advisory body can effectively evaluate the privacy and security impact of Secure Flight on the public.

  1. What is the goal or goals of Secure Flight? The TSA is under a Congressional mandate to match domestic airline passenger lists against the consolidated terrorist watch list. TSA has failed to specify with consistency whether watch list matching is the only goal of Secure Flight at this stage. The Secure Flight Capabilities and Testing Overview, dated February 9, 2005 (a non-public document given to the SFWG), states in the Appendix that the program is not looking for unknown terrorists and has no intention of doing so. On June 29, 2005, Justin Oberman (Assistant Administrator, Secure Flight/Registered Traveler) testified to a Congressional committee that “Another goal proposed for Secure Flight is its use to establish “Mechanisms for…violent criminal data vetting.” Finally, TSA has never been forthcoming about whether it has an additional, implicit goal the tracking of terrorism suspects (whose presence on the terrorist watch list does not necessarily signify intention to commit violence on a flight).

    While the problem of failing to establish clear goals for Secure Flight at a given point in time may arise from not recognizing the difference between program definition and program evolution, it is clearly an issue the TSA must address if Secure Flight is to proceed.

  2. What is the architecture of the Secure Flight system? The Working Group received limited information about the technical architecture of Secure Flight and none about how software and hardware choices were made. We know very little about how data will be collected, transferred, analyzed, stored or deleted. Although we are charged with evaluating the privacy and security of the system, we saw no statements of privacy policies and procedures other than Privacy Act notices published in the Federal Register for Secure Flight testing. No data management plan either for the test phase or the program as implemented was provided or discussed.
  3. Will Secure Flight be linked to other TSA applications? Linkage with other screening programs (such as Registered Traveler, Transportation Worker Identification and Credentialing (TWIC), and Customs and Border Patrol systems like U.S.-VISIT) that may operate on the same platform as Secure Flight is another aspect of the architecture and security question. Unanswered questions remain about how Secure Flight will interact with other vetting programs operating on the same platform; how it will ensure that its policies on data collection, use and retention will be implemented and enforced on a platform that also operates programs with significantly different policies in these areas; and how it will interact with the vetting of passengers on international flights?
  4. How will commercial data sources be used? One of the most controversial elements of Secure Flight has been the possible uses of commercial data. TSA has never clearly defined two threshold issues: what it means by “commercial data” and how it might use commercial data sources in the implementation of Secure Flight. TSA has never clearly distinguished among various possible uses of commercial data, which all have different implications.

    Possible uses of commercial data sometimes described by TSA include: (1) identity verification or authentication; (2) reducing false positives by augmenting passenger records indicating a possible match with data that could help distinguish an innocent passenger from someone on a watch list; (3) reducing false negatives by augmenting all passenger records with data that could suggest a match that would otherwise have been missed; (4) identifying sleepers, which itself includes: (a) identifying false identities; and (b) identifying behaviors indicative of terrorist activity. A fifth possibility has not been discussed by TSA: using commercial data to augment watch list entries to improve their fidelity. Assuming that identity verification is part of Secure Flight, what are the consequences if an identity cannot be verified with a certain level of assurance?

    It is important to note that TSA never presented the SFWG with the results of its commercial data tests. Until these test results are available and have been independently analyzed, commercial data should not be utilized in the Secure Flight program.

  5. Which matching algorithms work best? TSA never presented the SFWG with test results showing the effectiveness of algorithms used to match passenger names to a watch list. One goal of bringing watch list matching inside the government was to ensure that the best available matching technology was used uniformly. The SFWG saw no evidence that TSA compared different products and competing solutions. As a threshold matter, TSA did not describe to the SFWG its criteria for determining how the optimal matching solution would be determined. There are obvious and probably not-so-obvious tradeoffs between false positives and false negatives, but TSA did not explain how it reconciled these concerns.
  6. What is the oversight structure and policy for Secure Flight? TSA has not produced a comprehensive policy document for Secure Flight that defines oversight or governance responsibilities.

The members of the working group, and the signatories to the report, are Martin Abrams, Linda Ackerman, James Dempsey, Edward Felten, Daniel Gallington, Lauren Gelman, Steven Lilenthal, Anna Slomovic, and myself.

My previous posts about Secure Flight, and my involvement in the working group, are here, here, here, here, here, and here.

And in case you think things have gotten better, there’s a new story about how the no-fly list cost a pilot his job:

Cape Air pilot Robert Gray said he feels like he’s living a nightmare. Two months after he sued the federal government for refusing to let him take flight training courses so he could fly larger planes, he said yesterday, his situation has only worsened.

When Gray showed up for work a couple of weeks ago, he said Cape Air told him the government had placed him on its no-fly list, making it impossible for him to do his job. Gray, a Belfast native and British citizen, said the government still won’t tell him why it thinks he’s a threat.

“I haven’t been involved in any kind of terrorism, and I never committed any crime,” said Gray, 35, of West Yarmouth. He said he has never been arrested and can’t imagine what kind of secret information the government is relying on to destroy his life.

Remember what the no-fly list is. It’s a list of people who are so dangerous that they can’t be allowed to board an airplane under any circumstances, yet so innocent that they can’t be arrested — even under the provisions of the PATRIOT Act.

EDITED TO ADD: The U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General released a report last month on Secure Flight, basically concluding that the costs were out of control, and that the TSA didn’t know how much the program would cost in the future.

Here’s an article about some of the horrible problems people who have mistakenly found themselves on the no-fly list have had to endure. And another on what you can do if you find yourself on a list.

EDITED TO ADD: EPIC has received a bunch of documents about continued problems with false positives.

Posted on September 26, 2005 at 7:14 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.