Entries Tagged "air travel"
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Airplane security is getting surreal:
…FAA regulation that requires soldiers — all of whom were armed with an arsenal of assault rifles, shotguns and pistols — to surrender pocket knives, nose hair scissors and cigarette lighters.
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’ve already written about what a bad idea trusted traveler programs are. The basic security intuition is that when you create two paths through security — an easy path and a hard path — you invite the bad guys to take the easy path. So the security of the sort process must make up for the security lost in the sorting. Trusted traveler fails this test; there are so many ways for the terrorists to get trusted traveler cards that the system makes it too easy for them to avoid the hard path through security.
The trusted traveler programs at various U.S. airports are all run by the TSA. A new program in Orlando Airport is run by the company Verified Identity Pass Inc.
I’ve already written about this company and what it’s doing.
And I’ve already written about the fallacy of confusing identification with security.
Backscatter X-ray technology is a method of using X rays to see inside objects. The science is complicated, but the upshot is that you can see people naked:
The application of this new x-ray technology to airport screening uses high energy x-rays that are more likely to scatter than penetrate materials as compared to lower-energy x-rays used in medical applications. Although this type of x-ray is said to be harmless it can move through other materials, such as clothing.
A passenger is scanned by rastering or moving a single high energy x-ray beam rapidly over their form. The signal strength of detected backscattered x-rays from a known position then allows a highly realistic image to be reconstructed. Since only Compton scattered x-rays are used, the registered image is mainly that of the surface of the object/person being imaged. In the case of airline passenger screening it is her nude form. The image resolution of the technology is high, so details of the human form of airline passengers present privacy challenges.
EPIC’s “Spotlight on Security” page is an excellent resource on this issue.
The TSA has recently announced a proposal to use these machines to screen airport passengers.
I’m not impressed with this security trade-off. Yes, backscatter X-ray machines might be able to detect things that conventional screening might miss. But I already think we’re spending too much effort screening airplane passengers at the expense of screening luggage and airport employees…to say nothing of the money we should be spending on non-airport security.
On the other side, these machines are expensive and the technology is incredibly intrusive. I don’t think that people should be subjected to strip searches before they board airplanes. And I believe that most people would be appalled by the prospect of security screeners seeing them naked.
I believe that there will be a groundswell of popular opposition to this idea. Aside from the usual list of pro-privacy and pro-liberty groups, I expect fundamentalist Christian groups to be appalled by this technology. I think we can get a bevy of supermodels to speak out against the invasiveness of the search.
Everyone — except those who like peace and quiet — thinks it’s a good idea to allow cell phone calls on airplanes, and are working out the technical details. But the U.S. government is worried that terrorists might make telephone calls from airplanes.
If the mobile phone ban were lifted, law enforcement authorities worry an attacker could use the device to coordinate with accomplices on the ground, on another flight or seated elsewhere on the same plane.
If mobile phone calls are to be allowed during flights, the law enforcement agencies urged that users be required to register their location on a plane before placing a call and that officials have fast access to call identification data.
“There is a short window of opportunity in which action can be taken to thwart a suicidal terrorist hijacking or remedy other crisis situations on board an aircraft,” the agencies said.
This is beyond idiotic. Again and again, we hear the argument that a particular technology can be used for bad things, so we have to ban or control it. The problem is that when we ban or control a technology, we also deny ourselves some of the good things it can be used for. Security is always a trade-off. Almost all technologies can be used for both good and evil; in Beyond Fear, I call them “dual use” technologies. Most of the time, the good uses far outweigh the evil uses, and we’re much better off as a society embracing the good uses and dealing with the evil uses some other way.
We don’t ban cars because bank robbers can use them to get away faster. We don’t ban cell phones because drug dealers use them to arrange sales. We don’t ban money because kidnappers use it. And finally, we don’t ban cryptography because the bad guys it to keep their communications secret. In all of these cases, the benefit to society of having the technology is much greater than the benefit to society of controlling, crippling, or banning the technology.
And, of course, security countermeasures that force the attackers to make a minor modification in their tactics aren’t very good trade-offs. Banning cell phones on airplanes only makes sense if the terrorists are planning to use cell phones on airplanes, and will give up and not bother with their attack because they can’t. If their plan doesn’t involve air-to-ground communications, or if it doesn’t involve air travel at all, then the security measure is a waste. And even worse, we denied ourselves all the good uses of the technology in the process.
Security officials are also worried that personal phone use could increase the risk that remotely-controlled bomb will be used to down an airliner. But they acknowledged simple radio-controlled explosive devices have been used in the past on planes and the first line of defence was security checks at airports.
Still, they said that “the departments believe that the new possibilities generated by airborne passenger connectivity must be recognized.”
That last sentence got it right. New possibilities, both good and bad.
Lighters are now banned on U.S. commercial flights, but not matches.
The Senators who proposed the bill point to Richard Reid, who unsuccessfully tried to light explosives on an airplane with matches. They were worried that a lighter might have worked.
That, of course, is silly. The reason Reid failed is because he tried to light the explosives in his seat, so he could watch the faces of those around him. If he’d gone into the lavatory and lit them in private, he would have been successful.
Hence, the ban is silly.
But there’s a serious problem here. Airport security screeners are much better at detecting explosives when the detonation mechanism is attached. Explosives without any detonation mechanism — like Richard Reid’s — are much harder to detect. As are explosives carried by one person and a detonation device carried by another. I’ve heard that this was the technique the Chechnyan women used to blow up a Russian airplane.
According to the AP:
Security at American airports is no better under federal control than it was before the Sept. 11 attacks, a congressman says two government reports will conclude.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, and the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general are expected to release their findings soon on the performance of Transportation Security Administration screeners.
This finding will not surprise anyone who has flown recently. How does anyone expect competent security from screeners who don’t know the difference between books and books of matches? Only two books of matches are now allowed on flights; you can take as many reading books as you can carry.
The solution isn’t to privatize the screeners, just as the solution in 2001 wasn’t to make them federal employees. It’s a much more complex problem.
I wrote about it in Beyond Fear (pages 153-4):
No matter how much training they get, airport screeners routinely miss guns and knives packed in carry-on luggage. In part, that’s the result of human beings having developed the evolutionary survival skill of pattern matching: the ability to pick out patterns from masses of random visual data. Is that a ripe fruit on that tree? Is that a lion stalking quietly through the grass? We are so good at this that we see patterns in anything, even if they’re not really there: faces in inkblots, images in clouds, and trends in graphs of random data. Generating false positives helped us stay alive; maybe that wasn’t a lion that your ancestor saw, but it was better to be safe than sorry. Unfortunately, that survival skill also has a failure mode. As talented as we are at detecting patterns in random data, we are equally terrible at detecting exceptions in uniform data. The quality-control inspector at Spacely Sprockets, staring at a production line filled with identical sprockets looking for the one that is different, can’t do it. The brain quickly concludes that all the sprockets are the same, so there’s no point paying attention. Each new sprocket confirms the pattern. By the time an anomalous sprocket rolls off the assembly line, the brain simply doesn’t notice it. This psychological problem has been identified in inspectors of all kinds; people can’t remain alert to rare events, so they slip by.
The tendency for humans to view similar items as identical makes it clear why airport X-ray screening is so difficult. Weapons in baggage are rare, and the people studying the X-rays simply lose the ability to see the gun or knife. (And, at least before 9/11, there was enormous pressure to keep the lines moving rather than double-check bags.) Steps have been put in place to try to deal with this problem: requiring the X-ray screeners to take frequent breaks, artificially imposing the image of a weapon onto a normal bag in the screening system as a test, slipping a bag with a weapon into the system so that screeners learn it can happen and must expect it. Unfortunately, the results have not been very good.
This is an area where the eventual solution will be a combination of machine and human intelligence. Machines excel at detecting exceptions in uniform data, so it makes sense to have them do the boring repetitive tasks, eliminating many, many bags while having a human sort out the final details. Think about the sprocket quality-control inspector: If he sees 10,000 negatives, he’s going to stop seeing the positives. But if an automatic system shows him only 100 negatives for every positive, there’s a greater chance he’ll see them.
Paying the screeners more will attract a smarter class of worker, but it won’t solve the problem.
I’ve been worried about the government getting comprehensive data on airline passengers in order to check their names against a terrorist “watch list.” Turns out that the government has another reason for wanting passenger data.
Although privacy experts worry about the government gathering personal information on airline travelers, Delta Airlines is handing over electronic lists of passengers from some flights to help stop the spread of deadly infectious diseases.
The lists will allow health officials to notify more quickly those travelers who might have been exposed to illnesses such as dengue fever, flu, plague, SARS and biological agents, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told a congressional panel on Wednesday.
It’s the same story: a massive privacy violation of everybody just in case something happens to a few.
As an example of the CDC’s notification efforts, Schuchat cited the case of a New Jersey resident who returned from a trip to Sierra Leone in September with Lassa fever. The patient flew to Newark via London and took a train home. Only after he died a few days later did the CDC confirm the disease.
CDC worked with the state, the airline, the railroad, the hospital and others to identify 188 people who had been near the patient. Nineteen were deemed at-risk and 16 were contacted; none of those contacted came down with the disease. It took more than five days to notify some passengers, Schuchat said.
It’s unclear how this program would reduce that “five days” problem. I think it’s a better trade-off for the airlines to be ready to send the CDC the data in the event of a problem, rather than them sending the CDC all the data — just in case — before there is any problem.
Recently I wrote about the government requiring pilots not to fly near nuclear power plants, and then not telling them where those plants are, because of security concerns. Here’s a story about how someone found the exact location of the nuclear power plant in Oyster Creek, N.J., using only publicly available information.
But of course a terrorist would never be able to do that.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.