From CBC News:
1,127 uniform items belonging to Canadian airport screeners were lost or stolen in a nine-month period.
I’m not sure if this is an interesting story or not. We know that a uniform isn’t necessarily a reliable authentication tool, yet we use them anyway.
Losing 1,127 uniforms is bad, because they can be used to impersonate officials. But even if the 1,127 uniforms are found, they can be faked. Can you tell the difference between a legitimate uniform and a decent fake? I can’t.
The real story is the informal nature of most of our real-world authentication systems, and how they can be exploited.
I wrote about this in Beyond Fear (page 199):
Many authentication systems are even more informal. When someone knocks on your door wearing an electric company uniform, you assume she’s there to read the meter. Similarly with deliverymen, service workers, and parking lot attendants. When I return my rental car, I don’t think twice about giving the keys to someone wearing the correct color uniform. And how often do people inspect a police officer’s badge? The potential for intimidation makes this security system even less effective.
Uniforms are easy to fake. In the wee hours of the morning on 18 March 1990, two men entered the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston disguised as policemen. They duped the guards, tied them up, and proceeded to steal a dozen paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, and Degas, valued at $300 million. (Thirteen years later, the crime is still unsolved and the art is still missing.) During the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, groups of German commandos operated behind American lines. Dressed as American troops, they tried to deliver false orders to units in an effort to disrupt American plans. Hannibal used the same trick—to greater success—dressing up soldiers who were fluent in Latin in the uniforms of Roman officials and using them to open city gates.
Spies actually take advantage of this authentication problem when recruiting agents. They sometimes recruit a spy by pretending to be working for some third country. For example, a Russian agent working in the U.S. might not be able to convince an American to spy for Russia, but he can pretend to be working for France and might be able to convince the person to spy for that country. This is called “false flag recruitment.” How’s the recruit going to authenticate the nationality of the person he’s spying for?
There’s some fascinating psychology involved in this story. We all authenticate using visual cues, and official uniforms are a big part of that. (When a policeman, or an employee from the local electric company, comes to your door and asks to come in, how to you authenticate him? His uniform and his badge or ID.)