Entries Tagged "borders"

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Incompetence at the Border

Tom Kyte, Oracle database expert, relays a surreal story of a border crossing into the U.S. from Canada:

He clicks on it and it asks for a password. He looks surprised and says “it needs a password”. I was like – that is OK, I have it, here you go… Now he is logged in. But — my desktop looks a tad different from most — there is no IE on the desktop, just the recycle bin and a folder called programs — nothing else.

He really doesn’t know what to do now. No special searching software, nothing. He looks at me and says “you know what we are doing here right?”. I said — not really (I knew what we were doing, I read the news and all, but just said “no”). “Well” he says “we are looking for pornography”. Ahh I say… Ok, no problem.

But he is stuck. There is nothing familiar. So he clicks on the start menu and finds “My Pictures”. You know, if I was into that — that is precisely where I would stick all of my porn — right there in “My Pictures”. He goes into it — and sees all of my folders. And all of my pictures, which we looked at. He said “wow, you travel a lot”, I said “yup”.

Posted on March 22, 2007 at 10:39 AMView Comments

New Congress: Changes at the U.S. Borders

Item #1: US-VISIT, the program to keep better track of people coming in and out of the U.S. (more information here, here, here, and here), is running into all sorts of problems.

In a major blow to the Bush administration’s efforts to secure borders, domestic security officials have for now given up on plans to develop a facial or fingerprint recognition system to determine whether a vast majority of foreign visitors leave the country, officials say.


But in recent days, officials at the Homeland Security Department have conceded that they lack the financing and technology to meet their deadline to have exit-monitoring systems at the 50 busiest land border crossings by next December. A vast majority of foreign visitors enter and exit by land from Mexico and Canada, and the policy shift means that officials will remain unable to track the departures.

A report released on Thursday by the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, restated those findings, reporting that the administration believes that it will take 5 to 10 years to develop technology that might allow for a cost-effective departure system.

Domestic security officials, who have allocated $1.7 billion since the 2003 fiscal year to track arrivals and departures, argue that creating the program with the existing technology would be prohibitively expensive.

They say it would require additional employees, new buildings and roads at border crossings, and would probably hamper the vital flow of commerce across those borders.

Congress ordered the creation of such a system in 1996.

In an interview last week, the assistant secretary for homeland security policy, Stewart A. Baker, estimated that an exit system at the land borders would cost “tens of billions of dollars” and said the department had concluded that such a program was not feasible, at least for the time being.

“It is a pretty daunting set of costs, both for the U.S. government and the economy,” Mr. Stewart said. “Congress has said, ‘We want you to do it.’ We are not going to ignore what Congress has said. But the costs here are daunting.

“There are a lot of good ideas and things that would make the country safer. But when you have to sit down and compare all the good ideas people have developed against each other, with a limited budget, you have to make choices that are much harder.”

I like the trade-off sentiment of that quote.

My guess is that the program will be completely killed by Congress in 2007. (More articles here and here, and an editorial here.)

Item #2: The new Congress is — wisely, I should add — unlikely to fund the 700-mile fence along the Mexican border.

Item #3: I hope they examine the Coast Guard’s security failures and cost overruns.

Item #4: Note this paragraph from the last article:

During a drill in which officials pretended that a ferry had been hijacked by terrorists, the Coast Guard and the Federal Bureau of Investigation competed for the right to take charge, a contest that became so intense that the Coast Guard players manipulated the war game to cut the F.B.I. out, government auditors say.

Seems that there are still serious turf battles among government agencies involved with terrorism. It would be nice if Congress spent some time on this (actually important) problem.

Posted on January 2, 2007 at 12:26 PMView Comments

The Zotob Worm and the DHS

On August 18 of last year, the Zotob worm badly infected computers at the Department of Homeland Security, particularly the 1,300 workstations running the US-VISIT application at border crossings. Wired News filed a Freedom of Information Act request for details, which was denied.

After we sued, CBP released three internal documents, totaling five pages, and a copy of Microsoft’s security bulletin on the plug-and-play vulnerability. Though heavily redacted, the documents were enough to establish that Zotob had infiltrated US-VISIT after CBP made the strategic decision to leave the workstations unpatched. Virtually every other detail was blacked out. In the ensuing court proceedings, CBP claimed the redactions were necessary to protect the security of its computers, and acknowledged it had an additional 12 documents, totaling hundreds of pages, which it withheld entirely on the same grounds.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston reviewed all the documents in chambers, and ordered an additional four documents to be released last month. The court also directed DHS to reveal much of what it had previously hidden beneath thick black pen strokes in the original five pages.

“Although defendant repeatedly asserts that this information would render the CBP computer system vulnerable, defendant has not articulated how this general information would do so,” Illston wrote in her ruling (emphasis is lllston’s).

The details say nothing about the technical details of the computer systems, and only point to the incompetence of the DHS in handling the incident.

Details are in the Wired News article.

Posted on November 6, 2006 at 12:11 PMView Comments

New U.S. Customs Database on Trucks and Travellers

It’s yet another massive government surveillance program:

US Customs and Border Protection issued a notice in the Federal Register yesterday which detailed the agency’s massive database that keeps risk assessments on every traveler entering or leaving the country. Citizens who are concerned that their information is inaccurate are all but out of luck: the system “may not be accessed under the Privacy Act for the purpose of contesting the content of the record.”

The system in question is the Automated Targeting System, which is associated with the previously-existing Treasury Enforcement Communications System. TECS was built to screen people and assets that moved in and out of the US, and its database contains more than one billion records that are accessible by more than 30,000 users at 1,800 sites around the country. Customs has adapted parts of the TECS system to its own use and now plans to screen all passengers, inbound and outbound cargo, and ships.

The system creates a risk assessment for each person or item in the database. The assessment is generated from information gleaned from federal and commercial databases, provided by people themselves as they cross the border, and the Passenger Name Record information recorded by airlines. This risk assessment will be maintained for up to 40 years and can be pulled up by agents at a moment’s notice in order to evaluate potential threats against the US.

If you leave the country, the government will suddenly know a lot about you. The Passenger Name Record alone contains names, addresses, telephone numbers, itineraries, frequent-flier information, e-mail addresses — even the name of your travel agent. And this information can be shared with plenty of people:

  • Federal, state, local, tribal, or foreign governments
  • A court, magistrate, or administrative tribunal
  • Third parties during the course of a law enforcement investigation
  • Congressional office in response to an inquiry
  • Contractors, grantees, experts, consultants, students, and others performing or working on a contract, service, or grant
  • Any organization or person who might be a target of terrorist activity or conspiracy
  • The United States Department of Justice
  • The National Archives and Records Administration
  • Federal or foreign government intelligence or counterterrorism agencies
  • Agencies or people when it appears that the security or confidentiality of their information has been compromised.

That’s a lot of people who could be looking at your information and your government-designed risk assessment. The one person who won’t be looking at that information is you. The entire system is exempt from inspection and correction under provision 552a (j)(2) and (k)(2) of US Code Title 5, which allows such exemptions when the data in question involves law enforcement or intelligence information.

This means you can’t review your data for accuracy, and you can’t correct any errors.

But the system can be used to give you a risk assessment score, which presumably will affect how you’re treated when you return to the U.S.

I’ve already explained why data mining does not find terrorists or terrorist plots. So have actual math professors. And we’ve seen this kind of “risk assessment score” idea and the problems it causes with Secure Flight.

This needs some mainstream press attention.

EDITED TO ADD (11/4): More commentary here, here, and here.

EDITED TO ADD (11/5): It’s buried in the back pages, but at least The Washington Post wrote about it.

Posted on November 4, 2006 at 9:19 AMView Comments

Heathrow Tests Biometric ID

Heathrow airport is testing an iris scan biometric machine to identify passengers at customs.

I’ve written previously about biometrics: when they work and when they fail:

Biometrics are powerful and useful, but they are not keys. They are useful in situations where there is a trusted path from the reader to the verifier; in those cases all you need is a unique identifier. They are not useful when you need the characteristics of a key: secrecy, randomness, the ability to update or destroy. Biometrics are unique identifiers, but they are not secrets.

The system under trial at Heathrow is a good use of biometrics. There’s a trusted path from the person through the reader to the verifier; attempts to use fake eyeballs will be immediately obvious and suspicious. The verifier is being asked to match a biometric with a specific reference, and not to figure out who the person is from his or her biometric. There’s no need for secrecy or randomness; it’s not being used as a key. And it has the potential to really speed up customs lines.

Posted on October 26, 2006 at 1:04 PMView Comments

Bureau of Industry and Security Hacked

The BIS is the part of the U.S. Department of Commerce responsible for export control. If you have a dual-use technology that you need special approval in order to export outside the U.S., or to export it to specific countries, BIS is what you submit the paperwork to.

It’s been hacked by “hackers working through Chinese servers,” and has been shut down. This may very well have been a targeted attack.

Manufacturers of hardware crypto devices — mass-market software is exempted — must submit detailed design information to BIS in order to get an export license. There’s a lot of detailed information on crypto products in the BIS computers.

Of course, I have no way of knowing if this information was breached or if that’s what the hackers were after, but it is interesting. On the other hand, any crypto product that relied on this information being secret doesn’t deserve to be on the market anyway.

Posted on October 11, 2006 at 7:16 AMView Comments

U.S. Visa Application Questions

People applying for a visa to enter the United States have to answer these questions (among others):

Have you ever been arrested of convicted for any offense or crime, even through subject of a pardon, amnesty or other similar legal action? Have you ever unlawfully distributed or sold a controlled substance (drug), or been a prostitute or procurer for prostitutes?


Did you seek to enter the United States to engage in export control violations, subversive or terrorist activities, or any other unlawful purpose? Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization as currently designated by the U.S. Secretary of State? Have you ever participated in persecutions directed by the Nazi government or Germany; or have you ever participated in genocide?

Certainly, anyone who is a terrorist or drug dealer wouldn’t worry about lying on his visa application. So, what’s the point of these questions? I used to think it was so that if someone is convicted of one of these activities he can also be convicted of visa-application fraud…but I’m not sure that explanation makes any sense.

Anyone have any better ideas? What is the security benefit of asking these questions?

Posted on September 25, 2006 at 7:26 AM

Laptop Seizures in Sudan

According to CNN:

Sudanese security forces have begun seizing laptop computers entering the country to check on the information stored on them as part of new security measures.

One state security source said the laptops are searched and returned in one day and that the procedure was introduced because pornographic films and photographs were entering Sudan.

U.N. officials, aid agency workers, businessmen and journalists who regularly visit Sudan worry the security of sensitive and confidential information such as medical, legal and financial records on their computers could be at risk.

Authorities have cracked down on organizations like Medecins Sans Frontieres, the International Rescue Committee who have published reports on huge numbers of rapes in the violent Darfur region.

(More commentary here.)

While the stated reason is pornography, anyone bringing a computer into the country should be concerned about personal information, writing that might be deemed political by the Sudanese authorities, confidential business information, and so on.

And this should be a concern regardless of the border you cross. Your privacy rights when trying to enter a country are minimal, and this kind of thing could happen anywhere. (I have heard anecdotal stories about Israel doing this, but don’t have confirmation.)

If you’re bringing a laptop across an international border, you should clean off all unnecessary files and encrypt the rest.

EDITED TO ADD (9/15): This is legal in the U.S.

EDITED TO ADD (9/30): More about the legality of this in the U.S.

Posted on September 13, 2006 at 6:44 AMView Comments

Review of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Anti-Terrorist Actions

Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Inspector General, “Review of CBP Actions Taken to Intercept Suspected Terrorists at U.S. Ports of Entry,” OIG-06-43, June 2006.

Results in Brief:

CBP has improved information sharing capabilities within the organization to smooth the flow of arriving passengers and increase the effectiveness of limited resources at POEs. Earlier, officers at POEs possessed limited information to help them resolve the identities of individuals mistakenly matched to the terrorist watch list, but a current initiative aims to provide supervisors at POEs with much more information to help them positively identify and clear individuals with names similar to those in the terrorist database. CBP procedures are highly prescriptive and withhold from supervisors the authority to make timely and informed decisions regarding the admissibility of individuals who they could quickly confirm are not the suspected terrorist.

As CBP has stepped up its efforts to intercept known and suspected terrorists at ports of entry, traditional missions such as narcotics interdiction and identification of fraudulent immigration documentation have been adversely affected. Recent data indicates a significant decrease over the past few years in the interception of narcotics and the identification of fraudulent immigration documents, especially at airports.

When a watchlisted or targeted individual is encountered at a POE, CBP generates several reports summarizing the incident. Each of these reports provides a different level of detail, and is distributed to a different readership. It is unclear, however, how details of the encounter and the information obtained from the suspected terrorist are disseminated for analysis. This inconsistent reporting is preventing DHS from developing independent intelligence assessments and may be preventing important information from inclusion in national strategic intelligence analyses.

During an encounter with a watchlisted individual, CBP officers at the POE often need to discuss sensitive details about the individual with law enforcement agencies and CBP personnel in headquarters offices. Some case details are classified. Because some CBP officers at POEs have not been granted the necessary security clearance, they are unable to review important information about a watchlisted individual and may not be able to participate with law enforcement agencies in interviews of certain individuals.

To improve the effectiveness of CBP personnel in their mission to prevent known and suspected terrorists from entering the United States, we are recommending that CBP: expand a biometric information collection program to include volunteers who would not normally provide this information when entering the United States; authorize POE supervisors limited discretion to make more timely admissibility determinations; review port of entry staffing models to ensure the current workforce is able to perform the entire range of CBP mission; establish a policy for more consistent reporting to intelligence agencies the details gathered during secondary interviews; and ensure all counterterrorism personnel at POEs are granted an appropriate security clearance.

Posted on August 15, 2006 at 1:19 PMView Comments

DHS Report on US-VISIT and RFID

Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Inspector General, “Enhanced Security Controls Needed For US-VISIT’s System Using RFID Technology (Redacted),” OIG-06-39, June 2006.

From the Executive Summary:

We audited the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and select organizational components’ security programs to evaluate the effectiveness of controls implemented on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) systems. Systems employing RFID technology include a tag and reader on the front end and an application and database on the back end.


Overall, information security controls have been implemented to provide an effective level of security on the Automated Identification Management System (AIDMS). US-VISIT has implemented effective physical security controls over the RFID tags, readers, computer equipment, and database supporting the RFID system at the POEs visited. No personal information is stored on the tags used for US-VISIT. Travelers’ personal information is maintained in and can be obtained only with access to the system’s database. Additional security controls would need to be implemented if US-VISIT decides to store travelers’ personal information on RFID-enabled forms or migrates to universally readable Generation 2 (Gen2) products.

Although these controls provide overall system security, US-VISIT has not properly configured its AIDMS database to ensure that data captured and stored is properly protected. Furthermore, while AIDMS is operating with an Authority to Operate, US-VISIT had not tested its contingency plan to ensure that critical operations could be restored in the event of a disruption. In addition, US-VISIT has not developed its own RFID policy or ensured that the standard operating procedures are properly distributed and followed at all POEs.

I wrote about US-VISIT in 2004 and again in 2006. In that second essay, I gave a price of $15B. I have since come to not believe that data, and I don’t have any better information on the price. But I still think my analysis holds. I would much rather take the money spent on US-VISIT and spend it on intelligence and investigation, the kind of security that resulted in the U.K. arrests earlier this week and is likely to actually make us safer.

Posted on August 11, 2006 at 7:27 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.