Entries Tagged "cost-benefit analysis"

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Disrupting Air Travel with Arabic Writing

In August, I wrote about the stupidity of United Airlines returning a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles back to Sydney because a flight attendant found an airsickness bag with the letters “BOB” written on it in a lavatory. (“BOB” supposedly stood for “Bomb on Board.”)

I received quite a bit of mail about that. Most of it was supportive, but some people argued that the airline should do everything in its power to protect its passengers and that the airline was reasonable and acting prudently.

The problem with that line of reasoning is that it has no limits. In corresponding with people, I asked whether a flight should be diverted if one of the passengers was wearing an orange shirt: orange being the color of the DHS’s heightened alert level. If you believe that the airline should respond drastically to any threat, no matter how small, then they should.

That example was fanciful, and deliberately so. Here’s another, even more fanciful, example. Unfortunately, it’s a real one.

Last month in Milwaukee, a Midwest Airlines flight had already pulled away from the gate when someone, the articles don’t say who, found Arabic writing in his or her copy of the airline’s in-flight magazine.

I have no idea what sort of panic ensued, but the airplane turned around and returned to the gate. Everyone was taken off the plane and inspected. The plane and all the luggage was inspected. Surprise; nothing was found.

The passengers didn’t fly out until the next morning.

This kind of thing is idiotic. Terrorism is a serious problem, and we’re not going to protect ourselves by overreacting every time someone’s overactive imagination kicks in. We need to be alert to the real threats, instead of making up random ones. It simply makes no sense.

News article

My original essay

Posted on October 7, 2004 at 5:06 PMView Comments

RFID Passports

Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, the Bush administration–specifically, the Department of Homeland Security–has wanted the world to agree on a standard for machine-readable passports. Countries whose citizens currently do not have visa requirements to enter the United States will have to issue passports that conform to the standard or risk losing their nonvisa status.

These future passports, currently being tested, will include an embedded computer chip. This chip will allow the passport to contain much more information than a simple machine-readable character font, and will allow passport officials to quickly and easily read that information. That is a reasonable requirement and a good idea for bringing passport technology into the 21st century.

But the Bush administration is advocating radio frequency identification (RFID) chips for both U.S. and foreign passports, and that’s a very bad thing.

These chips are like smart cards, but they can be read from a distance. A receiving device can “talk” to the chip remotely, without any need for physical contact, and get whatever information is on it. Passport officials envision being able to download the information on the chip simply by bringing it within a few centimeters of an electronic reader.

Unfortunately, RFID chips can be read by any reader, not just the ones at passport control. The upshot of this is that travelers carrying around RFID passports are broadcasting their identity.

Think about what that means for a minute. It means that passport holders are continuously broadcasting their name, nationality, age, address and whatever else is on the RFID chip. It means that anyone with a reader can learn that information, without the passport holder’s knowledge or consent. It means that pickpockets, kidnappers and terrorists can easily–and surreptitiously–pick Americans or nationals of other participating countries out of a crowd.

It is a clear threat to both privacy and personal safety, and quite simply, that is why it is bad idea. Proponents of the system claim that the chips can be read only from within a distance of a few centimeters, so there is no potential for abuse. This is a spectacularly naïve claim. All wireless protocols can work at much longer ranges than specified. In tests, RFID chips have been read by receivers 20 meters away. Improvements in technology are inevitable.

Security is always a trade-off. If the benefits of RFID outweighed the risks, then maybe it would be worth it. Certainly, there isn’t a significant benefit when people present their passport to a customs official. If that customs official is going to take the passport and bring it near a reader, why can’t he go those extra few centimeters that a contact chip–one the reader must actually touch–would require?

The Bush administration is deliberately choosing a less secure technology without justification. If there were a good offsetting reason to choose that technology over a contact chip, then the choice might make sense.

Unfortunately, there is only one possible reason: The administration wants surreptitious access themselves. It wants to be able to identify people in crowds. It wants to surreptitiously pick out the Americans, and pick out the foreigners. It wants to do the very thing that it insists, despite demonstrations to the contrary, can’t be done.

Normally I am very careful before I ascribe such sinister motives to a government agency. Incompetence is the norm, and malevolence is much rarer. But this seems like a clear case of the Bush administration putting its own interests above the security and privacy of its citizens, and then lying about it.

This article originally appeared in the 4 October 2004 edition of the International Herald Tribune.

Posted on October 4, 2004 at 7:20 PMView Comments

Academic Freedom and Security

Cryptography is the science of secret codes, and it is a primary Internet security tool to fight hackers, cyber crime, and cyber terrorism. CRYPTO is the world’s premier cryptography conference. It’s held every August in Santa Barbara.

This year, 400 people from 30 countries came to listen to dozens of talks. Lu Yi was not one of them. Her paper was accepted at the conference. But because she is a Chinese Ph.D. student in Switzerland, she was not able to get a visa in time to attend the conference.

In the three years since 9/11, the U.S. government has instituted a series of security measures at our borders, all designed to keep terrorists out. One of those measures was to tighten up the rules for foreign visas. Certainly this has hurt the tourism industry in the U.S., but the damage done to academic research is more profound and longer-lasting.

According to a survey by the Association of American Universities, many universities reported a drop of more than 10 percent in foreign student applications from last year. During the 2003 academic year, student visas were down 9 percent. Foreign applications to graduate schools were down 32 percent, according to another study by the Council of Graduate Schools.

There is an increasing trend for academic conferences, meetings and seminars to move outside of the United States simply to avoid visa hassles.

This affects all of high-tech, but ironically it particularly affects the very technologies that are critical in our fight against terrorism.

Also in August, on the other side of the country, the University of Connecticut held the second International Conference on Advanced Technologies for Homeland Security. The attendees came from a variety of disciplines — chemical trace detection, communications compatibility, X-ray scanning, sensors of various types, data mining, HAZMAT clothing, network intrusion detection, bomb diffusion, remote-controlled drones — and illustrate the enormous breadth of scientific know-how that can usefully be applied to counterterrorism.

It’s wrong to believe that the U.S. can conduct the research we need alone. At the Connecticut conference, the researchers presenting results included many foreigners studying at U.S. universities. Only 30 percent of the papers at CRYPTO had only U.S. authors. The most important discovery of the conference, a weakness in a mathematical function that protects the integrity of much of the critical information on the Internet, was made by four researchers from China.

Every time a foreign scientist can’t attend a U.S. technology conference, our security suffers. Every time we turn away a qualified technology graduate student, our security suffers. Technology is one of our most potent weapons in the war on terrorism, and we’re not fostering the international cooperation and development that is crucial for U.S. security.

Security is always a trade-off, and specific security countermeasures affect everyone, both the bad guys and the good guys. The new U.S. immigration rules may affect the few terrorists trying to enter the United States on visas, but they also affect honest people trying to do the same.

All scientific disciplines are international, and free and open information exchange — both in conferences and in academic programs at universities — will result in the maximum advance in the technologies vital to homeland security. The Soviet Union tried to restrict academic freedom along national lines, and it didn’t do the country any good. We should try not to follow in those footsteps.

This essay was originally published in the San Jose Mercury News

Posted on October 1, 2004 at 9:44 PMView Comments

Academic Freedom and Security

Cryptography is the science of secret codes, and it is a primary Internet security tool to fight hackers, cyber crime, and cyber terrorism. CRYPTO is the world’s premier cryptography conference. It’s held every August in Santa Barbara.

This year, 400 people from 30 countries came to listen to dozens of talks. Lu Yi was not one of them. Her paper was accepted at the conference. But because she is a Chinese Ph.D. student in Switzerland, she was not able to get a visa in time to attend the conference.

In the three years since 9/11, the U.S. government has instituted a series of security measures at our borders, all designed to keep terrorists out. One of those measures was to tighten up the rules for foreign visas. Certainly this has hurt the tourism industry in the U.S., but the damage done to academic research is more profound and longer-lasting.

According to a survey by the Association of American Universities, many universities reported a drop of more than 10 percent in foreign student applications from last year. During the 2003 academic year, student visas were down 9 percent. Foreign applications to graduate schools were down 32 percent, according to another study by the Council of Graduate Schools.

There is an increasing trend for academic conferences, meetings and seminars to move outside of the United States simply to avoid visa hassles.

This affects all of high-tech, but ironically it particularly affects the very technologies that are critical in our fight against terrorism.

Also in August, on the other side of the country, the University of Connecticut held the second International Conference on Advanced Technologies for Homeland Security. The attendees came from a variety of disciplines — chemical trace detection, communications compatibility, X-ray scanning, sensors of various types, data mining, HAZMAT clothing, network intrusion detection, bomb diffusion, remote-controlled drones — and illustrate the enormous breadth of scientific know-how that can usefully be applied to counterterrorism.

It’s wrong to believe that the U.S. can conduct the research we need alone. At the Connecticut conference, the researchers presenting results included many foreigners studying at U.S. universities. Only 30 percent of the papers at CRYPTO had only U.S. authors. The most important discovery of the conference, a weakness in a mathematical function that protects the integrity of much of the critical information on the Internet, was made by four researchers from China.

Every time a foreign scientist can’t attend a U.S. technology conference, our security suffers. Every time we turn away a qualified technology graduate student, our security suffers. Technology is one of our most potent weapons in the war on terrorism, and we’re not fostering the international cooperation and development that is crucial for U.S. security.

Security is always a trade-off, and specific security countermeasures affect everyone, both the bad guys and the good guys. The new U.S. immigration rules may affect the few terrorists trying to enter the United States on visas, but they also affect honest people trying to do the same.

All scientific disciplines are international, and free and open information exchange — both in conferences and in academic programs at universities — will result in the maximum advance in the technologies vital to homeland security. The Soviet Union tried to restrict academic freedom along national lines, and it didn’t do the country any good. We should try not to follow in those footsteps.

This essay was originally published in the San Jose Mercury News

Posted on October 1, 2004 at 9:44 PMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.