Entries Tagged "COVID-19"

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Why Vaccine Cards Are So Easily Forged

My proof of COVID-19 vaccination is recorded on an easy-to-forge paper card. With little trouble, I could print a blank form, fill it out, and snap a photo. Small imperfections wouldn’t pose any problem; you can’t see whether the paper’s weight is right in a digital image. When I fly internationally, I have to show a negative COVID-19 test result. That, too, would be easy to fake. I could change the date on an old test, or put my name on someone else’s test, or even just make something up on my computer. After all, there’s no standard format for test results; airlines accept anything that looks plausible.

After a career spent in cybersecurity, this is just how my mind works: I find vulnerabilities in everything I see. When it comes to the measures intended to keep us safe from COVID-19, I don’t even have to look very hard. But I’m not alarmed. The fact that these measures are flawed is precisely why they’re going to be so helpful in getting us past the pandemic.

Back in 2003, at the height of our collective terrorism panic, I coined the term security theater to describe measures that look like they’re doing something but aren’t. We did a lot of security theater back then: ID checks to get into buildings, even though terrorists have IDs; random bag searches in subway stations, forcing terrorists to walk to the next station; airport bans on containers with more than 3.4 ounces of liquid, which can be recombined into larger bottles on the other side of security. At first glance, asking people for photos of easily forged pieces of paper or printouts of readily faked test results might look like the same sort of security theater. There’s an important difference, though, between the most effective strategies for preventing terrorism and those for preventing COVID-19 transmission.

Security measures fail in one of two ways: Either they can’t stop a bad actor from doing a bad thing, or they block an innocent person from doing an innocuous thing. Sometimes one is more important than the other. When it comes to attacks that have catastrophic effects—say, launching nuclear missiles—we want the security to stop all bad actors, even at the expense of usability. But when we’re talking about milder attacks, the balance is less obvious. Sure, banks want credit cards to be impervious to fraud, but if the security measures also regularly prevent us from using our own credit cards, we would rebel and banks would lose money. So banks often put ease of use ahead of security.

That’s how we should think about COVID-19 vaccine cards and test documentation. We’re not looking for perfection. If most everyone follows the rules and doesn’t cheat, we win. Making these systems easy to use is the priority. The alternative just isn’t worth it.

I design computer security systems for a living. Given the challenge, I could design a system of vaccine and test verification that makes cheating very hard. I could issue cards that are as unforgeable as passports, or create phone apps that are linked to highly secure centralized databases. I could build a massive surveillance apparatus and enforce the sorts of strict containment measures used in China’s zero-COVID-19 policy. But the costs—in money, in liberty, in privacy—are too high. We can get most of the benefits with some pieces of paper and broad, but not universal, compliance with the rules.

It also helps that many of the people who break the rules are so very bad at it. Every story of someone getting arrested for faking a vaccine card, or selling a fake, makes it less likely that the next person will cheat. Every traveler arrested for faking a COVID-19 test does the same thing. When a famous athlete such as Novak Djokovic gets caught lying about his past COVID-19 diagnosis when trying to enter Australia, others conclude that they shouldn’t try lying themselves.

Our goal should be to impose the best policies that we can, given the trade-offs. The small number of cheaters isn’t going to be a public-health problem. I don’t even care if they feel smug about cheating the system. The system is resilient; it can withstand some cheating.

Last month, I visited New York City, where restrictions that are now being lifted were then still in effect. Every restaurant and cocktail bar I went to verified the photo of my vaccine card that I keep on my phone, and at least pretended to compare the name on that card with the one on my photo ID. I felt a lot safer in those restaurants because of that security theater, even if a few of my fellow patrons cheated.

This essay previously appeared in the Atlantic.

Posted on March 18, 2022 at 6:12 AMView Comments

Privacy Violating COVID Tests

A good lesson in reading the fine print:

Cignpost Diagnostics, which trades as ExpressTest and offers £35 tests for holidaymakers, said it holds the right to analyse samples from seals to “learn more about human health”—and sell information on to third parties.

Individuals are required to give informed consent for their sensitive medical data to be used ­ but customers’ consent for their DNA to be sold now as buried in Cignpost’s online documents.

Of course, no one ever reads the fine print.

EDITED TO ADD (3/12): The original story.

Posted on February 25, 2022 at 6:15 AMView Comments

Are Fake COVID Testing Sites Harvesting Data?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen a bunch of writing about what seems to be fake COVID-19 testing sites. They take your name and info, and do a nose swab, but you never get test results. Speculation centered around data harvesting, but that didn’t make sense because it was far too labor intensive for that and—sorry to break it to you—your data isn’t worth all that much.

It seems to be multilevel marketing fraud instead:

The Center for COVID Control is a management company to Doctors Clinical Laboratory. It provides tests and testing supplies, software, personal protective equipment and marketing services—online and printed—to testing sites, said a person who was formerly associated with the Center for COVID Control. Some of the sites are owned independently but operate in partnership with the chain under its name and with its guidance.

[…]

Doctors Clinical Lab, the lab Center for COVID Control uses to process tests, makes money by billing patients’ insurance companies or seeking reimbursement from the federal government for testing. Insurance statements reviewed by Block Club show the lab has, in multiple instances, billed insurance companies $325 for a PCR test, $50 for a rapid test, $50 for collecting a person’s sample and $80 for a “supplemental fee.”

In turn, the testing sites are paid for providing samples to the lab to be processed, said a person formerly associated with the Center for COVID Control.

In a January video talking to testing site operators, Syed said the Center for COVID Control will no longer provide them with PCR tests, but it will continue supplying them with rapid tests at a cost of $5 per test. The companies will keep making money for the rapid tests they collect, he said.

“You guys will continue making the $28.50 you’re making for the rapid test,” Syed said in the video.

Read the article for the messy details. Or take a job and see for yourself.

EDITED TO ADD (2/13): More coverage about the fake testing sites.

Posted on January 19, 2022 at 6:10 AMView Comments

COVID-19 and Acedia

Note: This isn’t my usual essay topic. Still, I want to put it on my blog.

Six months into the pandemic with no end in sight, many of us have been feeling a sense of unease that goes beyond anxiety or distress. It’s a nameless feeling that somehow makes it hard to go on with even the nice things we regularly do.

What’s blocking our everyday routines is not the anxiety of lockdown adjustments, or the worries about ourselves and our loved ones—real though those worries are. It isn’t even the sense that, if we’re really honest with ourselves, much of what we do is pretty self-indulgent when held up against the urgency of a global pandemic.

It is something more troubling and harder to name: an uncertainty about why we would go on doing much of what for years we’d taken for granted as inherently valuable.

What we are confronting is something many writers in the pandemic have approached from varying angles: a restless distraction that stems not just from not knowing when it will all end, but also from not knowing what that end will look like. Perhaps the sharpest insight into this feeling has come from Jonathan Zecher, a historian of religion, who linked it to the forgotten Christian term: acedia.

Acedia was a malady that apparently plagued many medieval monks. It’s a sense of no longer caring about caring, not because one had become apathetic, but because somehow the whole structure of care had become jammed up.

What could this particular form of melancholy mean in an urgent global crisis? On the face of it, all of us care very much about the health risks to those we know and don’t know. Yet lurking alongside such immediate cares is a sense of dislocation that somehow interferes with how we care.

The answer can be found in an extreme thought experiment about death. In 2013, philosopher Samuel Scheffler explored a core assumption about death. We all assume that there will be a future world that survives our particular life, a world populated by people roughly like us, including some who are related to us or known to us. Though we rarely or acknowledge it, this presumed future world is the horizon towards which everything we do in the present is oriented.

But what, Scheffler asked, if we lose that assumed future world—because, say, we are told that human life will end on a fixed date not far after our own death? Then the things we value would start to lose their value. Our sense of why things matter today is built on the presumption that they will continue to matter in the future, even when we ourselves are no longer around to value them.

Our present relations to people and things are, in this deep way, future-oriented. Symphonies are written, buildings built, children conceived in the present, but always with a future in mind. What happens to our ethical bearings when we start to lose our grip on that future?

It’s here, moving back to the particular features of the global pandemic, that we see more clearly what drives the restlessness and dislocation so many have been feeling. The source of our current acedia is not the literal loss of a future; even the most pessimistic scenarios surrounding COVID-19 have our species surviving. The dislocation is more subtle: a disruption in pretty much every future frame of reference on which just going on in the present relies.

Moving around is what we do as creatures, and for that we need horizons. COVID-19 has erased many of the spatial and temporal horizons we rely on, even if we don’t notice them very often. We don’t know how the economy will look, how social life will go on, how our home routines will be changed, how work will be organized, how universities or the arts or local commerce will survive.

What unsettles us is not only fear of change. It’s that, if we can no longer trust in the future, many things become irrelevant, retrospectively pointless. And by that we mean from the perspective of a future whose basic shape we can no longer take for granted. This fundamentally disrupts how we weigh the value of what we are doing right now. It becomes especially hard under these conditions to hold on to the value in activities that, by their very nature, are future-directed, such as education or institution-building.

That’s what many of us are feeling. That’s today’s acedia.

Naming this malaise may seem more trouble than its worth, but the opposite is true. Perhaps the worst thing about medieval acedia was that monks struggled with its dislocation in isolation. But today’s disruption of our sense of a future must be a shared challenge. Because what’s disrupted is the structure of care that sustains why we go on doing things together, and this can only be repaired through renewed solidarity.

Such solidarity, however, has one precondition: that we openly discuss the problem of acedia, and how it prevents us from facing our deepest future uncertainties. Once we have done that, we can recognize it as a problem we choose to face together—across political and cultural lines—as families, communities, nations and a global humanity. Which means doing so in acceptance of our shared vulnerability, rather than suffering each on our own.

This essay was written with Nick Couldry, and previously appeared on CNN.com.

EDITED TO ADD (4/13/2021): Ukrainian translation.

Posted on October 2, 2020 at 2:15 PMView Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Squid Proteins for a Better Face Mask

Researchers are synthesizing squid proteins to create a face mask that better survives cleaning. (And you thought there was no connection between squid and COVID-19.) The military thinks this might have applications for self-healing robots.

As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered.

Read my blog posting guidelines here.

Posted on July 31, 2020 at 4:00 PMView Comments

The Security Value of Inefficiency

For decades, we have prized efficiency in our economy. We strive for it. We reward it. In normal times, that’s a good thing. Running just at the margins is efficient. A single just-in-time global supply chain is efficient. Consolidation is efficient. And that’s all profitable. Inefficiency, on the other hand, is waste. Extra inventory is inefficient. Overcapacity is inefficient. Using many small suppliers is inefficient. Inefficiency is unprofitable.

But inefficiency is essential security, as the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us. All of the overcapacity that has been squeezed out of our healthcare system; we now wish we had it. All of the redundancy in our food production that has been consolidated away; we want that, too. We need our old, local supply chains—not the single global ones that are so fragile in this crisis. And we want our local restaurants and businesses to survive, not just the national chains.

We have lost much inefficiency to the market in the past few decades. Investors have become very good at noticing any fat in every system and swooping down to monetize those redundant assets. The winner-take-all mentality that has permeated so many industries squeezes any inefficiencies out of the system.

This drive for efficiency leads to brittle systems that function properly when everything is normal but break under stress. And when they break, everyone suffers. The less fortunate suffer and die. The more fortunate are merely hurt, and perhaps lose their freedoms or their future. But even the extremely fortunate suffer—maybe not in the short term, but in the long term from the constriction of the rest of society.

Efficient systems have limited ability to deal with system-wide economic shocks. Those shocks are coming with increased frequency. They’re caused by global pandemics, yes, but also by climate change, by financial crises, by political crises. If we want to be secure against these crises and more, we need to add inefficiency back into our systems.

I don’t simply mean that we need to make our food production, or healthcare system, or supply chains sloppy and wasteful. We need a certain kind of inefficiency, and it depends on the system in question. Sometimes we need redundancy. Sometimes we need diversity. Sometimes we need overcapacity.

The market isn’t going to supply any of these things, least of all in a strategic capacity that will result in resilience. What’s necessary to make any of this work is regulation.

First, we need to enforce antitrust laws. Our meat supply chain is brittle because there are limited numbers of massive meatpacking plants—now disease factories—rather than lots of smaller slaughterhouses. Our retail supply chain is brittle because a few national companies and websites dominate. We need multiple companies offering alternatives to a single product or service. We need more competition, more niche players. We need more local companies, more domestic corporate players, and diversity in our international suppliers. Competition provides all of that, while monopolies suck that out of the system.

The second thing we need is specific regulations that require certain inefficiencies. This isn’t anything new. Every safety system we have is, to some extent, an inefficiency. This is true for fire escapes on buildings, lifeboats on cruise ships, and multiple ways to deploy the landing gear on aircraft. Not having any of those things would make the underlying systems more efficient, but also less safe. It’s also true for the internet itself, originally designed with extensive redundancy as a Cold War security measure.

With those two things in place, the market can work its magic to provide for these strategic inefficiencies as cheaply and as effectively as possible. As long as there are competitors who are vying with each other, and there aren’t competitors who can reduce the inefficiencies and undercut the competition, these inefficiencies just become part of the price of whatever we’re buying.

The government is the entity that steps in and enforces a level playing field instead of a race to the bottom. Smart regulation addresses the long-term need for security, and ensures it’s not continuously sacrificed to short-term considerations.

We have largely been content to ignore the long term and let Wall Street run our economy as efficiently as it can. That’s no longer sustainable. We need inefficiency—the right kind in the right way—to ensure our security. No, it’s not free. But it’s worth the cost.

This essay previously appeared in Quartz.

EDITED TO ADD (7/14): A related piece by Dan Geer.

Posted on July 2, 2020 at 9:26 AMView Comments

COVID-19 Risks of Flying

I fly a lot. Over the past five years, my average speed has been 32 miles an hour. That all changed mid-March. It’s been 105 days since I’ve been on an airplane—longer than any other time in my adult life—and I have no future flights scheduled. This is all a prelude to saying that I have been paying a lot of attention to the COVID-related risks of flying.

We know a lot more about how COVID-19 spreads than we did in March. The “less than six feet, more than ten minutes” model has given way to a much more sophisticated model involving airflow, the level of virus in the room, and the viral load in the person who might be infected.

Regarding airplanes specifically: on the whole, they seem safer than many other group activities. Of all the research about contact tracing results I have read, I have seen no stories of a sick person on an airplane infecting other passengers. There are no superspreader events involving airplanes. (That did happen with SARS.) It seems that the airflow inside the cabin really helps.

Airlines are trying to make things better: blocking middle seats, serving less food and drink, trying to get people to wear masks. (This video is worth watching.) I’ve started to see airlines requiring masks and banning those who won’t, and not just strongly encouraging them. (If mask wearing is treated the same as the seat belt wearing, it will make a huge difference.) Finally, there are a lot of dumb things that airlines are doing.

This article interviewed 511 epidemiologists, and the general consensus was that flying is riskier than getting a haircut but less risky than eating in a restaurant. I think that most of the risk is pre-flight, in the airport: crowds at the security checkpoints, gates, and so on. And that those are manageable with mask wearing and situational awareness. So while I am not flying yet, I might be willing to soon. (It doesn’t help that I get a -1 on my COVID saving throw for type A blood, and another -1 for male pattern baldness. On the other hand, I think I get a +3 Constitution bonus. Maybe, instead of sky marshals we can have high-level clerics on the planes.)

And everyone: wear a mask, and wash your hands.

EDITED TO ADD (6/27): Airlines are starting to crowd their flights again.

Posted on June 24, 2020 at 12:32 PMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.