Entries Tagged "DHS"

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TSA Lied About Protecting Passenger Data

According to the AP:

The Transportation Security Administration misled the public about its role in obtaining personal information about 12 million airline passengers to test a new computerized system that screens for terrorists, according to a government investigation.

The report, released Friday by Homeland Security Department Acting Inspector General Richard Skinner, said the agency misinformed individuals, the press and Congress in 2003 and 2004. It stopped short of saying TSA lied.

I’ll say it: the TSA lied.

Here’s the report. It’s worth reading. And when you read it, keep in mind that it’s written by the DHS’s own Inspector General. I presume a more independent investigator would be even more severe. Not that the report isn’t severe, mind you.

Another AP article has more details:

The report cites several occasions where TSA officials made inaccurate statements about passenger data:

  • In September 2003, the agency’s Freedom of Information Act staff received hundreds of requests from Jet Blue passengers asking if the TSA had their records. After a cursory search, the FOIA staff posted a notice on the TSA Web site that it had no JetBlue passenger data. Though the FOIA staff found JetBlue passenger records in TSA’s possession in May, the notice stayed on the Web site for more than a year.
  • In November 2003, TSA chief James Loy incorrectly told the Governmental Affairs Committee that certain kinds of passenger data were not being used to test passenger prescreening.
  • In September 2003, a technology magazine reporter asked a TSA spokesman whether real data were used to test the passenger prescreening system. The spokesman said only fake data were used; the responses “were not accurate,” the report said.

There’s much more. The report reveals that TSA ordered Delta Air Lines to turn over passenger data in February 2002 to help the Secret Service determine whether terrorists or their associates were traveling in the vicinity of the Salt Lake City Olympics.

It also reveals that TSA used passenger data from JetBlue in the spring of 2003 to figure out how to change the number of people who would be selected for more screening under the existing system.

The report says that one of the TSA’s contractors working on passenger prescreening, Lockheed Martin, used a data sample from ChoicePoint.

The report also details how outside contractors used the data for their own purposes. And that “the agency neglected to inquire whether airline passenger data used by the vendors had been returned or destroyed.” And that “TSA did not consistently apply privacy protections in the course of its involvement in airline passenger data transfers.”

This is major stuff. It shows that the TSA lied to the public about its use of personal data again and again and again.

Right now the TSA is in a bit of a bind. It is prohibited by Congress from fielding Secure Flight until it meets a series of criteria. The Government Accountability Office is expected to release a report this week that details how the TSA has not met these criteria.

I’m not sure the TSA cares. It’s already announced plans to roll out Secure Flight.

With little fanfare, the Transportation Security Administration late last month announced plans to roll out in August its highly contentious Secure Flight program. Considered by some travel industry experts a foray into operational testing, rather than a viable implementation, the program will begin, in limited release, with two airlines not yet named by TSA.

My own opinions of Secure Flight are well-known. I am participating in a Working Group to help evaluate the privacy of Secure Flight. (I’ve blogged about it here and here.) We’ve met three times, and it’s unclear if we’ll ever meet again or if we’ll ever produce the report we’re supposed to. Near as I can tell, it’s all a big mess right now.

Edited to add: The GAO report is online (PDF format).

Posted on March 27, 2005 at 12:34 PMView Comments

The Silliness of Secrecy

This is a great article on some of the ridiculous effects of government secrecy. (Unfortunately, you have to register to read it.)

Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has advised airplane pilots against flying near 100 nuclear power plants around the country or they will be forced down by fighter jets. But pilots say there’s a hitch in the instructions: aviation security officials refuse to disclose the precise location of the plants because they
consider that “SSI” — Sensitive Security Information.

“The message is; ‘please don’t fly there, but we can’t tell you where there is,'” says Melissa Rudinger of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a trade group representing 60% of American pilots.

Determined to find a way out of the Catch-22, the pilots’ group sat down with a commercial mapping company, and in a matter of days plotted the exact geographical locations of the plants from data found on the Internet and in libraries. It made the information available to its 400,000 members on its Web site — until officials from the Transportation Security Administration asked them to take the information down. “Their concern was that [terrorists] mining the Internet could use it,” Ms. Rudinger says.

And:

For example, when a top Federal Aviation Administration official testified last year before the 9/11 commission, his remarks were
broadcast live nationally. But when the administration included a transcript in a recent report on threats to commercial airliners, the testimony was heavily edited. “How do you redact something that
is part of the public record?” asked Rep. Carolyn Maloney, (D., N.Y.) at a recent hearing on the problems of government
overclassification. Among the specific words blacked out were the seemingly innocuous phrase: “we are hearing this, this, this, this
and this.”

Government officials could not explain why the words were withheld, other than to note that they were designated SSI.

Posted on March 24, 2005 at 9:48 AMView Comments

Banning Matches and Lighters on Airplanes

According to the Washington Post:

When Congress voted last year to prohibit passengers from bringing lighters and matches aboard commercial airplanes, it sounded like a reasonable idea for improving airline security.

But as airports and government leaders began discussing how to create flame-free airport terminals, the task became more complicated. Would newsstands and other small airport stores located beyond the security checkpoint have to stop selling lighters? Would airports have to ban smoking and close smoking lounges? How would security screeners detect matches in passengers’ pockets or carry-on bags when they don’t contain metal to set off the magnetometers? And what about arriving international travelers, who might have matches and lighters with them as they walk through the terminal?

It’s the silly security season out there. Given all of the things to spend money on to improve security, how this got to the top of anyone’s list is beyond me.

Posted on March 4, 2005 at 3:00 PMView Comments

Sneaking Items Aboard Aircraft

A Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice faces a fine — although no criminal charges at the moment — for trying to sneak a knife aboard an aircraft.

Saylor, 58, and his wife entered a security checkpoint Feb. 4 on a trip to Philadelphia when screeners found a small Swiss Army-style knife attached to his key chain.

A police report said he was told the item could not be carried onto a plane and that he needed to place the knife into checked luggage or make other arrangements.

When Saylor returned a short time later to be screened a second time, an X-ray machine detected a knife inside his carry-on luggage, police said.

There are two points worth making here. One: ridiculous rules have a way of turning people into criminals. And two: this is an example of a security failure, not a security success.

Security systems fail in one of two ways. They can fail to stop the bad guy, and they can mistakenly stop the good guy. The TSA likes to measure its success by looking at the forbidden items they have prevented from being carried onto aircraft, but that’s wrong. Every time the TSA takes a pocketknife from an innocent person, that’s a security failure. It’s a false alarm. The system has prevented access where no prevention was required. This, coupled with the widespread belief that the bad guys will find a way around the system, demonstrates what a colossal waste of money it is.

Posted on February 28, 2005 at 8:00 AMView Comments

Airport Screeners Cheat to Pass Tests

According to the San Franciso Chronicle:

The private firm in charge of security at San Francisco International Airport cheated to pass tests aimed at ensuring it could stop terrorists from smuggling weapons onto flights, a former employee contends.

All security systems require trusted people: people that must be trusted in order for the security to work. If the trusted people turn out not to be trustworthy, security fails.

Posted on February 24, 2005 at 8:00 AMView Comments

TSA's Secure Flight

As I wrote previously, I am participating in a working group to study the security and privacy of Secure Flight, the U.S. government’s program to match airline passengers with a terrorist watch list. In the end, I signed the NDA allowing me access to SSI (Sensitive Security Information) documents, but managed to avoid filling out the paperwork for a SECRET security clearance.

Last week the group had its second meeting.

So far, I have four general conclusions. One, assuming that we need to implement a program of matching airline passengers with names on terrorism watch lists, Secure Flight is a major improvement — in almost every way — over what is currently in place. (And by this I mean the matching program, not any potential uses of commercial or other third-party data.)

Two, the security system surrounding Secure Flight is riddled with security holes. There are security problems with false IDs, ID verification, the ability to fly on someone else’s ticket, airline procedures, etc.

Three, the urge to use this system for other things will be irresistible. It’s just too easy to say: “As long as you’ve got this system that watches out for terrorists, how about also looking for this list of drug dealers…and by the way, we’ve got the Super Bowl to worry about too.” Once Secure Flight gets built, all it’ll take is a new law and we’ll have a nationwide security checkpoint system.

And four, a program of matching airline passengers with names on terrorism watch lists is not making us appreciably safer, and is a lousy way to spend our security dollars.

Unfortunately, Congress has mandated that Secure Flight be implemented, so it is unlikely that the program will be killed. And analyzing the effectiveness of the program in general, potential mission creep, and whether the general idea is a worthwhile one, is beyond the scope of our little group. In other words, my first conclusion is basically all that they’re interested in hearing.

But that means I can write about everything else.

To speak to my fourth conclusion: Imagine for a minute that Secure Flight is perfect. That is, we can ensure that no one can fly under a false identity, that the watch lists have perfect identity information, and that Secure Flight can perfectly determine if a passenger is on the watch list: no false positives and no false negatives. Even if we could do all that, Secure Flight wouldn’t be worth it.

Secure Flight is a passive system. It waits for the bad guys to buy an airplane ticket and try to board. If the bad guys don’t fly, it’s a waste of money. If the bad guys try to blow up shopping malls instead of airplanes, it’s a waste of money.

If I had some millions of dollars to spend on terrorism security, and I had a watch list of potential terrorists, I would spend that money investigating those people. I would try to determine whether or not they were a terrorism threat before they got to the airport, or even if they had no intention of visiting an airport. I would try to prevent their plot regardless of whether it involved airplanes. I would clear the innocent people, and I would go after the guilty. I wouldn’t build a complex computerized infrastructure and wait until one of them happened to wander into an airport. It just doesn’t make security sense.

That’s my usual metric when I think about a terrorism security measure: Would it be more effective than taking that money and funding intelligence, investigation, or emergency response — things that protect us regardless of what the terrorists are planning next. Money spent on security measures that only work against a particular terrorist tactic, forgetting that terrorists are adaptable, is largely wasted.

Posted on January 31, 2005 at 9:26 AMView Comments

American Airlines Data Collection

From BoingBoing:

Last week on a trip from London to the US, American Airlines demanded that I write out a list of the names and addresses of all the friends I would be staying with in the USA. They claimed that this was due to a TSA regulation, but refused to state which regulation required them to gather this information, nor what they would do with it once they’d gathered it. I raised a stink, and was eventually told that I wouldn’t have to give them the requested dossier because I was a Platinum AAdvantage Card holder (i.e., because I fly frequently with AA).

The whole story is worth reading. It’s hard to know what’s really going on, because there’s so much information I don’t have. But it’s chilling nonetheless.

Posted on January 20, 2005 at 9:28 AMView Comments

DHS Biometric ID Cards

The Department of Homeland Security is considering a biometric identification card for transportation workers:

TWIC is a tamper-resistant credential that contains biometric information about the holder which renders the card useless to anyone other than the rightful owner. Using this biometric data, each transportation facility can verify the identity of a worker and help prevent unauthorized individuals from accessing secure areas. Currently, many transportation workers must carry a different identification card for each facility they access. A standard TWIC would improve the flow of commerce by eliminating the need for redundant credentials and streamlining the identity verification process.

I’ve written extensively about the uses and abuses of biometrics (Beyond Fear, pages 197-200). The short summary is that biometrics are great as a local authentication tool and terrible as a identification tool. For a whole bunch of reasons, this DHS project is a good use of biometrics.

Posted on January 19, 2005 at 8:55 AMView Comments

Secure Flight Privacy/IT Working Group

I am participating in a working group to help evaluate the effectiveness and privacy implications of the TSA’s Secure Flight program. We’ve had one meeting so far, and it looks like it will be an interesting exercise.

For those who have not been following along, Secure Flight is the follow-on to CAPPS-I. (CAPPS stands for Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening.) CAPPS-I has been in place since 1997, and is a simple system to match airplane passengers to a terrorist watch list. A follow-on system, CAPPS-II, was proposed last year. That complicated system would have given every traveler a risk score based on information in government and commercial databases. There was a huge public outcry over the invasiveness of the system, and it was cancelled over the summer. Secure Flight is the new follow-on system to CAPPS-I.

Many of us believe that Secure Flight is just CAPPS-II with a new name. I hope to learn whether or not that is true.

I hope to learn a lot of things about Secure Flight and airline passenger profiling in general, but I probably won’t be able to write about it. In order to be a member of this working group, I was required to apply for a U.S. government SECRET security clearance and sign an NDA, promising that I would not disclose something called “Sensitive Security Information.”

SSI is one of three new categories of secret information, all of I think have no reason to exist. There is already a classification scheme — CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET, TOP SECRET, etc. — and information should either fit into that scheme or be public. A new scheme is just confusing. The NDA we were supposed to sign was very general, and included such provisions as allowing the government to conduct warrantless searches of our residences. (Two federal unions have threatened to sue the government over several provisions in that NDA, which applies to many DHS employees. And just recently, the DHS backed down.)

After push-back by myself and several others, we were given a much less onerous NDA to sign.

I am not happy about the secrecy surrounding the working group. NDAs and classified briefings raise serious ethical issues for government oversight committees. My suspicion is that I will be wowed with secret, unverifiable assertions that I will either have to accept or (more likely) question, but not be able to discuss with others. In general, secret deliberations favor the interests of those who impose the rules. They really run against the spirit of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).

Moreover, I’m not sure why this working group is not in violation of FACA. FACA is a 1972 law intended to govern how the Executive branch uses groups of advisors outside the federal government. Among other rules, it requires that advisory committees announce their meetings, hold them in public, and take minutes that are available to the public. The DHS was given a specific exemption from FACA when it was established: the Secretary of Homeland Security has the authority to exempt any advisory committee from FACA; the only requirement is that the Secretary publish notice of the committee in the Federal Register. I looked, and have not seen any such announcement.

Because of the NDA and the failure to follow FACA, I will not be able to fully exercise my First Amendment rights. That means that the government can stop me from saying things that may be important for the public to know. For example, if I learn that the old CAPPS program failed to identify actual terrorists, or that a lot of people who were not terrorists were wrongfully pulled off planes and the government has tried to keep this quiet — I’m just making these up — I can’t tell you. The government could prosecute me under the NDA because they might claim these facts are SSI and the public would never know this information, because there would be no open meeting obligations as there are for FACA committees.

In other words, the secrecy of this committee could have a real impact on the public understanding of whether or not air passenger screening really works.

In any case, I hope I can help make Secure Flight an effective security tool. I hope I can help minimize the privacy invasions on the program if it continues, and help kill it if it is ineffective. I’m not optimistic, but I’m hopeful.

I’m not hopeful that you will ever learn the results of this working group. We’re preparing our report for the Aviation Security Advisory Committee, and I very much doubt that they will release the report to the public.

Original NDA

Story about unions objecting to the NDA

And a recent development that may or may not affect this group

Posted on January 13, 2005 at 9:08 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.