Entries Tagged "DHS"

Page 5 of 38

Kip Hawley Reviews Liars and Outliers

In his blog:

I think the most important security issues going forward center around identity and trust. Before knowing I would soon encounter Bruce again in the media, I bought and read his new book Liars & Outliers and it is a must-read book for people looking forward into our security future and thinking about where this all leads. For my colleagues inside the government working the various identity management, security clearance, and risk-based- security issues, L&O should be required reading.

[…]

L&O is fresh thinking about live fire issues of today as well as moral issues that are ahead. Whatever your policy bent, this book will help you. Trust me on this, you don’t have to buy everything Bruce says about TSA to read this book, take it to work, put it down on the table and say, “this is brilliant stuff.”

I’m hosting Kip Hawley on FireDogLake’s Book Salon on Sunday at 5:00 – 7:00 PM EDT. Join me and we’ll ask him some tough questions about his new book.

Posted on May 18, 2012 at 6:06 AMView Comments

U.S. Exports Terrorism Fears

To New Zealand:

United States Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano has warned the New Zealand Government about the latest terrorist threat known as “body bombers.”

[…]

“Do we have specific credible evidence of a [body bomb] threat today? I would not say that we do, however, the importance is that we all lean forward.”

Why the headline of this article is “NZ warned over ‘body bombers,'” and not “Napolitano admits ‘no credible evidence’ of body bomber threat” is beyond me.

Posted on May 15, 2012 at 6:17 AMView Comments

The Trouble with Airport Profiling

Why do otherwise rational people think it’s a good idea to profile people at airports? Recently, neuroscientist and best-selling author Sam Harris related a story of an elderly couple being given the twice-over by the TSA, pointed out how these two were obviously not a threat, and recommended that the TSA focus on the actual threat: “Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim.”

This is a bad idea. It doesn’t make us any safer—and it actually puts us all at risk.

The right way to look at security is in terms of cost-benefit trade-offs. If adding profiling to airport checkpoints allowed us to detect more threats at a lower cost, than we should implement it. If it didn’t, we’d be foolish to do so. Sometimes profiling works. Consider a sheep in a meadow, happily munching on grass. When he spies a wolf, he’s going to judge that individual wolf based on a bunch of assumptions related to the past behavior of its species. In short, that sheep is going to profile…and then run away. This makes perfect sense, and is why evolution produced sheep—and other animals—that react this way. But this sort of profiling doesn’t work with humans at airports, for several reasons.

First, in the sheep’s case the profile is accurate, in that all wolves are out to eat sheep. Maybe a particular wolf isn’t hungry at the moment, but enough wolves are hungry enough of the time to justify the occasional false alarm. However, it isn’t true that almost all Muslims are out to blow up airplanes. In fact, almost none of them are. Post 9/11, we’ve had 2 Muslim terrorists on U.S airplanes: the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber. If you assume 0.8% (that’s one estimate of the percentage of Muslim Americans) of the 630 million annual airplane fliers are Muslim and triple it to account for others who look Semitic, then the chances any profiled flier will be a Muslim terrorist is 1 in 80 million. Add the 19 9/11 terrorists—arguably a singular event—that number drops to 1 in 8 million. Either way, because the number of actual terrorists is so low, almost everyone selected by the profile will be innocent. This is called the “base rate fallacy,” and dooms any type of broad terrorist profiling, including the TSA’s behavioral profiling.

Second, sheep can safely ignore animals that don’t look like the few predators they know. On the other hand, to assume that only Arab-appearing people are terrorists is dangerously naive. Muslims are black, white, Asian, and everything else—most Muslims are not Arab. Recent terrorists have been European, Asian, African, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern; male and female; young and old. Underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab was Nigerian. Shoe bomber Richard Reid was British with a Jamaican father. One of the London subway bombers, Germaine Lindsay, was Afro-Caribbean. Dirty bomb suspect Jose Padilla was Hispanic-American. The 2002 Bali terrorists were Indonesian. Both Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber were white Americans. The Chechen terrorists who blew up two Russian planes in 2004 were female. Focusing on a profile increases the risk that TSA agents will miss those who don’t match it.

Third, wolves can’t deliberately try to evade the profile. A wolf in sheep’s clothing is just a story, but humans are smart and adaptable enough to put the concept into practice. Once the TSA establishes a profile, terrorists will take steps to avoid it. The Chechens deliberately chose female suicide bombers because Russian security was less thorough with women. Al Qaeda has tried to recruit non-Muslims. And terrorists have given bombs to innocent—and innocent-looking—travelers. Randomized secondary screening is more effective, especially since the goal isn’t to catch every plot but to create enough uncertainty that terrorists don’t even try.

And fourth, sheep don’t care if they offend innocent wolves; the two species are never going to be friends. At airports, though, there is an enormous social and political cost to the millions of false alarms. Beyond the societal harms of deliberately harassing a minority group, singling out Muslims alienates the very people who are in the best position to discover and alert authorities about Muslim plots before the terrorists even get to the airport. This alone is reason enough not to profile.

I too am incensed—but not surprised—when the TSA singles out four-year old girls, children with cerebral palsy, pretty women, the elderly, and wheelchair users for humiliation, abuse, and sometimes theft. Any bureaucracy that processes 630 million people per year will generate stories like this. When people propose profiling, they are really asking for a security system that can apply judgment. Unfortunately, that’s really hard. Rules are easier to explain and train. Zero tolerance is easier to justify and defend. Judgment requires better-educated, more expert, and much-higher-paid screeners. And the personal career risks to a TSA agent of being wrong when exercising judgment far outweigh any benefits from being sensible.

The proper reaction to screening horror stories isn’t to subject only “those people” to it; it’s to subject no one to it. (Can anyone even explain what hypothetical terrorist plot could successfully evade normal security, but would be discovered during secondary screening?) Invasive TSA screening is nothing more than security theater. It doesn’t make us safer, and it’s not worth the cost. Even more strongly, security isn’t our society’s only value. Do we really want the full power of government to act out our stereotypes and prejudices? Have we Americans ever done something like this and not been ashamed later? This is what we have a Constitution for: to help us live up to our values and not down to our fears.

This essay previously appeared on Forbes.com and Sam Harris’s blog.

Posted on May 14, 2012 at 6:19 AMView Comments

A Foiled Terrorist Plot

We don’t know much, but here are my predictions:

  1. There’s a lot more hyperbole to this story than reality.
  2. The explosive would have either 1) been caught by pre-9/11 security, or 2) not been caught by post-9/11 security.
  3. Nonetheless, it will be used to justify more invasive airport security.

Posted on May 8, 2012 at 1:14 PMView Comments

Criminal Intent Prescreening and the Base Rate Fallacy

I’ve often written about the base rate fallacy and how it makes tests for rare events—like airplane terrorists—useless because the false positives vastly outnumber the real positives. This essay uses that argument to demonstrate why the TSA’s FAST program is useless:

First, predictive software of this kind is undermined by a simple statistical problem known as the false-positive paradox. Any system designed to spot terrorists before they commit an act of terrorism is, necessarily, looking for a needle in a haystack. As the adage would suggest, it turns out that this is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Here is why: let’s assume for a moment that 1 in 1,000,000 people is a terrorist about to commit a crime. Terrorists are actually probably much much more rare, or we would have a whole lot more acts of terrorism, given the daily throughput of the global transportation system. Now lets imagine the FAST algorithm correctly classifies 99.99 percent of observations—an incredibly high rate of accuracy for any big data-based predictive model. Even with this unbelievable level of accuracy, the system would still falsely accuse 99 people of being terrorists for every one terrorist it finds. Given that none of these people would have actually committed a terrorist act yet distinguishing the innocent false positives from the guilty might be a non-trivial, and invasive task.

Of course FAST has nowhere near a 99.99 percent accuracy rate. I imagine much of the work being done here is classified, but a writeup in Nature reported that the first round of field tests had a 70 percent accuracy rate. From the available material it is difficult to determine exactly what this number means. There are a couple of ways to interpret this, since both the write-up and the DHS documentation (all pdfs) are unclear. This might mean that the current iteration of FAST correctly classifies 70 percent of people it observes—which would produce false positives at an abysmal rate, given the rarity of terrorists in the population. The other way of interpreting this reported result is that FAST will call a terrorist a terrorist 70 percent of the time. This second option tells us nothing about the rate of false positives, but it would likely be quite high. In either case, it is likely that the false-positive paradox would be in full force for FAST, ensuring that any real terrorists identified are lost in a sea of falsely accused innocents.

It’s that final sentence in the first quoted paragraph that really points to how bad this idea is. If FAST determines you are guilty of a crime you have not yet committed, how do you exonerate yourself?

Posted on May 3, 2012 at 6:22 AMView Comments

TSA Behavioral Detection Statistics

Interesting data from the U.S. Government Accountability Office:

But congressional auditors have questions about other efficiencies as well, like having 3,000 “behavior detection” officers assigned to question passengers. The officers sidetracked 50,000 passengers in 2010, resulting in the arrests of 300 passengers, the GAO found. None turned out to be terrorists.

Yet in the same year, behavior detection teams apparently let at least 16 individuals allegedly involved in six subsequent terror plots slip through eight different airports. GAO said the individuals moved through protected airports on at least 23 different occasions.

I don’t believe the second paragraph. We haven’t had six terror plots between 2010 and today. And even if we did, how would the auditors know? But I’m sure the first paragraph is correct: the behavioral detection program is 0% effective at preventing terrorism.

The rest of the article is pretty depressing. The TSA refuses to back down on any of its security theater measures. At the same time, its budget is being cut and more people are flying. The result: longer waiting times at security.

Posted on April 20, 2012 at 6:19 AMView Comments

Hawley Channels His Inner Schneier

Kip Hawley wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal on airport security. In it, he says so many sensible things that people have been forwarding it to me with comments like “did you ghostwrite this?” and “it looks like you won an argument” and “how did you convince him?”

(Sadly, the essay was published in the Journal, which means it won’t be freely available on the Internet forever. Because of that, I’m going to quote from it liberally. And if anyone finds a permanent URL for this, I’ll add it here.)

Hawley:

Any effort to rebuild TSA and get airport security right in the U.S. has to start with two basic principles:

First, the TSA’s mission is to prevent a catastrophic attack on the transportation system, not to ensure that every single passenger can avoid harm while traveling. Much of the friction in the system today results from rules that are direct responses to how we were attacked on 9/11. But it’s simply no longer the case that killing a few people on board a plane could lead to a hijacking. Never again will a terrorist be able to breach the cockpit simply with a box cutter or a knife. The cockpit doors have been reinforced, and passengers, flight crews and air marshals would intervene.

This sounds a lot like me (2005):

Exactly two things have made airline travel safer since 9/11: reinforcement of cockpit doors, and passengers who now know that they may have to fight back.

I’m less into sky marshals than he is.

Hawley:

Second, the TSA’s job is to manage risk, not to enforce regulations. Terrorists are adaptive, and we need to be adaptive, too. Regulations are always playing catch-up, because terrorists design their plots around the loopholes.

Me in 2008:

It’s this fetish-like focus on tactics that results in the security follies at airports. We ban guns and knives, and terrorists use box-cutters. We take away box-cutters and corkscrews, so they put explosives in their shoes. We screen shoes, so they use liquids. We take away liquids, and they’re going to do something else. Or they’ll ignore airplanes entirely and attack a school, church, theatre, stadium, shopping mall, airport terminal outside the security area, or any of the other places where people pack together tightly.

These are stupid games, so let’s stop playing.

He disses Trusted Traveler programs, where known people are allowed bypass some security measures:

I had hoped to advance the idea of a Registered Traveler program, but the second that you create a population of travelers who are considered “trusted,” that category of fliers moves to the top of al Qaeda’s training list, whether they are old, young, white, Asian, military, civilian, male or female. The men who bombed the London Underground in July 2005 would all have been eligible for the Registered Traveler cards we were developing at the time. No realistic amount of prescreening can alleviate this threat when al Qaeda is working to recruit “clean” agents. TSA dropped the idea on my watch—though new versions of it continue to pop up.

Me in 2004:

What the Trusted Traveler program does is create two different access paths into the airport: high security and low security. The intent is that only good guys will take the low-security path, and the bad guys will be forced to take the high-security path, but it rarely works out that way. You have to assume that the bad guys will find a way to take the low-security path.

Hawley’s essay ends with a list of recommendations for change, and they are mostly good:

What would a better system look like? If politicians gave the TSA some political cover, the agency could institute the following changes before the start of the summer travel season:

1. No more banned items: Aside from obvious weapons capable of fast, multiple killings—such as guns, toxins and explosive devices—it is time to end the TSA’s use of well-trained security officers as kindergarten teachers to millions of passengers a day. The list of banned items has created an “Easter-egg hunt” mentality at the TSA. Worse, banning certain items gives terrorists a complete list of what not to use in their next attack. Lighters are banned? The next attack will use an electric trigger.

Me in 2009:

Return passenger screening to pre-9/11 levels.

Hawley:

2. Allow all liquids: Simple checkpoint signage, a small software update and some traffic management are all that stand between you and bringing all your liquids on every U.S. flight. Really.

This is referring to a point he makes earlier in his essay:

I was initially against a ban on liquids as well, because I thought that, with proper briefing, TSA officers could stop al Qaeda’s new liquid bombs. Unfortunately, al Qaeda’s advancing skill with hydrogen-peroxide-based bombs made a total liquid ban necessary for a brief period and a restriction on the amount of liquid one could carry on a plane necessary thereafter.

Existing scanners could allow passengers to carry on any amount of liquid they want, so long as they put it in the gray bins. The scanners have yet to be used in this way because of concern for the large number of false alarms and delays that they could cause. When I left TSA in 2009, the plan was to designate “liquid lanes” where waits might be longer but passengers could board with snow globes, beauty products or booze. That plan is still sitting on someone’s desk.

I have been complaining about the liquids ban for years, but Hawley’s comment confuses me. He says that hydrogen-peroxide based bombs—these are the bombs that are too dangerous to bring on board in 4-oz. bottles, but perfectly fine in four 1-oz bottles combined after the checkpoints—can be detected with existing scanners, not with new scanners using new technology. Does anyone know what he’s talking about?

Hawley:

3. Give TSA officers more flexibility and rewards for initiative, and hold them accountable: No security agency on earth has the experience and pattern-recognition skills of TSA officers. We need to leverage that ability. TSA officers should have more discretion to interact with passengers and to work in looser teams throughout airports. And TSA’s leaders must be prepared to support initiative even when officers make mistakes. Currently, independence on the ground is more likely to lead to discipline than reward.

This is a great idea, but it’s going to cost money. Being a TSA screener is a pretty lousy job. Morale is poor: “In surveys on employee morale and job satisfaction, TSA often performs poorly compared to other government agencies. In 2010 TSA ranked 220 out of 224 government agency subcomponents for employee satisfaction.” Pay is low: “The men and women at the front lines of the battle to keep the skies safe are among the lowest paid of all federal employees, and they have one of the highest injury rates.” And there is traditionally a high turnover: 20% in 2008. The 2011 decision allowing TSA workers to unionize will help this somewhat, but for it to really work, the rules can’t be this limiting: “the paper outlining his decision precludes negotiations on security policies, pay, pensions and compensation, proficiency testing, job qualifications and discipline standards. It also will prohibit screeners from striking or engaging in work slowdowns.”

TSA workers who are smart, flexible, and show initiative will cost money, and that’ll be difficult when the TSA’s budget is being cut.

Hawley:

4. Eliminate baggage fees: Much of the pain at TSA checkpoints these days can be attributed to passengers overstuffing their carry-on luggage to avoid baggage fees. The airlines had their reasons for implementing these fees, but the result has been a checkpoint nightmare. Airlines might increase ticket prices slightly to compensate for the lost revenue, but the main impact would be that checkpoint screening for everybody will be faster and safer.

Another great idea, but I don’t see how we can do it without passing a law forbidding airlines to charge those fees. Over the past few years, airlines have drastically increased fees as a revenue source. Sneaking in extra charges allows them to advertise lower prices, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

5. Randomize security: Predictability is deadly. Banned-item lists, rigid protocols—if terrorists know what to expect at the airport, they have a greater chance of evading our system.

This would be a disaster. Actually, I’m surprised Hawley even mentions it, given that he wrote this a few paragraphs earlier:

One brilliant bit of streamlining from the consultants: It turned out that if the outline of two footprints was drawn on a mat in the area for using metal-detecting wands, most people stepped on the feet with no prompting and spread their legs in the most efficient stance. Every second counts when you’re processing thousands of passengers a day.

Randomization would slow checkpoints down to a crawl, as well as anger passengers. Do I have to take my shoes off or not? Does my computer go in the bin or not? (Even the weird but mostly consistent rules about laptops vs. iPads is annoying people.) Yesterday, liquids were allowed—today they’re banned. But at this airport, the TSA is confiscating anything with more than two ounces of aluminum and questioning people carrying Tom Clancy novels.

I’m not even convinced this would be a hardship for the terrorists. I’ve gotten really good at avoiding lanes with full-body scanners, and presumably the terrorists will simply assume that all security regulations are in force at all times. I’d like to see a cost-benefit analysis of this sort of thing first.

Hawley’s concluding paragraph:

In America, any successful attack—no matter how small—is likely to lead to a series of public recriminations and witch hunts. But security is a series of trade-offs. We’ve made it through the 10 years after 9/11 without another attack, something that was not a given. But no security system can be maintained over the long term without public support and cooperation. If Americans are ready to embrace risk, it is time to strike a new balance.

I agree with this. Sadly, I’m not optimistic for change anytime soon. There’s one point Hawley makes, but I don’t think he makes it strongly enough. He says:

I wanted to reduce the amount of time that officers spent searching for low-risk objects, but politics intervened at every turn. Lighters were untouchable, having been banned by an act of Congress. And despite the radically reduced risk that knives and box cutters presented in the post-9/11 world, allowing them back on board was considered too emotionally charged for the American public.

This is the fundamental political problem of airport security: it’s in nobody’s self-interest to take a stand for what might appear to be reduced security. Imagine that the TSA management announces a new rule that box cutters are now okay, and that they respond to critics by explaining that the current risks to airplanes don’t warrant prohibiting them. Even if they’re right, they’re open to attacks from political opponents that they’re not taking terrorism seriously enough. And if they’re wrong, their careers are over.

It’s even worse when it’s elected officials who have to make the decision. Which congressman is going to jeopardize his political career by standing up and saying that the cigarette lighter ban is stupid and should be repealed? It’s all political risk, and no political gain.

We have the same problem with the no-fly list: Congress mandates that the TSA match passengers against these lists. Rolling this back is politically difficult at the best of times, and impossible in today’s climate, even if the TSA decided it wanted to do so.

I am very impressed with Hawley’s essay. I do wonder where it came from. This wasn’t the same argument Hawley made when I debated him last month on the Economist website. This definitely wasn’t the same argument he made when I interviewed him in 2007, when he was still head of the TSA. But it’s great to read today.

Hopefully, someone is listening. And hopefully, our social climate will change so that these sorts of changes become politically possible.

ETA (4/16): Slashdot thread.

Posted on April 16, 2012 at 12:29 PMView Comments

A Heathrow Airport Story about Trousers

Usually I don’t bother posting random stories about dumb or inconsistent airport security measures. But this one is particularly interesting:

“Sir, your trousers.”

“Pardon?”

“Sir, please take your trousers off.”

A pause.

“No.”

“No?”

The security official clearly was not expecting that response.

He begins to look like he doesn’t know what to do, bless him.

“You have no power to require me to do that. You also haven’t also given any good reason. I am sure any genuine security concerns you have can be addressed in other ways. You do not need to invade my privacy in this manner.”

A pause.

“I think you probably need to get your manager, don’t you?” I am trying to be helpful.

As I said in my Economist essay, “At this point, we don’t trust America’s TSA, Britain’s Department for Transport, or airport security in general.” We don’t trust that, when they tell us to do something and claim it’s essential for security, they’re tellling the truth.

Posted on April 11, 2012 at 9:57 AMView Comments

1 3 4 5 6 7 38

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.