Entries Tagged "homeland security"

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Examining the US Cyber Budget

Jason Healey takes a detailed look at the US federal cybersecurity budget and reaches an important conclusion: the US keeps saying that we need to prioritize defense, but in fact we prioritize attack.

To its credit, this budget does reveal an overall growth in cybersecurity funding of about 5 percent above the fiscal 2019 estimate. However, federal cybersecurity spending on civilian departments like the departments of Homeland Security, State, Treasury and Justice is overshadowed by that going toward the military:

  • The Defense Department’s cyber-related budget is nearly 25 percent higher than the total going to all civilian departments, including the departments of Homeland Security, Treasury and Energy, which not only have to defend their own critical systems but also partner with critical infrastructure to help secure the energy, finance, transportation and health sectors ($9.6 billion compared to $7.8 billion).
  • The funds to support just the headquarters element­ — that is, not even the operational teams in facilities outside of headquarters — ­of U.S. Cyber Command are 33 percent higher than all the cyber-related funding to the State Department ($532 million compared to $400 million).
  • Just the increased funding to Defense was 30 percent higher than the total Homeland Security budget to improve the security of federal networks ($909 million compared to $694.1 million).
  • The Defense Department is budgeted two and a half times as much just for cyber operations as the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which is nominally in charge of cybersecurity ($3.7 billion compared to $1.47 billion). In fact, the cyber operations budget is higher than the budgets for the CISA, the FBI and the Department of Justice’s National Security Division combined ($3.7 billion compared to $2.21 billion).
  • The Defense Department’s cyber operations have nearly 10 times the funding as the relevant Homeland Security defensive operational element, the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) ($3.7 billion compared to $371.4 million).
  • The U.S. government budgeted as much on military construction for cyber units as it did for the entirety of Homeland Security ($1.9 billion for each).

We cannot ignore what the money is telling us. The White House and National Cyber Strategy emphasize the need to protect the American people and our way of life, yet the budget does not reflect those values. Rather, the budget clearly shows that the Defense Department is the government’s main priority. Of course, the exact Defense numbers for how much is spent on offense are classified.

Posted on June 15, 2020 at 6:06 AMView Comments

Extending the Airplane Laptop Ban

The Department of Homeland Security is rumored to be considering extending the current travel ban on large electronics for Middle Eastern flights to European ones as well. The likely reaction of airlines will be to implement new traveler programs, effectively allowing wealthier and more frequent fliers to bring their computers with them. This will only exacerbate the divide between the haves and the have-nots — all without making us any safer.

In March, both the United States and the United Kingdom required that passengers from 10 Muslim countries give up their laptop computers and larger tablets, and put them in checked baggage. The new measure was based on reports that terrorists would try to smuggle bombs onto planes concealed in these larger electronic devices.

The security measure made no sense for two reasons. First, moving these computers into the baggage holds doesn’t keep them off planes. Yes, it is easier to detonate a bomb that’s in your hands than to remotely trigger it in the cargo hold. But it’s also more effective to screen laptops at security checkpoints than it is to place them in checked baggage. TSA already does this kind of screening randomly and occasionally: making passengers turn laptops on to ensure that they’re functional computers and not just bomb-filled cases, and running chemical tests on their surface to detect explosive material.

And, two, banning laptops on selected flights just forces terrorists to buy more roundabout itineraries. It doesn’t take much creativity to fly Doha-Amsterdam-New York instead of direct. Adding Amsterdam to the list of affected airports makes the terrorist add yet another itinerary change; it doesn’t remove the threat.

Which brings up another question: If this is truly a threat, why aren’t domestic flights included in this ban? Remember that anyone boarding a plane to the United States from these Muslim countries has already received a visa to enter the country. This isn’t perfect security — the infamous underwear bomber had a visa, after all — but anyone who could detonate a laptop bomb on his international flight could do it on his domestic connection.

I don’t have access to classified intelligence, and I can’t comment on whether explosive-filled laptops are truly a threat. But, if they are, TSA can set up additional security screenings at the gates of US-bound flights worldwide and screen every laptop coming onto the plane. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had additional security screening at the gate. And they should require all laptops to go through this screening, prohibiting them from being stashed in checked baggage.

This measure is nothing more than security theater against what appears to be a movie-plot threat.

Banishing laptops to the cargo holds brings with it a host of other threats. Passengers run the risk of their electronics being stolen from their checked baggage — something that has happened in the past. And, depending on the country, passengers also have to worry about border control officials intercepting checked laptops and making copies of what’s on their hard drives.

Safety is another concern. We’re already worried about large lithium-ion batteries catching fire in airplane baggage holds; adding a few hundred of these devices will considerably exacerbate the risk. Both FedEx and UPS no longer accept bulk shipments of these batteries after two jets crashed in 2010 and 2011 due to combustion.

Of course, passengers will rebel against this rule. Having access to a computer on these long transatlantic flights is a must for many travelers, especially the high-revenue business-class travelers. They also won’t accept the delays and confusion this rule will cause as it’s rolled out. Unhappy passengers fly less, or fly other routes on other airlines without these restrictions.

I don’t know how many passengers are choosing to fly to the Middle East via Toronto to avoid the current laptop ban, but I suspect there may be some. If Europe is included in the new ban, many more may consider adding Canada to their itineraries, as well as choosing European hubs that remain unaffected.

As passengers voice their disapproval with their wallets, airlines will rebel. Already Emirates has a program to loan laptops to their premium travelers. I can imagine US airlines doing the same, although probably for an extra fee. We might learn how to make this work: keeping our data in the cloud or on portable memory sticks and using unfamiliar computers for the length of the flight.

A more likely response will be comparable to what happened after the US increased passenger screening post-9/11. In the months and years that followed, we saw different ways for high-revenue travelers to avoid the lines: faster first-class lanes, and then the extra-cost trusted traveler programs that allow people to bypass the long lines, keep their shoes on their feet and leave their laptops and liquids in their bags. It’s a bad security idea, but it keeps both frequent fliers and airlines happy. It would be just another step to allow these people to keep their electronics with them on their flight.

The problem with this response is that it solves the problem for frequent fliers, while leaving everyone else to suffer. This is already the case; those of us enrolled in a trusted traveler program forget what it’s like to go through “normal” security screening. And since frequent fliers — likely to be more wealthy — no longer see the problem, they don’t have any incentive to fix it.

Dividing security checks into haves and have-nots is bad social policy, and we should actively fight any expansion of it. If the TSA implements this security procedure, it should implement it for every flight. And there should be no exceptions. Force every politically connected flier, from members of Congress to the lobbyists that influence them, to do without their laptops on planes. Let the TSA explain to them why they can’t work on their flights to and from D.C.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

EDITED TO ADD: US officials are backing down.

Posted on May 22, 2017 at 6:06 AMView Comments

NSA Contractor Arrested for Stealing Classified Information

The NSA has another contractor who stole classified documents. It’s a weird story: “But more than a month later, the authorities cannot say with certainty whether Mr. Martin leaked the information, passed them on to a third party or whether he simply downloaded them.” So maybe a potential leaker. Or a spy. Or just a document collector.

My guess is that there are many leakers inside the US government, even more than what’s on this list from last year.

EDITED TO ADD (10/7): More information.

Posted on October 7, 2016 at 6:07 AMView Comments

Underage Hacker Is behind Attacks against US Government

It’s a teenager:

British police have arrested a teenager who allegedly was behind a series of audacious — and, for senior U.S. national security officials, embarrassing — hacks targeting personal accounts or top brass at the CIA, FBI, Homeland Security Department, the White House and other federal agencies, according to U.S. officials briefed on the investigation.

[…]

The prominent victims have included CIA Director John Brennan, whose personal AOL account was breached, the then FBI Deputy Director Mark Giuliano, and James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence.

This week, the latest target became apparent when personal details of 20,000 FBI employees surfaced online.

By then a team of some of the FBI’s sharpest cyber experts had homed in on their suspect, officials said. They were shocked to find that a “16-year-old computer nerd” had done so well to cover his tracks, a U.S. official said. a

Not really surprised, but underscores how diffuse the threat is.

Posted on February 18, 2016 at 6:02 AMView Comments

On CISA

I have avoided writing about the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), largely because the details kept changing. (For those not following closely, similar bills were passed by both the House and the Senate. They’re now being combined into a single bill which will be voted on again, and then almost certainly signed into law by President Obama.)

Now that it’s pretty solid, I find that I don’t have to write anything, because Danny Weitzner did such a good job, writing about how the bill encourages companies to share personal information with the government, allows them to take some offensive measures against attackers (or innocents, if they get it wrong), waives privacy protections, and gives companies immunity from prosecution.

Information sharing is essential to good cybersecurity, and we need more of it. But CISA is a really bad law.

This is good, too.

Posted on November 17, 2015 at 12:03 PMView Comments

Reassessing Airport Security

News that the Transportation Security Administration missed a whopping 95% of guns and bombs in recent airport security “red team” tests was justifiably shocking. It’s clear that we’re not getting value for the $7 billion we’re paying the TSA annually.

But there’s another conclusion, inescapable and disturbing to many, but good news all around: we don’t need $7 billion worth of airport security. These results demonstrate that there isn’t much risk of airplane terrorism, and we should ratchet security down to pre-9/11 levels.

We don’t need perfect airport security. We just need security that’s good enough to dissuade someone from building a plot around evading it. If you’re caught with a gun or a bomb, the TSA will detain you and call the FBI. Under those circumstances, even a medium chance of getting caught is enough to dissuade a sane terrorist. A 95% failure rate is too high, but a 20% one isn’t.

For those of us who have been watching the TSA, the 95% number wasn’t that much of a surprise. The TSA has been failing these sorts of tests since its inception: failures in 2003, a 91% failure rate at Newark Liberty International in 2006, a 75% failure rate at Los Angeles International in 2007, more failures in 2008. And those are just the public test results; I’m sure there are many more similarly damning reports the TSA has kept secret out of embarrassment.

Previous TSA excuses were that the results were isolated to a single airport, or not realistic simulations of terrorist behavior. That almost certainly wasn’t true then, but the TSA can’t even argue that now. The current test was conducted at many airports, and the testers didn’t use super-stealthy ninja-like weapon-hiding skills.

This is consistent with what we know anecdotally: the TSA misses a lot of weapons. Pretty much everyone I know has inadvertently carried a knife through airport security, and some people have told me about guns they mistakenly carried on airplanes. The TSA publishes statistics about how many guns it detects; last year, it was 2,212. This doesn’t mean the TSA missed 44,000 guns last year; a weapon that is mistakenly left in a carry-on bag is going to be easier to detect than a weapon deliberately hidden in the same bag. But we now know that it’s not hard to deliberately sneak a weapon through.

So why is the failure rate so high? The report doesn’t say, and I hope the TSA is going to conduct a thorough investigation as to the causes. My guess is that it’s a combination of things. Security screening is an incredibly boring job, and almost all alerts are false alarms. It’s very hard for people to remain vigilant in this sort of situation, and sloppiness is inevitable.

There are also technology failures. We know that current screening technologies are terrible at detecting the plastic explosive PETN — that’s what the underwear bomber had — and that a disassembled weapon has an excellent chance of getting through airport security. We know that some items allowed through airport security make excellent weapons.

The TSA is failing to defend us against the threat of terrorism. The only reason they’ve been able to get away with the scam for so long is that there isn’t much of a threat of terrorism to defend against.

Even with all these actual and potential failures, there have been no successful terrorist attacks against airplanes since 9/11. If there were lots of terrorists just waiting for us to let our guard down to destroy American planes, we would have seen attacks — attempted or successful — after all these years of screening failures. No one has hijacked a plane with a knife or a gun since 9/11. Not a single plane has blown up due to terrorism.

Terrorists are much rarer than we think, and launching a terrorist plot is much more difficult than we think. I understand this conclusion is counterintuitive, and contrary to the fearmongering we hear every day from our political leaders. But it’s what the data shows.

This isn’t to say that we can do away with airport security altogether. We need some security to dissuade the stupid or impulsive, but any more is a waste of money. The very rare smart terrorists are going to be able to bypass whatever we implement or choose an easier target. The more common stupid terrorists are going to be stopped by whatever measures we implement.

Smart terrorists are very rare, and we’re going to have to deal with them in two ways. One, we need vigilant passengers — that’s what protected us from both the shoe and the underwear bombers. And two, we’re going to need good intelligence and investigation — that’s how we caught the liquid bombers in their London apartments.

The real problem with airport security is that it’s only effective if the terrorists target airplanes. I generally am opposed to security measures that require us to correctly guess the terrorists’ tactics and targets. If we detect solids, the terrorists will use liquids. If we defend airports, they bomb movie theaters. It’s a lousy game to play, because we can’t win.

We should demand better results out of the TSA, but we should also recognize that the actual risk doesn’t justify their $7 billion budget. I’d rather see that money spent on intelligence and investigation — security that doesn’t require us to guess the next terrorist tactic and target, and works regardless of what the terrorists are planning next.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

Posted on June 11, 2015 at 6:10 AMView Comments

Analysis of the FBI's Failure to Stop the Boston Marathon Bombings

Detailed response and analysis of the inspectors general report on the Boston Marathon bombings:

Two opposite mistakes in an after-the-fact review of a terrorist incident are equally damaging. One is to fail to recognize the powerful difference between foresight and hindsight in evaluating how an investigative or intelligence agency should have behaved. After the fact, we know on whom we should have focused attention as a suspect, and we know what we should have protected as a target. With foresight alone, we know neither of these critically important clues to what happened and why. With hindsight, we can focus all of our attention narrowly; with foresight, we have to spread it broadly, as broadly as the imagination of our attackers may roam.

The second mistake is equally important. It is to confuse the fact that people in official positions, like others, will inevitably make mistakes in carrying out any complicated task, with the idea that no mistakes were really made. We can see mistakes with hindsight that can be avoided in the future by recognizing them clearly and designing solutions. After mistakes are made, nothing is more foolish than to hide them or pretend that they were not mistakes.

Posted on May 2, 2014 at 6:26 AMView Comments

Debunking the "NSA Mass Surveillance Could Have Stopped 9/11" Myth

It’s something that we’re hearing a lot, both from NSA Director General Keith Alexander and others: the NSA’s mass surveillance programs could have stopped 9/11. It’s not true, and recently two people have published good essays debunking this claim.

The first is from Lawrence Wright, who wrote the best book (The Looming Tower) on the lead-up to 9/11:

Judge Pauley cites the 9/11 Commission Report for his statement that telephone metadata “might have permitted the N.S.A. to notify the [F.B.I.] of the fact that al-Mihdhar was calling the Yemeni safe house from inside the United States.” What the report actually says is that the C.I.A. and the N.S.A. already knew that Al Qaeda was in America, based on the N.S.A.’s monitoring of the Hada phone. If they had told the F.B.I., the agents would have established a link to the embassy-bombings case, which “would have made them very interested in learning more about Mihdhar.” Instead, “the agents who found the source were being kept from obtaining the fruits of their work.”

The N.S.A. failed to understand the significance of the calls between the U.S. and Yemen. The C.I.A. had access to the intelligence, and knew that Al Qaeda was in the U.S. almost two years before 9/11. An investigation by the C.I.A.’s inspector general found that up to sixty people in the agency knew that Al Qaeda operatives were in America. The inspector general said that those who refused to coöperate with the F.B.I. should be held accountable. Instead, they were promoted.

The second is by Peter Bergen, another 9/11 scholar:

But is it really the case that the U.S. intelligence community didn’t have the dots in the lead up to 9/11? Hardly.

In fact, the intelligence community provided repeated strategic warning in the summer of 9/11 that al Qaeda was planning a large-scale attacks on American interests.

[…]

All of these serious terrorism cases argue not for the gathering of ever vaster troves of information but simply for a better understanding of the information the government has already collected and that are derived from conventional law enforcement and intelligence methods.

Posted on January 14, 2014 at 7:15 AMView Comments

Evading Airport Security

The news is reporting about Evan Booth, who builds weaponry out of items you can buy after airport security. It’s clever stuff.

It’s not new, though. People have been explaining how to evade airport security for years.

Back in 2006, I — and others — explained how to print your own boarding pass and evade the photo-ID check, a trick that still seems to work. In 2008, I demonstrated carrying two large bottles of liquid through airport security. Here’s a paper about stabbing people with stuff you can take through airport security. And here’s a German video of someone building a bomb out of components he snuck through a full-body scanner. There’s lots more if you start poking around the Internet.

So, what’s the moral here? It’s not like the terrorists don’t know about these tricks. They’re no surprise to the TSA, either. If airport security is so porous, why aren’t there more terrorist attacks? Why aren’t the terrorists using these, and other, techniques to attack planes every month?

I think the answer is simple: airplane terrorism isn’t a big risk. There are very few actual terrorists, and plots are much more difficult to execute than the tactics of the attack itself. It’s the same reason why I don’t care very much about the various TSA mistakes that are regularly reported.

Posted on December 4, 2013 at 6:28 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.