BBC has the story. The confusion is that a scan of a passport is much easier to forge than an actual passport. This is a truly hard problem: how do you give people the ability to get back into their accounts after they’ve lost their credentials, while at the same time prohibiting hackers from using the same mechanism to hijack accounts? Demanding an easy-to-forge copy of a hard-to-forge document isn’t a good solution.
Entries Tagged "passports"
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There’s a new law that will enforce DNA testing for everyone: citizens, expatriates, and visitors. They promise that the program “does not include genealogical implications or affects personal freedoms and privacy.”
I assume that “visitors” includes tourists, so presumably the entry procedure at passport control will now include a cheek swab. And there is nothing preventing the Kuwaiti government from sharing that information with any other government.
Australia is going to be the first country to have virtual passports. Presumably, the passport data will be in the cloud somewhere, and you’ll access it with an app or a URL or maybe just the passport number.
On the one hand, all a passport needs to be is a pointer into a government database with all the relevant information and biometrics. On the other hand, not all countries have access into all databases. When I enter the US with my US passport, I’m sure no one really needs the paper document—it’s all on the officers’ computers. But when I enter a random country, they don’t have access to the US government database; they need the physical object.
Australia is trialing this with New Zealand. Presumably both countries will have access into each others’ databases.
Ressam had to clear customs before boarding the ferry. He had fake ID, in the name of Benni Antoine Noris, and the computer cleared him based on this ID. He was allowed to go through after a routine check of his car’s trunk, even though he was wanted by the Canadian police. On the other side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, at Port Angeles, Washington, Ressam was approached by U.S. customs agent Diana Dean, who asked some routine questions and then decided that he looked suspicious. He was fidgeting, sweaty, and jittery. He avoided eye contact. In Dean’s own words, he was acting “hinky.” More questioning—there was no one else crossing the border, so two other agents got involved—and more hinky behavior. Ressam’s car was eventually searched, and he was finally discovered and captured. It wasn’t any one thing that tipped Dean off; it was everything encompassed in the slang term “hinky.” But the system worked. The reason there wasn’t a bombing at LAX around Christmas in 1999 was because a knowledgeable person was in charge of security and paying attention.
I wrote about this again in 2007:
The key difference is expertise. People trained to be alert for something hinky will do much better than any profiler, but people who have no idea what to look for will do no better than random.
Here’s another story from last year:
On April 28, 2014, Yusuf showed up alone at the Minneapolis Passport Agency and applied for an expedited passport. He wanted to go “sightseeing” in Istanbul, where he was planning to meet someone he recently connected with on Facebook, he allegedly told the passport specialist.
“It’s a guy, just a friend,” he told the specialist, according to court documents.
But when the specialist pressed him for more information about his “friend” in Istanbul and his plans while there, Yusuf couldn’t offer any details, the documents allege.
“[He] became visibly nervous, more soft-spoken, and began to avoid eye contact,” the documents say. “Yusuf did not appear excited or happy to be traveling to Turkey for vacation.”
In fact, the passport specialist “found his interaction with Yusuf so unusual that he contacted his supervisor who, in turn, alerted the FBI to Yusuf’s travel,” according to the court documents.
This is what works. Not profiling. Not bulk surveillance. Not defending against any particular tactics or targets. In the end, this is what keeps us safe.
Last year, I wrote about how social media sites are making it harder than ever for undercover police officers. This story talks about how biometric passports are making it harder than ever for undercover CIA agents.
Busy spy crossroads such as Dubai, Jordan, India and many E.U. points of entry are employing iris scanners to link eyeballs irrevocably to a particular name. Likewise, the increasing use of biometric passports, which are embedded with microchips containing a person’s face, sex, fingerprints, date and place of birth, and other personal data, are increasingly replacing the old paper ones. For a clandestine field operative, flying under a false name could be a one-way ticket to a headquarters desk, since they’re irrevocably chained to whatever name and passport they used.
“If you go to one of those countries under an alias, you can’t go again under another name,” explains a career spook, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he remains an agency consultant. “So it’s a one-time thing—one and done. The biometric data on your passport, and maybe your iris, too, has been linked forever to whatever name was on your passport the first time. You can’t show up again under a different name with the same data.”
It’s kind of an amazing story. A young Asian man used a rubber mask to disguise himself as an old Caucasian man and, with a passport photo that matched his disguise, got through all customs and airport security checks and onto a plane to Canada.
The fact that this sort of thing happens occasionally doesn’t surprise me. It’s human nature that we miss this sort of thing. I wrote about it in Beyond Fear (pages 153–4):
No matter how much training they get, airport screeners routinely miss guns and knives packed in carry-on luggage. In part, that’s the result of human beings having developed the evolutionary survival skill of pattern matching: the ability to pick out patterns from masses of random visual data. Is that a ripe fruit on that tree? Is that a lion stalking quietly through the grass? We are so good at this that we see patterns in anything, even if they’re not really there: faces in inkblots, images in clouds, and trends in graphs of random data. Generating false positives helped us stay alive; maybe that wasn’t a lion that your ancestor saw, but it was better to be safe than sorry. Unfortunately, that survival skill also has a failure mode. As talented as we are at detecting patterns in random data, we are equally terrible at detecting exceptions in uniform data. The quality-control inspector at Spacely Sprockets, staring at a production line filled with identical sprockets looking for the one that is different, can’t do it. The brain quickly concludes that all the sprockets are the same, so there’s no point paying attention. Each new sprocket confirms the pattern. By the time an anomalous sprocket rolls off the assembly line, the brain simply doesn’t notice it. This psychological problem has been identified in inspectors of all kinds; people can’t remain alert to rare events, so they slip by.
A customs officer spends hours looking at people and comparing their faces with their passport photos. They do it on autopilot. Will they catch someone in a rubber mask that looks like their passport photo? Probably, but certainly not all the time.
Yes, this is a security risk, but it’s not a big one. Because while—occasionally—a gun can slip through a metal detector or a masked man can slip through customs, it doesn’t happen reliably. So the bad guys can’t build a plot around it.
One last point: the young man in the old-man mask was captured by Canadian police. His fellow passengers noticed him. So in the end, his plot failed. Security didn’t fail, although a bunch of pieces of it did.
EDITED TO ADD (11/10): Comment (from below) about what actually happened.
I missed this story:
Since 2007, the U.S. State Department has been issuing high-tech “e-passports,” which contain computer chips carrying biometric data to prevent forgery. Unfortunately, according to a March report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), getting one of these supersecure passports under false pretenses isn’t particularly difficult for anyone with even basic forgery skills.
A GAO investigator managed to obtain four genuine U.S. passports using fake names and fraudulent documents. In one case, he used the Social Security number of a man who had died in 1965. In another, he used the Social Security number of a fictitious 5-year-old child created for a previous investigation, along with an ID showing that he was 53 years old. The investigator then used one of the fake passports to buy a plane ticket, obtain a boarding pass, and make it through a security checkpoint at a major U.S. airport. (When presented with the results of the GAO investigation, the State Department agreed that there was a “major vulnerability” in the passport issuance process and agreed to study the matter.)
More than 70 countries have adopted the biometric passports, which officials describe as a revolution in immigration security. However, the GAO’s investigation proves that even the best technology can’t keep a country safe when the bureaucracy behind it fails.
No credential can be more secure than its breeder documents and issuance procedures.
This is good news:
A federal judge in June threw out seizure of three fake passports from a traveler, saying that TSA screeners violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. Congress authorizes TSA to search travelers for weapons and explosives; beyond that, the agency is overstepping its bounds, U.S. District Court Judge Algenon L. Marbley said.
“The extent of the search went beyond the permissible purpose of detecting weapons and explosives and was instead motivated by a desire to uncover contraband evidencing ordinary criminal wrongdoing,” Judge Marbley wrote.
In the second case, Steven Bierfeldt, treasurer for the Campaign for Liberty, a political organization launched from Ron Paul’s presidential run, was detained at the St. Louis airport because he was carrying $4,700 in a lock box from the sale of tickets, T-shirts, bumper stickers and campaign paraphernalia. TSA screeners quizzed him about the cash, his employment and the purpose of his trip to St. Louis, then summoned local police and threatened him with arrest because he responded to their questions with a question of his own: What were his rights and could TSA legally require him to answer?
Mr. Bierfeldt’s suit, filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, seeks to bar TSA from “conducting suspicion-less pre-flight searches of passengers or their belongings for items other than weapons or explosives.”
I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago:
…Obama should mandate that airport security be solely about terrorism, and not a general-purpose security checkpoint to catch everyone from pot smokers to deadbeat dads.
The Constitution provides us, both Americans and visitors to America, with strong protections against invasive police searches. Two exceptions come into play at airport security checkpoints. The first is “implied consent,” which means that you cannot refuse to be searched; your consent is implied when you purchased your ticket. And the second is “plain view,” which means that if the TSA officer happens to see something unrelated to airport security while screening you, he is allowed to act on that.
Both of these principles are well established and make sense, but it’s their combination that turns airport security checkpoints into police-state-like checkpoints.
The TSA should limit its searches to bombs and weapons and leave general policing to the police—where we know courts and the Constitution still apply.
EDITED TO ADD (2/11): I got some details wrong. Chris Paget, the researcher, is cloning Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) compliant documents such as the passport card and Electronic Drivers License (EDL), and not the passport itself. Here is the link to Paget’s talk at ShmooCon.
As the first digital president, Barack Obama is learning the hard way how difficult it can be to maintain privacy in the information age. Earlier this year, his passport file was snooped by contract workers in the State Department. In October, someone at Immigration and Customs Enforcement leaked information about his aunt’s immigration status. And in November, Verizon employees peeked at his cell phone records.
What these three incidents illustrate is not that computerized databases are vulnerable to hacking—we already knew that, and anyway the perpetrators all had legitimate access to the systems they used—but how important audit is as a security measure.
When we think about security, we commonly think about preventive measures: locks to keep burglars out of our homes, bank safes to keep thieves from our money, and airport screeners to keep guns and bombs off airplanes. We might also think of detection and response measures: alarms that go off when burglars pick our locks or dynamite open bank safes, sky marshals on airplanes who respond when a hijacker manages to sneak a gun through airport security. But audit, figuring out who did what after the fact, is often far more important than any of those other three.
Most security against crime comes from audit. Of course we use locks and alarms, but we don’t wear bulletproof vests. The police provide for our safety by investigating crimes after the fact and prosecuting the guilty: that’s audit.
Audit helps ensure that people don’t abuse positions of trust. The cash register, for example, is basically an audit system. Cashiers have to handle the store’s money. To ensure they don’t skim from the till, the cash register keeps an audit trail of every transaction. The store owner can look at the register totals at the end of the day and make sure the amount of money in the register is the amount that should be there.
The same idea secures us from police abuse, too. The police have enormous power, including the ability to intrude into very intimate aspects of our life in order to solve crimes and keep the peace. This is generally a good thing, but to ensure that the police don’t abuse this power, we put in place systems of audit like the warrant process.
The whole NSA warrantless eavesdropping scandal was about this. Some misleadingly painted it as allowing the government to eavesdrop on foreign terrorists, but the government always had that authority. What the government wanted was to not have to submit a warrant, even after the fact, to a secret FISA court. What they wanted was to not be subject to audit.
That would be an incredibly bad idea. Law enforcement systems that don’t have good audit features designed in, or are exempt from this sort of audit-based oversight, are much more prone to abuse by those in power—because they can abuse the system without the risk of getting caught. Audit is essential as the NSA increases its domestic spying. And large police databases, like the FBI Next Generation Identification System, need to have strong audit features built in.
For computerized database systems like that—systems entrusted with other people’s information—audit is a very important security mechanism. Hospitals need to keep databases of very personal health information, and doctors and nurses need to be able to access that information quickly and easily. A good audit record of who accessed what when is the best way to ensure that those trusted with our medical information don’t abuse that trust. It’s the same with IRS records, credit reports, police databases, telephone records – anything personal that someone might want to peek at during the course of his job.
Which brings us back to President Obama. In each of those three examples, someone in a position of trust inappropriately accessed personal information. The difference between how they played out is due to differences in audit. The State Department’s audit worked best; they had alarm systems in place that alerted superiors when Obama’s passport files were accessed and who accessed them. Verizon’s audit mechanisms worked less well; they discovered the inappropriate account access and have narrowed the culprits down to a few people. Audit at Immigration and Customs Enforcement was far less effective; they still don’t know who accessed the information.
Large databases filled with personal information, whether managed by governments or corporations, are an essential aspect of the information age. And they each need to be accessed, for legitimate purposes, by thousands or tens of thousands of people. The only way to ensure those people don’t abuse the power they’re entrusted with is through audit. Without it, we will simply never know who’s peeking at what.
This essay first appeared on the Wall Street Journal website.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.