Entries Tagged "risk assessment"
Page 20 of 21
From yesterday’s New York Times, “Ten Ways to Avoid the Next 9/11”:
If we are fortunate, we will open our newspapers this morning knowing that there have been no major terrorist attacks on American soil in nearly five years. Did we just get lucky?
The Op-Ed page asked 10 people with experience in security and counterterrorism to answer the following question: What is one major reason the United States has not suffered a major attack since 2001, and what is the one thing you would recommend the nation do in order to avoid attacks in the future?
Actually, they asked more than 10, myself included. But some of us were cut because they didn’t have enough space. This was my essay:
Despite what you see in the movies and on television, it’s actually very difficult to execute a major terrorist act. It’s hard to organize, plan, and execute an attack, and it’s all too easy to slip up and get caught. Combine that with our intelligence work tracking terrorist cells and interdicting terrorist funding, and you have a climate where major attacks are rare. In many ways, the success of 9/11 was an anomaly; there were many points where it could have failed. The main reason we haven’t seen another 9/11 is that it isn’t as easy as it looks.
Much of our counterterrorist efforts are nothing more than security theater: ineffectual measures that look good. Forget the “war on terror”; the difficulty isn’t killing or arresting the terrorists, it’s finding them. Terrorism is a law enforcement problem, and needs to be treated as such. For example, none of our post-9/11 airline security measures would have stopped the London shampoo bombers. The lesson of London is that our best defense is intelligence and investigation. Rather than spending money on airline security, or sports stadium security—measures that require us to guess the plot correctly in order to be effective—we’re better off spending money on measures that are effective regardless of the plot.
Intelligence and investigation have kept us safe from terrorism in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. If the CIA and FBI had done a better job of coordinating and sharing data in 2001, 9/11 would have been another failed attempt. Coordination has gotten better, and those agencies are better funded—but it’s still not enough. Whenever you read about the billions being spent on national ID cards or massive data mining programs or new airport security measures, think about the number of intelligence agents that the same money could buy. That’s where we’re going to see the greatest return on our security investment.
It’s not happening anytime soon:
Congress agreed to pay for the development of the systems to protect the planes from such weapons, but balked at proposals to spend the billions needed to protect all 6,800 commercial U.S. airliners.
Probably for the best, actually. One, there are far more effective ways to spend that money on counterterrorism. And two, they’re only effective against a particular type of missile technology:
Both BAE and Northrop systems use lasers to jam the guidance systems of incoming missiles, which lock onto the heat of an aircraft’s engine.
It’s a seriously dumb list:
A federal inspector general has analyzed the nation’s database of top terrorist targets. There are more than 77,000 of them—up from 160 a few years ago, before the entire exercise morphed into a congressional porkfest.
And on that list of national assets are … 1,305 casinos! No doubt Muckleshoot made the cut (along with every other casino in our state).
The list has 234 restaurants. I have no idea if Dick’s made it. The particulars are classified. But you have to figure it did.
Why? Because here’s more of what the inspector general found passes for “critical infrastructure.” An ice-cream parlor. A tackle shop. A flea market. An Amish popcorn factory.
Seven hundred mortuaries made the list. Terrorists know no limits if they’re planning attacks on our dead people.
The report says our state has a whopping 3,650 critical sites, sixth in the U.S. It didn’t identify them—remember, we wouldn’t want this list of eateries, zoos and golf courses to fall into the wrong hands.
That number, 3,650, is so high I’m positive we haven’t heard the most farcical of it yet.
What’s going on? Pork barrel funding, that’s what’s going on.
We’re never going to get security right if we continue to make it a parody of itself.
O2 is a UK cell phone network. The company gives you the option of setting up a PIN on your phone. The idea is that if someone steals your phone, they can’t make calls. If they type the PIN incorrectly three times, the phone is blocked. To deal with the problems of phone owners mistyping their PIN—or forgetting it—they can contact O2 and get a Personal Unlock Code (PUK). Presumably, the operator goes through some authentication steps to ensure that the person calling is actually the legitimate owner of the phone.
So far, so good.
But O2 has decided to automate the PUK process. Now anyone on the Internet can visit this website, type in a valid mobile telephone number, and get a valid PUK to reset the PIN—without any authentication whatsoever.
EDITED TO ADD (7/4): A representitive from O2 sent me the following:
“Yes, it does seem there is a security risk by O2 supplying such a service, but in fact we believe this risk is very small. The risk is when a customer’s phone is lost or stolen. There are two scenarios in that event:
“Scenario 1 – The phone is powered off. A PIN number would be required at next power on. Although the PUK code will indeed allow you to reset the PIN, you need to know the telephone number of the SIM in order to get it – there is no way to determine the telephone number from the SIM or handset itself. Should the telephone number be known the risk is then same as scenario 2.
“Scenario 2 – The phone remains powered on: Here, the thief can use the phone in any case without having to acquire PUK.
“In both scenarios we have taken the view that the principle security measure is for the customer to report the loss/theft as quickly as possible, so that we can remotely disable both the SIM and also the handset (so that it cannot be used with any other SIM).”
Interesting paper on the security of contactless smartcards:
Interestingly, the outcome of this investigation shows that contactless smartcards are not fundamentally less secure than contact cards. However, some attacks are inherently facilitated. Therefore both the user and the issuer should be aware of these threats and take them into account when building or using the systems based on contactless smartcards.
It seems like every time someone tests airport security, airport security fails. In tests between November 2001 and February 2002, screeners missed 70 percent of knives, 30 percent of guns and 60 percent of (fake) bombs. And recently (see also this), testers were able to smuggle bomb-making parts through airport security in 21 of 21 attempts. It makes you wonder why we’re all putting our laptops in a separate bin and taking off our shoes. (Although we should all be glad that Richard Reid wasn’t the “underwear bomber.”)
The failure to detect bomb-making parts is easier to understand. Break up something into small enough parts, and it’s going to slip past the screeners pretty easily. The explosive material won’t show up on the metal detector, and the associated electronics can look benign when disassembled. This isn’t even a new problem. It’s widely believed that the Chechen women who blew up the two Russian planes in August 2004 probably smuggled their bombs aboard the planes in pieces.
But guns and knives? That surprises most people.
Airport screeners have a difficult job, primarily because the human brain isn’t naturally adapted to the task. We’re wired for visual pattern matching, and are great at picking out something we know to look for—for example, a lion in a sea of tall grass.
But we’re much less adept at detecting random exceptions in uniform data. Faced with an endless stream of identical objects, the brain quickly concludes that everything is identical and there’s no point in paying attention. By the time the exception comes around, the brain simply doesn’t notice it. This psychological phenomenon isn’t just a problem in airport screening: It’s been identified in inspections of all kinds, and is why casinos move their dealers around so often. The tasks are simply mind-numbing.
To make matters worse, the smuggler can try to exploit the system. He can position the weapons in his baggage just so. He can try to disguise them by adding other metal items to distract the screeners. He can disassemble bomb parts so they look nothing like bombs. Against a bored screener, he has the upper hand.
And, as has been pointed out again and again in essays on the ludicrousness of post-9/11 airport security, improvised weapons are a huge problem. A rock, a battery for a laptop, a belt, the extension handle off a wheeled suitcase, fishing line, the bare hands of someone who knows karate … the list goes on and on.
Technology can help. X-ray machines already randomly insert “test” bags into the stream—keeping screeners more alert. Computer-enhanced displays are making it easier for screeners to find contraband items in luggage, and eventually the computers will be able to do most of the work. It makes sense: Computers excel at boring repetitive tasks. They should do the quick sort, and let the screeners deal with the exceptions.
Sure, there’ll be a lot of false alarms, and some bad things will still get through. But it’s better than the alternative.
And it’s likely good enough. Remember the point of passenger screening. We’re not trying to catch the clever, organized, well-funded terrorists. We’re trying to catch the amateurs and the incompetent. We’re trying to catch the unstable. We’re trying to catch the copycats. These are all legitimate threats, and we’re smart to defend against them. Against the professionals, we’re just trying to add enough uncertainty into the system that they’ll choose other targets instead.
The terrorists’ goals have nothing to do with airplanes; their goals are to cause terror. Blowing up an airplane is just a particular attack designed to achieve that goal. Airplanes deserve some additional security because they have catastrophic failure properties: If there’s even a small explosion, everyone on the plane dies. But there’s a diminishing return on investments in airplane security. If the terrorists switch targets from airplanes to shopping malls, we haven’t really solved the problem.
What that means is that a basic cursory screening is good enough. If I were investing in security, I would fund significant research into computer-assisted screening equipment for both checked and carry-on bags, but wouldn’t spend a lot of money on invasive screening procedures and secondary screening. I would much rather have well-trained security personnel wandering around the airport, both in and out of uniform, looking for suspicious actions.
When I travel in Europe, I never have to take my laptop out of its case or my shoes off my feet. Those governments have had far more experience with terrorism than the U.S. government, and they know when passenger screening has reached the point of diminishing returns. (They also implemented checked-baggage security measures decades before the United States did—again recognizing the real threat.)
And if I were investing in security, I would invest in intelligence and investigation. The best time to combat terrorism is before the terrorist tries to get on an airplane. The best countermeasures have value regardless of the nature of the terrorist plot or the particular terrorist target.
In some ways, if we’re relying on airport screeners to prevent terrorism, it’s already too late. After all, we can’t keep weapons out of prisons. How can we ever hope to keep them out of airports?
A version of this essay originally appeared on Wired.com.
Today is Ben Franklin’s 300th birthday. Among many other discoveries and inventions, Franklin worked out a way of protecting buildings from lightning strikes, by providing a conducting path to ground—outside a building—from one or more pointed rods high atop the structure. People tried this, and it worked. Franklin became a celebrity, not just among “electricians,” but among the general public.
An article in this month’s issue of Physics Today has a great 1769 quote by Franklin about lightning rods, and the reality vs. the feeling of security:
Those who calculate chances may perhaps find that not one death (or the destruction of one house) in a hundred thousand happens from that cause, and that therefore it is scarce worth while to be at any expense to guard against it. But in all countries there are particular situations of buildings more exposed than others to such accidents, and there are minds so strongly impressed with the apprehension of them, as to be very unhappy every time a little thunder is within their hearing; it may therefore be well to render this little piece of new knowledge as general and well understood as possible, since to make us safe is not all its advantage, it is some to make us easy. And as the stroke it secures us from might have chanced perhaps but once in our lives, while it may relieve us a hundred times from those painful apprehensions, the latter may possibly on the whole contribute more to the happiness of mankind than the former.
The United States is highly vulnerable to attack from electronic pulses caused by a nuclear blast in space, according to a new book on threats to U.S. security.
A single nuclear weapon carried by a ballistic missile and detonated a few hundred miles over the United States would cause “catastrophe for the nation” by damaging electricity-based networks and infrastructure, including computers and telecommunications, according to “War Footing: 10 Steps America Must Take to Prevail in the War for the Free World.”
“This is the single most serious national-security challenge and certainly the least known,” said Frank J. Gaffney Jr. of the Center for Security Policy, a former Pentagon official and lead author of the book, which includes contributions by 34 security and intelligence specialists.
The “single most serious national-security challenge.” Absolutely nothing more serious.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.