Entries Tagged "searches"

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Chemical Trace Screening

New advances in technology:

“Mass spectrometry is one of the most sensitive methods for finding drugs, chemicals, pollutants and disease, but the problem is that you have to extract a sample and treat that sample before you can analyze it,” said Evan Williams, a chemistry professor at UC Berkeley.

That process can take anywhere from two to 15 minutes for each sample. Multiply that by the number of people in line at airport security at JFK the day before Thanksgiving, and you’ve got a logistical nightmare on your hands.

The research from Purdue, led by analytical chemistry professor Graham Cooks, developed a technique called desorption electrospray ionization, or DESI, that eliminates a part of the mass spectrometry process, and thus speeds up the detection of substances to less than 10 seconds, said Williams.

To use it, law enforcement officials and security screeners will spray methanol or a water and salt mixture on the surface of an object, or a person’s clothing or skin, and test immediately for microscopic traces of chemical compounds.

As this kind of technology gets better, the problems of false alarms becomes greater. We already know that a large percentage of U.S. currency bears traces of cocaine, but can a low-budget terrorist close down an airport by spraying trace chemicals randomly at passengers’ luggage when they’re not looking?

Posted on October 14, 2005 at 1:56 PMView Comments

Major Security on a Minor Ferry

Is a ferry that transports 3000 cars a day (during the busy season) a national security risk?

Thousands of motorists who use the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry can expect more stringent screenings this week, when the state adds armed guards and thorough car searches.

More info here

New, increased security measures are coming to the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry. Beginning July 1, security guards at the ferry will conduct random screening of passengers and their vehicles in an effort to prevent dangerous substances and devices from boarding the ferry. Commuters should prepare for a possible increase in the amount of time it takes to board the ferry once the screenings are in place; however, the ferries will depart on time according to schedule.

In accordance with the Maritime Transportation Security Act, VDOT will post security guards at the base of the bridge on each side of the James River to screen those traveling the ferry. Screening activities will vary and can include checking picture IDs of the driver and passengers, and inspection of the vehicle, including under the hood, trunk and undercarriage. Guards may also check the cargo areas of cars, trucks, campers and trailers.

The frequency and depth of screening at the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry will change with the Maritime Security level, which is set by the United States Coast Guard. In order to board the ferry, drivers and passengers must consent to the screening process.

How many ferries like this are in the U.S.? How many other potential targets of the same magnitude are there in the U.S.? How much would it cost to secure them all?

This just isn’t the way to go about it.

Posted on September 20, 2005 at 6:46 AMView Comments

Actors Playing New York City Policemen

Did you know you could be arrested for carrying a police uniform in New York City?

With security tighter in the Big Apple since Sept. 11, 2001, the union that represents TV and film actors has begun advising its New York-area members to stop buying police costumes or carrying them to gigs, even if their performances require them.

The Screen Actors Guild said in a statement posted on its Web site on Friday that “an apparent shift in city policy” may put actors at risk of arrest if they are stopped while carrying anything that looks too much like a real police uniform.

The odds that an actor might be stopped and questioned on his or her way to work went up this month when police began conducting random searches of passengers’ bags in New York’s subway system. The guild said two of its members had been detained by security personnel at an airport and a courthouse in recent months for possessing police costumes.

This seems like overkill to me. I understand that a police uniform is an authentication device — not a very good one, but one nonetheless — and we want to make it harder for the bad guys to get one. But there’s no reason to prohibit screen or stage actors from having police uniforms if it’s part of their job. This seems similar to the laws surrounding lockpicks: you can be arrested for carrying them without a good reason, but locksmiths are allowed to own the tools of their trade.

Here’s another bit from the article:

Under police department rules, real officers must be on hand any time an actor dons a police costume during a TV or film production.

I guess that’s to prevent the actor from actually impersonating a policeman. But how often does that actually happen? Is this a good use of police manpower?

Does anyone know how other cities and countries handle this?

Posted on August 25, 2005 at 12:52 PMView Comments

Ambient Radiation Sensors

Here’s a piece of interesting research out of Ohio State: it’s a passive sensor that could be cheaper, better, and less intrusive than technologies like backscatter X-rays:

“Unlike X-ray machines or radar instruments, the sensor doesn’t have to generate a signal to detect objects ­ it spots them based on how brightly they reflect the natural radiation that is all around us every day.”

“It’s basically just a really bad tunnel diode,” he explained. “I thought, heck, we can make a bad diode! We made lots of them back when we were figuring out how to make good ones.”

First millimeter-wave detection systems, and now this. There’s some interesting research in remote sensing going on, and there are sure to be some cool security applications.

Posted on August 24, 2005 at 8:17 AMView Comments

Airline Security, Trade-offs, and Agenda

All security decisions are trade-offs, and smart security trade-offs are ones where the security you get is worth what you have to give up. This sounds simple, but it isn’t. There are differences between perceived risk and actual risk, differences between perceived security and actual security, and differences between perceived cost and actual cost. And beyond that, there are legitimate differences in trade-off analysis. Any complicated security decision affects multiple players, and each player evaluates the trade-off from his or her own perspective.

I call this “agenda,” and it is one of the central themes of Beyond Fear. It is clearly illustrated in the current debate about rescinding the prohibition against small pointy things on airplanes. The flight attendants are against the change. Reading their comments, you can clearly see their subjective agenda:

“As the front-line personnel with little or no effective security training or means of self defense, such weapons could prove fatal to our members,” Patricia A. Friend, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said in a letter to Edmund S. “Kip” Hawley, the new leader of the Transportation Security Administration. “They may not assist in breaking through a flightdeck door, but they could definitely lead to the deaths of flight attendants and passengers”….

The flight attendants, whose union represents 46,000 members, said that easing the ban on some prohibited items could pose a safety risk on board the aircraft and lead to incidents that terrorize passengers even if they do not involve a hijacking.

“Even a plane that is attacked and results in only a few deaths would seriously jeopardize the progress we have all made in restoring confidence of the flying public,” Friend said in her letter. “We urge you to reconsider allowing such dangerous items — which have no place in the cabin of an aircraft in the first place — to be introduced into our workplace.”

The flight attendants are not evaluating the security countermeasure from a global perspective. They’re not trying to figure out what the optimal level of risk is, what sort of trade-offs are acceptable, and what security countermeasures most efficiently achieve that trade-off. They’re looking at the trade-off from their perspective: they get more benefit from the countermeasure than the average flier because it’s their workplace, and the cost of the countermeasure is borne largely by the passengers.

There is nothing wrong with flight attendants evaluating airline security from their own agenda. I’d be surprised if they didn’t. But understanding agenda is essential to understanding how security decisions are made.

Posted on August 19, 2005 at 12:48 PMView Comments

Searching Bags in Subways

The New York City police will begin randomly searching people’s bags on subways, buses, commuter trains, and ferries.

“The police can and should be aggressively investigating anyone they suspect is trying to bring explosives into the subway,” said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “However, random police searches of people without any suspicion of wrongdoing are contrary to our most basic constitutional values. This is a very troubling announcement.”

If the choice is between random searching and profiling, then random searching is a more effective security countermeasure. But Dunn is correct above when he says that there are some enormous trade-offs in liberty. And I don’t think we’re getting very much security in return.

Especially considering this:

[Police Commissioner Raymond] Kelly stressed that officers posted at subway entrances would not engage in racial profiling, and that passengers are free to “turn around and leave.”

“Okay guys; here are your explosives. If one of you gets singled out for a search, just turn around and leave. And then go back in via another entrance, or take a taxi to the next subway stop.”

And I don’t think they’ll be truly random, either. I think the police doing the searching will profile, because that’s what happens.

It’s another “movie plot threat.” It’s another “public relations security system.” It’s a waste of money, it substantially reduces our liberties, and it won’t make us any safer.

Final note: I often get comments along the lines of “Stop criticizing stuff; tell us what we should do.” My answer is always the same. Counterterrorism is most effective when it doesn’t make arbitrary assumptions about the terrorists’ plans. Stop searching bags on the subways, and spend the money on 1) intelligence and investigation — stopping the terrorists regardless of what their plans are, and 2) emergency response — lessening the impact of a terrorist attack, regardless of what the plans are. Countermeasures that defend against particular targets, or assume particular tactics, or cause the terrorists to make insignificant modifications in their plans, or that surveil the entire population looking for the few terrorists, are largely not worth it.

EDITED TO ADD: A Citizen’s Guide to Refusing New York Subway Searches.

Posted on July 22, 2005 at 6:27 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.