Entries Tagged "security theater"

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Thermal Imaging as Security Theater

Seems like thermal imaging is the security theater technology of today.

These features are so tempting that thermal cameras are being installed at an increasing pace. They’re used in airports and other public transportation centers to screen travelers, increasingly used by companies to screen employees and by businesses to screen customers, and even used in health care facilities to screen patients. Despite their prevalence, thermal cameras have many fatal limitations when used to screen for the coronavirus.

  • They are not intended for medical purposes.
  • Their accuracy can be reduced by their distance from the people being inspected.
  • They are “an imprecise method for scanning crowds” now put into a context where precision is critical.
  • They will create false positives, leaving people stigmatized, harassed, unfairly quarantined, and denied rightful opportunities to work, travel, shop, or seek medical help.
  • They will create false negatives, which, perhaps most significantly for public health purposes, “could miss many of the up to one-quarter or more people infected with the virus who do not exhibit symptoms,” as the New York Times recently put it. Thus they will abjectly fail at the core task of slowing or preventing the further spread of the virus.

Posted on May 28, 2020 at 6:50 AMView Comments

TSA Admits Liquid Ban Is Security Theater

The TSA is allowing people to bring larger bottles of hand sanitizer with them on airplanes:

Passengers will now be allowed to travel with containers of liquid hand sanitizer up to 12 ounces. However, the agency cautioned that the shift could mean slightly longer waits at checkpoint because the containers may have to be screened separately when going through security.

Won’t airplanes blow up as a result? Of course not.

Would they have blown up last week were the restrictions lifted back then? Of course not.

It’s always been security theater.

Interesting context:

The TSA can declare this rule change because the limit was always arbitrary, just one of the countless rituals of security theater to which air passengers are subjected every day. Flights are no more dangerous today, with the hand sanitizer, than yesterday, and if the TSA allowed you to bring 12 ounces of shampoo on a flight tomorrow, flights would be no more dangerous then. The limit was bullshit. The ease with which the TSA can toss it aside makes that clear.

All over America, the coronavirus is revealing, or at least reminding us, just how much of contemporary American life is bullshit, with power structures built on punishment and fear as opposed to our best interest. Whenever the government or a corporation benevolently withdraws some punitive threat because of the coronavirus, it’s a signal that there was never any good reason for that threat to exist in the first place.

Posted on March 16, 2020 at 9:31 AMView Comments

Don't Fear the TSA Cutting Airport Security. Be Glad That They're Talking about It.

Last week, CNN reported that the Transportation Security Administration is considering eliminating security at U.S. airports that fly only smaller planes — 60 seats or fewer. Passengers connecting to larger planes would clear security at their destinations.

To be clear, the TSA has put forth no concrete proposal. The internal agency working group’s report obtained by CNN contains no recommendations. It’s nothing more than 20 people examining the potential security risks of the policy change. It’s not even new: The TSA considered this back in 2011, and the agency reviews its security policies every year. But commentary around the news has been strongly negative. Regardless of the idea’s merit, it will almost certainly not happen. That’s the result of politics, not security: Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of numerous outraged lawmakers, has already penned a letter to the agency saying that “TSA documents proposing to scrap critical passenger security screenings, without so much as a metal detector in place in some airports, would effectively clear the runway for potential terrorist attacks.” He continued, “It simply boggles the mind to even think that the TSA has plans like this on paper in the first place.”

We don’t know enough to conclude whether this is a good idea, but it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. We need to evaluate airport security based on concrete costs and benefits, and not continue to implement security theater based on fear. And we should applaud the agency’s willingness to explore changes in the screening process.

There is already a tiered system for airport security, varying for both airports and passengers. Many people are enrolled in TSA PreCheck, allowing them to go through checkpoints faster and with less screening. Smaller airports don’t have modern screening equipment like full-body scanners or CT baggage screeners, making it impossible for them to detect some plastic explosives. Any would-be terrorist is already able to pick and choose his flight conditions to suit his plot.

Over the years, I have written many essays critical of the TSA and airport security, in general. Most of it is security theater — measures that make us feel safer without improving security. For example, the liquids ban makes no sense as implemented, because there’s no penalty for repeatedly trying to evade the scanners. The full-body scanners are terrible at detecting the explosive material PETN if it is well concealed — which is their whole point.

There are two basic kinds of terrorists. The amateurs will be deterred or detected by even basic security measures. The professionals will figure out how to evade even the most stringent measures. I’ve repeatedly said that the two things that have made flying safer since 9/11 are reinforcing the cockpit doors and persuading passengers that they need to fight back. Everything beyond that isn’t worth it.

It’s always possible to increase security by adding more onerous — and expensive — procedures. If that were the only concern, we would all be strip-searched and prohibited from traveling with luggage. Realistically, we need to analyze whether the increased security of any measure is worth the cost, in money, time and convenience. We spend $8 billion a year on the TSA, and we’d like to get the most security possible for that money.

This is exactly what that TSA working group was doing. CNN reported that the group specifically evaluated the costs and benefits of eliminating security at minor airports, saving $115 million a year with a “small (nonzero) undesirable increase in risk related to additional adversary opportunity.” That money could be used to bolster security at larger airports or to reduce threats totally removed from airports.

We need more of this kind of thinking, not less. In 2017, political scientists Mark Stewart and John Mueller published a detailed evaluation of airport security measures based on the cost to implement and the benefit in terms of lives saved. They concluded that most of what our government does either isn’t effective at preventing terrorism or is simply too expensive to justify the security it does provide. Others might disagree with their conclusions, but their analysis provides enough detailed information to have a meaningful argument.

The more we politicize security, the worse we are. People are generally terrible judges of risk. We fear threats in the news out of proportion with the actual dangers. We overestimate rare and spectacular risks, and underestimate commonplace ones. We fear specific “movie-plot threats” that we can bring to mind. That’s why we fear flying over driving, even though the latter kills about 35,000 people each year — about a 9/11’s worth of deaths each month. And it’s why the idea of the TSA eliminating security at minor airports fills us with fear. We can imagine the plot unfolding, only without Bruce Willis saving the day.

Very little today is immune to politics, including the TSA. It drove most of the agency’s decisions in the early years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That the TSA is willing to consider politically unpopular ideas is a credit to the organization. Let’s let them perform their analyses in peace.

This essay originally appeared in the Washington Post.

Posted on August 10, 2018 at 6:10 AMView Comments

Security Risks of TSA PreCheck

Former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley wrote an op-ed pointing out the security vulnerabilities in the TSA’s PreCheck program:

The first vulnerability in the system is its enrollment process, which seeks to verify an applicant’s identity. We know verification is a challenge: A 2011 Government Accountability Office report on TSA’s system for checking airport workers’ identities concluded that it was “not designed to provide reasonable assurance that only qualified applicants” got approved. It’s not a stretch to believe a reasonably competent terrorist could construct an identity that would pass PreCheck’s front end.

The other step in PreCheck’s “intelligence-driven, risk-based security strategy” is absurd on its face: The absence of negative information about a person doesn’t mean he or she is trustworthy. News reports are filled with stories of people who seemed to be perfectly normal right up to the moment they committed a heinous act. There is no screening algorithm and no database check that can accurately predict human behavior — especially on the scale of millions. It is axiomatic that terrorist organizations recruit operatives who have clean backgrounds and interview well.

None of this is news.

Back in 2004, I wrote:

Imagine you’re a terrorist plotter with half a dozen potential terrorists at your disposal. They all apply for a card, and three get one. Guess which are going on the mission? And they’ll buy round-trip tickets with credit cards and have a “normal” amount of luggage with them.

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.

The Trusted Traveler program is based on the dangerous myth that terrorists match a particular profile and that we can somehow pick terrorists out of a crowd if we only can identify everyone. That’s simply not true. Most of the 9/11 terrorists were unknown and not on any watch list. Timothy McVeigh was an upstanding US citizen before he blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel are normal, nondescript people. Intelligence reports indicate that Al Qaeda is recruiting non-Arab terrorists for US operations.

I wrote much the same thing in 2007:

Background checks are based on the dangerous myth that we can somehow pick terrorists out of a crowd if we could identify everyone. Unfortunately, there isn’t any terrorist profile that prescreening can uncover. Timothy McVeigh could probably have gotten one of these cards. So could have Eric Rudolph, the pipe bomber at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. There isn’t even a good list of known terrorists to check people against; the government list used by the airlines has been the butt of jokes for years.

And have we forgotten how prevalent identity theft is these days? If you think having a criminal impersonating you to your bank is bad, wait until they start impersonating you to the Transportation Security Administration.

The truth is that whenever you create two paths through security — a high-security path and a low-security path — you have to assume that the bad guys will find a way to exploit the low-security path. It may be counterintuitive, but we are all safer if the people chosen for more thorough screening are truly random and not based on an error-filled database or a cursory background check.

In a companion blog post, Hawley has more details about why the program doesn’t work:

In the sense that PreCheck bars people who were identified by intelligence or law enforcement agencies as possible terrorists, then it was intelligence-driven. But using that standard for PreCheck is ridiculous since those people already get extra screening or are on the No-Fly list. The movie Patriots Day, out now, reminds us of the tragic and preventable Boston Marathon bombing. The FBI sent agents to talk to the Tsarnaev brothers and investigate them as possible terror suspects. And cleared them. Even they did not meet the “intelligence-driven” definition used in PreCheck.

The other problem with “intelligence-driven” in the PreCheck context is that intelligence actually tells us the opposite; specifically that terrorists pick clean operatives. If TSA uses current intelligence to evaluate risk, it would not be out enrolling everybody they can into pre-9/11 security for everybody not flagged by the security services.

Hawley and I may agree on the problem, but we have completely opposite solutions. The op-ed was too short to include details, but they’re in a companion blog post. Basically, he wants to screen PreCheck passengers more:

In the interests of space, I left out details of what I would suggest as short-and medium-term solutions. Here are a few ideas:

  • Immediately scrub the PreCheck enrollees for false identities. That can probably be accomplished best and most quickly by getting permission from members, and then using, commercial data. If the results show that PreCheck has already been penetrated, the program should be suspended.
  • Deploy K-9 teams at PreCheck lanes.
  • Use Behaviorally trained officers to interact with and check the credentials of PreCheck passengers.
  • Use Explosives Trace Detection cotton swabs on PreCheck passengers at a much higher rate. Same with removing shoes.
  • Turn on the body scanners and keep them fully utilized.
  • Allow liquids to stay in the carry-on since TSA scanners can detect threat liquids.
  • Work with the airlines to keep the PreCheck experience positive.
  • Work with airports to place PreCheck lanes away from regular checkpoints so as not to diminish lane capacity for non-PreCheck passengers. Rental Car check-in areas could be one alternative. Also, downtown check-in and screening (with secure transport to the airport) is a possibility.

These solutions completely ignore the data from the real-world experiment PreCheck has been. Hawley writes that PreCheck tells us that “terrorists pick clean operatives.” That’s exactly wrong. PreCheck tells us that, basically, there are no terrorists. If 1) it’s an easier way through airport security that terrorists will invariably use, and 2) there have been no instances of terrorists using it in the 10+ years it and its predecessors have been in operation, then the inescapable conclusion is that the threat is minimal. Instead of screening PreCheck passengers more, we should screen everybody else less. This is me in 2012: “I think the PreCheck level of airport screening is what everyone should get, and that the no-fly list and the photo ID check add nothing to security.”

I agree with Hawley that we need to overhaul airport security. Me in 2010: “Airport security is the last line of defense, and it’s not a very good one.” We need to recognize that the actual risk is much lower than we fear, and ratchet airport security down accordingly. And then we need to continue to invest in investigation and intelligence: security measures that work regardless of the tactic or target.

Posted on December 27, 2016 at 6:11 AMView Comments

Good Article on Airport Security

The New York Times wrote a good piece comparing airport security around the world, and pointing out that moving the security perimeter doesn’t make any difference if the attack can occur just outside the perimeter. Mark Stewart has the good quote:

“Perhaps the most cost-effective measure is policing and intelligence — to stop them before they reach the target,” Mr. Stewart said.

Sounds like something I would say.

Posted on July 6, 2016 at 9:45 AMView Comments

Economist Detained for Doing Math on an Airplane

An economics professor was detained when he was spotted doing math on an airplane:

On Thursday evening, a 40-year-old man ­– with dark, curly hair, olive skin and an exotic foreign accent –­ boarded a plane. It was a regional jet making a short, uneventful hop from Philadelphia to nearby Syracuse.

Or so dozens of unsuspecting passengers thought.

The curly-haired man tried to keep to himself, intently if inscrutably scribbling on a notepad he’d brought aboard. His seatmate, a blond-haired, 30-something woman sporting flip-flops and a red tote bag, looked him over. He was wearing navy Diesel jeans and a red Lacoste sweater — a look he would later describe as “simple elegance” — but something about him didn’t seem right to her.

She decided to try out some small talk.

Is Syracuse home? She asked.

No, he replied curtly.

He similarly deflected further questions. He appeared laser-focused ­– perhaps too laser-focused ­– on the task at hand, those strange scribblings.

Rebuffed, the woman began reading her book. Or pretending to read, anyway. Shortly after boarding had finished, she flagged down a flight attendant and handed that crew-member a note of her own.

This story ended better than some. Economics professor Guido Menzio (yes, he’s Italian) was taken off the plane, questioned, cleared, and allowed to board with the rest of his passengers two hours later.

This is a result of our stupid “see something, say something” culture. As I repeatedly say: “If you ask amateurs to act as front-line security personnel, you shouldn’t be surprised when you get amateur security.”

On the other hand, “Algebra, of course, does have Arabic origins plus math is used to make bombs.” Plus, this fine joke from 2003:

At Heathrow Airport today, an individual, later discovered to be a school teacher, was arrested trying to board a flight while in possession of a compass, a protractor, and a graphical calculator.

Authorities believe she is a member of the notorious al-Gebra movement. She is being charged with carrying weapons of math instruction.

AP story. Slashdot thread.

Seriously, though, I worry that this kind of thing will happen to me. I’m older, and I’m not very Semitic looking, but I am curt to my seatmates and intently focused on what I am doing — which sometimes involves looking at web pages about, and writing about, security and terrorism. I’m sure I’m vaguely suspicious.

EDITED TO ADD: Last month a student was removed from an airplane for speaking Arabic.

Posted on May 9, 2016 at 1:15 PMView Comments

Memphis Airport Inadvertently Gets Security Right

A local newspaper recently tested airport security at Memphis Airport:

Our crew sat for 30 minutes in the passenger drop-off area Tuesday without a word from anyone, and that raised a number of eyebrows.

Certainly raised mine. Here’s my question: why is that a bad thing? If you’re worried about a car bomb, why do you think length of time sitting curbside correlates with likelihood of detonation? Were I a car bomber sitting in the front seat, I would detonate my bomb pretty damned quick.

Anyway, the airport was 100% correct in its reply:

The next day, the airport told FOX13 they take a customer-friendly “hassle free” approach.

I’m certainly in favor of that. Useless security theater that adds to the hassle of traveling without actually making us any safer doesn’t help anyone.

Unfortunately, the airport is now reviewing its procedures, because fear wins:

CEO Scott Brockman sent FOX13 a statement saying in part “We will continue to review our policies and procedures and implement any necessary changes in order to ensure the safety of the traveling public.”

EDITED TO ADD (4/12): The airport PR person commented below. “Jim Turner of the Cato Institute” is actually Jim Harper.

Posted on March 25, 2016 at 12:26 PMView Comments

Policy Repercussions of the Paris Terrorist Attacks

In 2013, in the early days of the Snowden leaks, Harvard Law School professor and former Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith reflected on the increase in NSA surveillance post 9/11. He wrote:

Two important lessons of the last dozen years are (1) the government will increase its powers to meet the national security threat fully (because the People demand it), and (2) the enhanced powers will be accompanied by novel systems of review and transparency that seem to those in the Executive branch to be intrusive and antagonistic to the traditional national security mission, but that in the end are key legitimating factors for the expanded authorities.

Goldsmith is right, and I think about this quote as I read news articles about surveillance policies with headlines like “Political winds shifting on surveillance after Paris attacks?

The politics of surveillance are the politics of fear. As long as the people are afraid of terrorism — regardless of how realistic their fears are — they will demand that the government keep them safe. And if the government can convince them that it needs this or that power in order to keep the people safe, the people will willingly grant them those powers. That’s Goldsmith’s first point.

Today, in the wake of the horrific and devastating Paris terror attacks, we’re at a pivotal moment. People are scared, and already Western governments are lining up to authorize more invasive surveillance powers. The US want to back-door encryption products in some vain hope that the bad guys are 1) naive enough to use those products for their own communications instead of more secure ones, and 2) too stupid to use the back doors against the rest of us. The UK is trying to rush the passage of legislation that legalizes a whole bunch of surveillance activities that GCHQ has already been doing to its own citizens. France just gave its police a bunch of new powers. It doesn’t matter that mass surveillance isn’t an effective anti-terrorist tool: a scared populace wants to be reassured.

And politicians want to reassure. It’s smart politics to exaggerate the threat. It’s smart politics to do something, even if that something isn’t effective at mitigating the threat. The surveillance apparatus has the ear of the politicians, and the primary tool in its box is more surveillance. There’s minimal political will to push back on those ideas, especially when people are scared.

Writing about our country’s reaction to the Paris attacks, Tom Engelhardt wrote:

…the officials of that security state have bet the farm on the preeminence of the terrorist ‘threat,’ which has, not so surprisingly, left them eerily reliant on the Islamic State and other such organizations for the perpetuation of their way of life, their career opportunities, their growing powers, and their relative freedom to infringe on basic rights, as well as for that comfortably all-embracing blanket of secrecy that envelops their activities.

Goldsmith’s second point is more subtle: when these power increases are made in public, they’re legitimized through bureaucracy. Together, the scared populace and their scared elected officials serve to make the expanded national security and law enforcement powers normal.

Terrorism is singularly designed to push our fear buttons in ways completely out of proportion to the actual threat. And as long as people are scared of terrorism, they’ll give their governments all sorts of new powers of surveillance, arrest, detention, and so on, regardless of whether those powers actually combat the threat. This means that those who want those powers need a steady stream of terrorist attacks to enact their agenda. It’s not that these people are actively rooting for the terrorists, but they know a good opportunity when they see it.

We know that the PATRIOT Act was largely written before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that the political climate was right for its introduction and passage. More recently:

Although “the legislative environment is very hostile today,” the intelligence community’s top lawyer, Robert S. Litt, said to colleagues in an August e-mail, which was obtained by The Post, “it could turn in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement.”

The Paris attacks could very well be that event.

I am very worried that the Obama administration has already secretly told the NSA to increase its surveillance inside the US. And I am worried that there will be new legislation legitimizing that surveillance and granting other invasive powers to law enforcement. As Goldsmith says, these powers will be accompanied by novel systems of review and transparency. But I have no faith that those systems will be effective in limiting abuse any more than they have been over the last couple of decades.

EDITED TO ADD (12/14): Trevor Timm is all over this issue. Dan Gillmor wrote something good, too.

Posted on November 24, 2015 at 6:32 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.