Entries Tagged "security theater"

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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

Anti-Missile Defenses for Commercial Aircraft

In yet another “movie-plot threat” defense, the U.S. government is starting to test anti-missile lasers on commercial aircraft.

It could take years before passenger planes carry protection against missiles, a weapon terrorists might use to shoot down jets and cause economic havoc in the airline industry. The tests will help the nation’s leaders decide if they should install laser systems on all 6,800 aircraft in the U.S. airline fleet at a cost of at least $6 billion.

“Yes, it will cost money, but it’s the same cost as an aircraft entertainment system,” Kubricky says.

I think the airline industry is missing something here. If they linked the anti-missile lasers with the in-seat entertainment systems, cross-country flights would be much more exciting.

Posted on July 21, 2005 at 8:58 AMView Comments

How to Not Fix the ID Problem

Several of the 9/11 terrorists had Virginia driver’s licenses in fake names. These were not forgeries; these were valid Virginia IDs that were illegally sold by Department of Motor Vehicle workers.

So what did Virginia do to correct the problem? They required more paperwork in order to get an ID.

But the problem wasn’t that it was too easy to get an ID. The problem was that insiders were selling them illegally. Which is why the Virginia “solution” didn’t help, and the problem remains:

The manager of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles office at Springfield Mall was charged yesterday with selling driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and others for up to $3,500 apiece.

The arrest of Francisco J. Martinez marked the second time in two years that a Northern Virginia DMV employee was accused of fraudulently selling licenses for cash. A similar scheme two years ago at the DMV office in Tysons Corner led to the guilty pleas of two employees.

And after we spend billions on the REAL ID act, and require even more paperwork to get a state ID, the problem will still remain.

Posted on July 19, 2005 at 1:15 PMView Comments

Dell Protects the Homeland

Stupidity is rampant:

I purchased a Dell server today for work, through our account representative at Dell. At the end of the order process, just before confirmation, the Dell representative said: “Federal law requires that we ask what will this server be used for?”

I asked, incredulously, “Why the hell does the federal government care?” to which the Dell representative replied “PATRIOT Act.”

I certainly feel a lot safer knowing that terrorist are on their honor to tell the truth when buying servers from Dell.

I think anyone who says “homework” is obviously lying, and should be turned in to the authorities.

Posted on June 23, 2005 at 12:00 PMView Comments

Disarming Soldiers

Airplane security is getting surreal:

…FAA regulation that requires soldiers — all of whom were armed with an arsenal of assault rifles, shotguns and pistols — to surrender pocket knives, nose hair scissors and cigarette lighters.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Posted on June 20, 2005 at 3:04 PMView Comments

Backscatter X-Ray Technology

Backscatter X-ray technology is a method of using X rays to see inside objects. The science is complicated, but the upshot is that you can see people naked:

The application of this new x-ray technology to airport screening uses high energy x-rays that are more likely to scatter than penetrate materials as compared to lower-energy x-rays used in medical applications. Although this type of x-ray is said to be harmless it can move through other materials, such as clothing.

A passenger is scanned by rastering or moving a single high energy x-ray beam rapidly over their form. The signal strength of detected backscattered x-rays from a known position then allows a highly realistic image to be reconstructed. Since only Compton scattered x-rays are used, the registered image is mainly that of the surface of the object/person being imaged. In the case of airline passenger screening it is her nude form. The image resolution of the technology is high, so details of the human form of airline passengers present privacy challenges.

EPIC’s “Spotlight on Security” page is an excellent resource on this issue.

The TSA has recently announced a proposal to use these machines to screen airport passengers.

I’m not impressed with this security trade-off. Yes, backscatter X-ray machines might be able to detect things that conventional screening might miss. But I already think we’re spending too much effort screening airplane passengers at the expense of screening luggage and airport employees…to say nothing of the money we should be spending on non-airport security.

On the other side, these machines are expensive and the technology is incredibly intrusive. I don’t think that people should be subjected to strip searches before they board airplanes. And I believe that most people would be appalled by the prospect of security screeners seeing them naked.

I believe that there will be a groundswell of popular opposition to this idea. Aside from the usual list of pro-privacy and pro-liberty groups, I expect fundamentalist Christian groups to be appalled by this technology. I think we can get a bevy of supermodels to speak out against the invasiveness of the search.

News article

Posted on June 9, 2005 at 1:04 PMView Comments

Risks of Cell Phones on Airplanes

Everyone — except those who like peace and quiet — thinks it’s a good idea to allow cell phone calls on airplanes, and are working out the technical details. But the U.S. government is worried that terrorists might make telephone calls from airplanes.

If the mobile phone ban were lifted, law enforcement authorities worry an attacker could use the device to coordinate with accomplices on the ground, on another flight or seated elsewhere on the same plane.

If mobile phone calls are to be allowed during flights, the law enforcement agencies urged that users be required to register their location on a plane before placing a call and that officials have fast access to call identification data.

“There is a short window of opportunity in which action can be taken to thwart a suicidal terrorist hijacking or remedy other crisis situations on board an aircraft,” the agencies said.

This is beyond idiotic. Again and again, we hear the argument that a particular technology can be used for bad things, so we have to ban or control it. The problem is that when we ban or control a technology, we also deny ourselves some of the good things it can be used for. Security is always a trade-off. Almost all technologies can be used for both good and evil; in Beyond Fear, I call them “dual use” technologies. Most of the time, the good uses far outweigh the evil uses, and we’re much better off as a society embracing the good uses and dealing with the evil uses some other way.

We don’t ban cars because bank robbers can use them to get away faster. We don’t ban cell phones because drug dealers use them to arrange sales. We don’t ban money because kidnappers use it. And finally, we don’t ban cryptography because the bad guys it to keep their communications secret. In all of these cases, the benefit to society of having the technology is much greater than the benefit to society of controlling, crippling, or banning the technology.

And, of course, security countermeasures that force the attackers to make a minor modification in their tactics aren’t very good trade-offs. Banning cell phones on airplanes only makes sense if the terrorists are planning to use cell phones on airplanes, and will give up and not bother with their attack because they can’t. If their plan doesn’t involve air-to-ground communications, or if it doesn’t involve air travel at all, then the security measure is a waste. And even worse, we denied ourselves all the good uses of the technology in the process.

Security officials are also worried that personal phone use could increase the risk that remotely-controlled bomb will be used to down an airliner. But they acknowledged simple radio-controlled explosive devices have been used in the past on planes and the first line of defence was security checks at airports.

Still, they said that “the departments believe that the new possibilities generated by airborne passenger connectivity must be recognized.”

That last sentence got it right. New possibilities, both good and bad.

Posted on June 8, 2005 at 2:40 PMView Comments

Billions Wasted on Anti-Terrorism Security

Recently there have been a bunch of news articles about how lousy counterterrorism security is in the United States, how billions of dollars have been wasted on security since 9/11, and how much of what was purchased doesn’t work as advertised.

The first is from the May 8 New York Times (available at the website for pay, but there are copies here and here):

After spending more than $4.5 billion on screening devices to monitor the nation’s ports, borders, airports, mail and air, the federal government is moving to replace or alter much of the antiterrorism equipment, concluding that it is ineffective, unreliable or too expensive to operate.

Many of the monitoring tools — intended to detect guns, explosives, and nuclear and biological weapons — were bought during the blitz in security spending after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In its effort to create a virtual shield around America, the Department of Homeland Security now plans to spend billions of dollars more. Although some changes are being made because of technology that has emerged in the last couple of years, many of them are planned because devices currently in use have done little to improve the nation’s security, according to a review of agency documents and interviews with federal officials and outside experts.

From another part of the article:

Among the problems:

  • Radiation monitors at ports and borders that cannot differentiate between radiation emitted by a nuclear bomb and naturally occurring radiation from everyday material like cat litter or ceramic tile.
  • Air-monitoring equipment in major cities that is only marginally effective because not enough detectors were deployed and were sometimes not properly calibrated or installed. They also do not produce results for up to 36 hours — long after a biological attack would potentially infect thousands of people.
  • Passenger-screening equipment at airports that auditors have found is no more likely than before federal screeners took over to detect whether someone is trying to carry a weapon or a bomb aboard a plane.
  • Postal Service machines that test only a small percentage of mail and look for anthrax but no other biological agents.

The Washington Post had a series of articles. The first lists some more problems:

  • The contract to hire airport passenger screeners grew to $741 million from $104 million in less than a year. The screeners are failing to detect weapons at roughly the same rate as shortly after the attacks.
  • The contract for airport bomb-detection machines ballooned to at least $1.2 billion from $508 million over 18 months. The machines have been hampered by high false-alarm rates.
  • A contract for a computer network called US-VISIT to screen foreign visitors could cost taxpayers $10 billion. It relies on outdated technology that puts the project at risk.
  • Radiation-detection machines worth a total of a half-billion dollars deployed to screen trucks and cargo containers at ports and borders have trouble distinguishing between highly enriched uranium and common household products. The problem has prompted costly plans to replace the machines.

The second is about border security.

And more recently, a New York Times article on how lousy port security is.

There are a lot of morals here: the problems of believing companies that have something to sell you, the difficulty of making technological security solutions work, the problems with making major security changes quickly, the mismanagement that comes from any large bureaucracy like the DHS, and the wastefulness of defending potential terrorist targets instead of broadly trying to deal with terrorism.

Posted on June 3, 2005 at 8:17 AMView Comments

The Emergence of a Global Infrastructure for Mass Registration and Surveillance

The International Campaign Against Mass Surveillance has issued a report (dated April 2005): “The Emergence of a Global Infrastructure for Mass Registration and Surveillance.” It’s a chilling assessment of the current international trends towards global surveillance. Most of it you will have seen before, although it’s good to have everything in one place. I am particularly pleased that the report explicitly states that these measures do not make us any safer, but only create the illusion of security.

The global surveillance initiatives that governments have embarked upon do not make us more secure. They create only the illusion of security.

Sifting through an ocean of information with a net of bias and faulty logic, they yield outrageous numbers of false positives ­ and false negatives. The dragnet approach might make the public feel that something is being done, but the dragnet is easily circumvented by determined terrorists who are either not known to authorities, or who use identity theft to evade them.

For the statistically large number of people that will be wrongly identified or wrongly assessed as a risk under the system, the consequences can be dire.

At the same time, the democratic institutions and protections, which would be the safeguards of individuals’ personal security, are being weakened. And national sovereignty and the ability of national governments to protect citizens against the actions of other states (when they are willing) are being compromised as security functions become more and more deeply integrated.

The global surveillance dragnet diverts crucial resources and efforts away from the kind of investments that would make people safer. What is required is good information about specific threats, not crude racial profiling and useless information on the nearly 100 percent of the population that poses no threat whatsoever.

Posted on April 29, 2005 at 8:54 AMView Comments

Banning Matches and Lighters on Airplanes

According to the Washington Post:

When Congress voted last year to prohibit passengers from bringing lighters and matches aboard commercial airplanes, it sounded like a reasonable idea for improving airline security.

But as airports and government leaders began discussing how to create flame-free airport terminals, the task became more complicated. Would newsstands and other small airport stores located beyond the security checkpoint have to stop selling lighters? Would airports have to ban smoking and close smoking lounges? How would security screeners detect matches in passengers’ pockets or carry-on bags when they don’t contain metal to set off the magnetometers? And what about arriving international travelers, who might have matches and lighters with them as they walk through the terminal?

It’s the silly security season out there. Given all of the things to spend money on to improve security, how this got to the top of anyone’s list is beyond me.

Posted on March 4, 2005 at 3:00 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.