Entries Tagged "security theater"

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Sneaking Items Aboard Aircraft

A Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice faces a fine — although no criminal charges at the moment — for trying to sneak a knife aboard an aircraft.

Saylor, 58, and his wife entered a security checkpoint Feb. 4 on a trip to Philadelphia when screeners found a small Swiss Army-style knife attached to his key chain.

A police report said he was told the item could not be carried onto a plane and that he needed to place the knife into checked luggage or make other arrangements.

When Saylor returned a short time later to be screened a second time, an X-ray machine detected a knife inside his carry-on luggage, police said.

There are two points worth making here. One: ridiculous rules have a way of turning people into criminals. And two: this is an example of a security failure, not a security success.

Security systems fail in one of two ways. They can fail to stop the bad guy, and they can mistakenly stop the good guy. The TSA likes to measure its success by looking at the forbidden items they have prevented from being carried onto aircraft, but that’s wrong. Every time the TSA takes a pocketknife from an innocent person, that’s a security failure. It’s a false alarm. The system has prevented access where no prevention was required. This, coupled with the widespread belief that the bad guys will find a way around the system, demonstrates what a colossal waste of money it is.

Posted on February 28, 2005 at 8:00 AMView Comments

TSA's Secure Flight

As I wrote previously, I am participating in a working group to study the security and privacy of Secure Flight, the U.S. government’s program to match airline passengers with a terrorist watch list. In the end, I signed the NDA allowing me access to SSI (Sensitive Security Information) documents, but managed to avoid filling out the paperwork for a SECRET security clearance.

Last week the group had its second meeting.

So far, I have four general conclusions. One, assuming that we need to implement a program of matching airline passengers with names on terrorism watch lists, Secure Flight is a major improvement — in almost every way — over what is currently in place. (And by this I mean the matching program, not any potential uses of commercial or other third-party data.)

Two, the security system surrounding Secure Flight is riddled with security holes. There are security problems with false IDs, ID verification, the ability to fly on someone else’s ticket, airline procedures, etc.

Three, the urge to use this system for other things will be irresistible. It’s just too easy to say: “As long as you’ve got this system that watches out for terrorists, how about also looking for this list of drug dealers…and by the way, we’ve got the Super Bowl to worry about too.” Once Secure Flight gets built, all it’ll take is a new law and we’ll have a nationwide security checkpoint system.

And four, a program of matching airline passengers with names on terrorism watch lists is not making us appreciably safer, and is a lousy way to spend our security dollars.

Unfortunately, Congress has mandated that Secure Flight be implemented, so it is unlikely that the program will be killed. And analyzing the effectiveness of the program in general, potential mission creep, and whether the general idea is a worthwhile one, is beyond the scope of our little group. In other words, my first conclusion is basically all that they’re interested in hearing.

But that means I can write about everything else.

To speak to my fourth conclusion: Imagine for a minute that Secure Flight is perfect. That is, we can ensure that no one can fly under a false identity, that the watch lists have perfect identity information, and that Secure Flight can perfectly determine if a passenger is on the watch list: no false positives and no false negatives. Even if we could do all that, Secure Flight wouldn’t be worth it.

Secure Flight is a passive system. It waits for the bad guys to buy an airplane ticket and try to board. If the bad guys don’t fly, it’s a waste of money. If the bad guys try to blow up shopping malls instead of airplanes, it’s a waste of money.

If I had some millions of dollars to spend on terrorism security, and I had a watch list of potential terrorists, I would spend that money investigating those people. I would try to determine whether or not they were a terrorism threat before they got to the airport, or even if they had no intention of visiting an airport. I would try to prevent their plot regardless of whether it involved airplanes. I would clear the innocent people, and I would go after the guilty. I wouldn’t build a complex computerized infrastructure and wait until one of them happened to wander into an airport. It just doesn’t make security sense.

That’s my usual metric when I think about a terrorism security measure: Would it be more effective than taking that money and funding intelligence, investigation, or emergency response — things that protect us regardless of what the terrorists are planning next. Money spent on security measures that only work against a particular terrorist tactic, forgetting that terrorists are adaptable, is largely wasted.

Posted on January 31, 2005 at 9:26 AMView Comments

Burglars and "Feeling Secure"

From Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief by Bill Mason (Villard, 2003):

Nothing works more in a thief’s favor than people feeling secure. That’s why places that are heavily alarmed and guarded can sometimes be the easiest targets. The single most important factor in security — more than locks, alarms, sensors, or armed guards — is attitude. A building protected by nothing more than a cheap combination lock but inhabited by people who are alert and risk-aware is much safer than one with the world’s most sophisticated alarm system whose tenants assume they’re living in an impregnable fortress.

The author, a burglar, found that luxury condos were an excellent target. Although they had much more security technology than other buildings, they were vulnerable because no one believed a thief could get through the lobby.

Posted on December 17, 2004 at 9:21 AMView Comments

Airline Security and the TSA

Recently I received this e-mail from an anonymous Transportation Security Association employee — those are the guys that screen you at airports — about something I wrote about airline security:

I was going through my email archives and found a link to a story. Apparently you enjoy attacking TSA, and relish in stories where others will do it for you. I work for TSA, and understand that a lot of what they do is little more than “window dressing” (your words). However, very few can argue that they are a lot more effective than the rent-a-cop agencies that were supposed to be securing the airports pre-9/11.

Specifically to the story, it has all the overtones of Urban Legend: overly emotional, details about the event but only giving names of self and “pet,” overly verbose, etc. Bottom line, that the TSA screener and supervisor told our storyteller that the fish was “in no way… allowed to pass through security” is in direct violation of publicly accessible TSA policy. Fish may be unusual, but they’re certainly not forbidden.

I’m disappointed, Bruce. Usually you’re well researched. Your articles and books are very well documented and cross-referenced. However, when it comes to attacking TSA, you seem to take some stories at face value without verifying the facts and TSA policies. I’m also disappointed that you would popularize a story that implicitly tells people to hide their “prohibited items” from security. I have personally witnessed people get arrested for thinking they were clever in hiding something they shouldn’t be carrying anyway.

For those who don’t want to follow the story, it’s about a college student who was told by TSA employees that she could not take her fish on the airplane for security reasons. She then smuggled the fish aboard by hiding it in her carry-on luggage. Final score: fish 1, TSA 0.

To the points in the letter:

  1. You may be right that the story is an urban legend. But it did appear in a respectable newspaper, and I hope the newspaper did at least some fact-checking. I may have been overly optimistic.

  2. You are certainly right that pets are allowed on board airplanes. But just because something is official TSA policy doesn’t mean it’s necessarily followed in the field. There have been many instances of TSA employees inventing rules. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that one of them refused to allow a fish on an airplane.

  3. I am happy to popularize a story that implicitly tells people to hide prohibited items from airline security. I’m even happy to explicitly tell people to hide prohibited items from airline security. A friend of mine recently figured out how to reliably sneak her needlepoint scissors through security — they’re the foldable kind, and she slips them against a loose leaf binder — and I am pleased to publicize that. Hell, I’ve even explained how to fly on someone else’s airline ticket and make your own knife on board an airplane [Beyond Fear, page 85].

  4. I think airline passenger screening is inane. It’s invasive, expensive, time-consuming, and doesn’t make us safer. I think that civil disobedience is a perfectly reasonable reaction.

  5. Honestly, you won’t get arrested if you simply play dumb when caught. Unless, that is, you’re smuggling an actual gun or bomb aboard an aircraft, in which case you probably deserve to get arrested.

Posted on December 6, 2004 at 9:15 AMView Comments

Amtrak "Security"

Amtrak will now randomly check IDs:

Amtrak conductors have begun random checks of passengers’ IDs as a precaution against terrorist attacks.

This works because, somehow, terrorists don’t have IDs.

I’ve written about this kind of thing before. It’s the kind of program that makes us no safer, and wastes everyone’s time and Amtrak’s money.

Posted on November 19, 2004 at 10:03 AMView Comments

A Sensible Elected Official

The new mayor of Madison, Alabama, has a surprisingly sensible attitude about security.

From the Huntsville Times:

City Hall security. Kirkindall, Atallo and Lacy agree the city may have gone a little overboard in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks by eliminating 20 to 25 prime parking spaces near the building. Starting today, people will be allowed to park there again.

Atallo says the City Hall visitors log — another recent addition — also annoys people and doesn’t do anything to make Madison safer. To prove it, he’s been signing the names of famous terrorists – “O.B. Laden,” “Carlos T. Jackal” – in the book.

No one’s caught it.

As of today, the log is out.

I have no idea if he’s a Republican or a Democrat, but I wish there were more people like him in government.

Posted on October 26, 2004 at 11:36 AMView Comments

World Series Security

The World Series is no stranger to security. Fans try to sneak into the ballpark without tickets, or with counterfeit tickets. Often foods and alcohol are prohibited from being brought into the ballpark, to enforce the monopoly of the high-priced concessions. Violence is always a risk: both small fights and larger-scale riots that result from fans from both teams being in such close proximity — like the one that almost happened during the sixth game of the AL series.

Today, the new risk is terrorism. Security at the Olympics cost $1.5 billion. $50 million each was spent at the Democratic and Republican conventions. There has been no public statement about the security bill for the World Series, but it’s reasonable to assume it will be impressive.

In our fervor to defend ourselves, it’s important that we spend our money wisely. Much of what people think of as security against terrorism doesn’t actually make us safer. Even in a world of high-tech security, the most important solution is the guy watching to keep beer bottles from being thrown onto the field.

Generally, security measures that defend specific targets are wasteful, because they can be avoided simply by switching targets. If we completely defend the World Series from attack, and the terrorists bomb a crowded shopping mall instead, little has been gained.

Even so, some high-profile locations, like national monuments and symbolic buildings, and some high-profile events, like political conventions and championship sporting events, warrant additional security. What additional measures make sense?

ID checks don’t make sense. Everyone has an ID. Even the 9/11 terrorists had IDs. What we want is to somehow check intention; is the person going to do something bad? But we can’t do that, so we check IDs instead. It’s a complete waste of time and money, and does absolutely nothing to make us safer.

Automatic face recognition systems don’t work. Computers that automatically pick terrorists out of crowds are a great movie plot device, but doesn’t work in the real world. We don’t have a comprehensive photographic database of known terrorists. Even worse, the face recognition technology is so faulty that it often can’t make the matches even when we do have decent photographs. We tried it at the 2001 Super Bowl; it was a failure.

Airport-like attendee screening doesn’t work. The terrorists who took over the Russian school sneaked their weapons in long before their attack. And screening fans is only a small part of the solution. There are simply too many people, vehicles, and supplies moving in and out of a ballpark regularly. This kind of security failed at the Olympics, as reporters proved again and again that they could sneak all sorts of things into the stadiums undetected.

What does work is people: smart security officials watching the crowds. It’s called “behavior recognition,�? and it requires trained personnel looking for suspicious behavior. Does someone look out of place? Is he nervous, and not watching the game? Is he not cheering, hissing, booing, and waving like a sports fan would?

This is what good policemen do all the time. It’s what Israeli airport security does. It works because instead of relying on checkpoints that can be bypassed, it relies on the human ability to notice something that just doesn’t feel right. It’s intuition, and it’s far more effective than computerized security solutions.

Will this result in perfect security? Of course not. No security measures are guaranteed; all we can do is reduce the odds. And the best way to do that is to pay attention. A few hundred plainclothes policemen, walking around the stadium and watching for anything suspicious, will provide more security against terrorism than almost anything else we can reasonably do.

And the best thing about policemen is that they’re adaptable. They can deal with terrorist threats, and they can deal with more common security issues, too.

Most of the threats at the World Series have nothing to do with terrorism; unruly or violent fans are a much more common problem. And more likely than a complex 9/11-like plot is a lone terrorist with a gun, a bomb, or something that will cause panic. But luckily, the security measures ballparks have already put in place to protect against the former also help protect against the latter.

Originally published by UPI.

Posted on October 25, 2004 at 6:31 PMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.