Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Security is never static


There’s a story in the Wall St Journal, “London’s Congestion Fee
Begets Pinched Plates

This city’s congestion pricing for drivers is heralded around the world for reducing traffic and pollution. It’s also causing an unintended effect: a sharp jump in thieves stealing or counterfeiting license plates.

Thieves are pinching plates by the dozens every day to fool the city’s traffic cameras, which enforce the £8 ($16) daily charge to drive in central London as well as other traffic infractions … With someone else’s license plate on their car, scofflaws can drive around free, and any fines are billed to the plate’s rightful owners.

Before the congestion charge took effect in February 2003, police didn’t bother to track stolen number plates…because so few incidents were reported … Reports of stolen plates in the city spiked to 9,777 last year.

This is precisely the opposite of how we’d want such a system to work: it should catch criminals and ignore the rest of us. [Updated this for clarity.]

Unfortunately, most tracking systems are perverse, and do exactly what we don’t want: criminals learn to get around them, and the general public loses their privacy.

When looking at a system, ask yourself, “is this good enough to stop people motivated to get around it? If it’s not, then look at the costs.

We can do this with the new American approach to tourism:

“Since September 11, 2001, the United States has experienced a 17 percent decline in overseas travel, costing America 94 billion dollars in lost visitor spending, nearly 200,000 jobs and 16 billion dollars in lost tax revenue. (“‘Unwelcoming’ US sees sharp fall in visitors since 9/11,” Discover America travel advocacy group.)

Terrorists are going to enter the country illegally, using paths worn smooth by millions of illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, millions of people are deciding to take their business and leisure elsewhere, because of the harsh face we show the world at our borders.

License plate story via David Lesher in the Risks Digest, tourism story via BoingBoing. Photo by ChiquitaNerd.

8 comments on "Security is never static"

  • Terrorists are going to enter the country illegally, using paths worn smooth by millions of illegal immigrants.
    …or, uh not.
    “The terrorists”, presuming that they are even fractionally competent, will be coming in via the front door, with their papers well in order. We know for a fact that they have the money, the patience, the resources and the operational discipline to do this. Anyone who brings up illegal (read: Mexican) immigration in this discussion is trying to sell you something that you probably don’t actually have any interest in buying.

  • (Argh, your stylesheet for this blog is turning off underlining for links in comments: the word “not” above should be denoted as a link.)

  • Adam says:

    First, I agree that while some people make the argument you think I’m making, that wasn’t my intent. I’ll clarify.
    Second, fixed the CSS bug. thanks for complaining. 🙂

  • While I can see how entering the US would easily deter all but the most patient of travelers, the lagging dollar has increased economic incentives to visit. I have no idea how to identify this model, but it would be an interesting way of modeling the actual trade-offs people make about the privacy incursions and inconveniences.

  • guest says:

    That license plate story is crazy! I’m sure this will continue to happen anywhere the risk of having a real identity is greater than the cost of stealing a temporary one. Isn’t it significant that we still only know most of the 9/11 terrorists by their stolen identities? [Ed: there’s no evidence for this.]
    If fighting identity theft at home means fighting the illegal immigration trend, Ron Paul’s take on this as a problem with an economic solution may be of interest. ( , )

  • Mr. X says:

    My, who found that wonderful image that accompanies this story!

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