Category: Air Travel

Today's TSA news grope-up

TSA Body Scanners News: Why show ID edition

First, a quick news roundup:

So given the new machines and how stunningly intrusive they are, is there any reason to show ID when you show up at the airport?

It's not TSA's fault

October 18th’s bad news for the TSA includes a pilot declining the choice between aggressive frisking and a nudatron. He blogs about it in “Well, today was the day:”

On the other side I was stopped by another agent and informed that because I had “opted out” of AIT screening, I would have to go through secondary screening. I asked for clarification to be sure he was talking about frisking me, which he confirmed, and I declined. At this point he and another agent explained the TSA’s latest decree, saying I would not be permitted to pass without showing them my naked body, and how my refusal to do so had now given them cause to put their hands on me as I evidently posed a threat to air transportation security (this, of course, is my nutshell synopsis of the exchange). I asked whether they did in fact suspect I was concealing something after I had passed through the metal detector, or whether they believed that I had made any threats or given other indications of malicious designs to warrant treating me, a law-abiding fellow citizen, so rudely. None of that was relevant, I was told. They were just doing their job.

It’s true. TSA employees are just doing their job, which is to secure transportation systems. The trouble is, their job is impossible. We all know that it’s possible to smuggle things past the nudatrons and the frisking. Unfortunately, TSA’s job is defined narrowly as a secure transportation system, and every failure leads to them getting blamed. All their hard work is ignored. And so they impose measures that a great many American citizens find unacceptable. They’re going to keep doing this because their mission and jobs are defined wrong. It’s not the fault of TSA, it’s the fault of Congress, who defined that mission.

It’s bad enough that the chairman of British Airways has come out and said “Britain has to stop ‘kowtowing’ to US demands on airport checks.”

The fix has to come from the same place the problem comes from. We need a travel security system which is integrated as part of national transportation policy which encourages travel. As long as we have a Presidential appointee whose job is transportation security, we’ll have these problems.

Let’s stop complaining about TSA and start working for a proper fix.

So how do we get there? Normally, a change of this magnitude in Washington requires a crisis. Unfortunately, we don’t have a crisis crisis right now, we have more of a slow burning destruction of the privacy and dignity of the traveling public. We have massive contraction of the air travel industry. We have the public withdrawing from using regional air travel because of the bother. We may be able to use international pressure, we may be able to use the upcoming elections and a large number of lame-duck legislators who feared doing the right thing.

TSA is bleeding and bleeding us because of structural pressures. We should fix those if we want to restore dignity, privacy and liberty to our travel system.

Transparent Lies about Body Scanners

Body scan.png

In “Feds Save Thousands of Body Scan Images,” EPIC reports:

In an open government lawsuit against the United States Marshals Service, EPIC has obtained more than one hundred images of undressed individuals entering federal courthouses. The images, which are routinely captured by the federal agency, prove that body scanning devices store and record images of individuals stripped naked. The 100 images are a small sample of more than 35,000 at issue in the EPIC lawsuit.

Previously, the government has assured us the images won’t be saved. Joshua Marpet pointed out that the “Nation’s Perverts Endorse Full-Body Airport Scanners.” Jeremiah Grossman asked if this is a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2251.

The real trouble is that the TSA is funding the creation of these machines and forcing them on us. The companies who make them will push their chaotic deployment elsewhere. The machines are being built with recording and transmission capabilities. Chaos is going to emerge, our privacy will suffer, and it is the fault of the leaderless TSA.

The TSA has lied, consistently and persistently about the capabilities, effectiveness and health impacts of these machines. They have released scary misleading pictures, such as the one on the right. 99.99% of people walking through the machines do not have a gun strapped to their thigh. All the perverts watching the machines will see is your private parts.

TSA has a mission which can’t succeed. Anything it might do won’t prevent the destruction of aircraft. The measures they’ve talked their way into are a one-way street in today’s ‘admit nothing’ Washington culture. The head of the agency is a no-promotion position, made less attractive by the Obama administration’s ‘no revolving door’ policies.

Meanwhile, we suffer through the indignities.

The Liquids ban is a worse idea than you thought

According to new research at Duke University, identifying an easy-to-spot prohibited item such as a water bottle may hinder the discovery of other, harder-to-spot items in the same scan.

Missing items in a complex visual search is not a new idea: in the medical field, it has been known since the 1960s that radiologists tend to miss a second abnormality on an X-ray if they’ve found one already. The concept — dubbed “satisfaction of search” — is that radiologists would find the first target, think they were finished, and move on to the next patient’s X-ray.

Does the principle apply to non-medical areas? That’s what Stephen Mitroff, an assistant professor of psychology & neuroscience at Duke, and his colleagues set out to examine shortly after 2006, when the U.S. Transportation Security Administration banned liquids and gels from all flights, drastically changing airport luggage screens.

“The liquids rule has introduced a whole lot of easy-to-spot targets,” Mitroff said.

Duke University press release, Mitroff’s home page, full paper.

Head of O'Hare Security says it sucks

In the eight months that I was the head of security under the Andolino administration, the commissioner of the busiest airport of the world, depending on who’s taking the survey, the busiest airport in the world, never once had a meeting with the head of security for the busiest airport in the world. Never once.

Mayor Richard Daley, who appointed the former security boss, says the man is just “disgruntled.”

Daley’s comment is a fascinating confirmation. Maurer, the head of security, ought to be disgruntled if he was completely blocked from getting anything done.

And good for him for speaking out.

Audio at WBEZ and comments (quoted) from Consumerist.

In related news, “TSA told airport to issue badge to convicted robber.”

Terrorism Links and quotes

  • Ed Hasbrouck on “Lessons from the case of the man who set his underpants on fire
  • A Canadian woman who’s been through the new process is too scared to fly. “Woman, 85, ‘terrified’ after airport search.” Peter Arnett reported

    “‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,’ a TSA major said today. He was talking about the decision by allied commanders to shock and awe the public regardless of civilian casualties, to rout al Qaeda.”

  • Ethan Ackerman on risks of ionizing radiation, via Froomkin, but also see Technology Review, “How Terahertz Waves Tear Apart DNA.”
  • TSA has been telling us that the machines “can’t” record you naked, while ordering machines that can. See EPIC Posts TSA Documents on Body Scanners. TSA responded, and Ed Hasbrouck responds TSA lies again.
  • The EU is objecting to new US rules, and the Pirate Party of Berlin is protesting them.
  • If you want to see why they’re protesting, watch this not safe for work video, “Body scanner, with detailed genitalia reporting
  • There’s a well worth reading article by Paul Campos in the Wall St. Journal, “Undressing the Terror Threat:”

    I’m not much of a basketball player. Middle-age, with a shaky set shot and a bad knee, I can’t hold my own in a YMCA pickup game, let alone against more organized competition. But I could definitely beat LeBron James in a game of one-on-one. The game just needs to feature two special rules: It lasts until I score, and when I score, I win.

    We might have to play for a few days, and Mr. James’s point total could well be creeping toward five figures before the contest ended, but eventually the gritty gutty competitor with a lunch-bucket work ethic (me) would subject the world’s greatest basketball player to a humiliating defeat.

    The world’s greatest nation seems bent on subjecting itself to a similarly humiliating defeat, by playing a game that could be called Terrorball. The first two rules of Terrorball are:

    1. The game lasts as long as there are terrorists who want to harm Americans; and
    2. If terrorists should manage to kill or injure or seriously frighten any of us, they win.

The New School of Air Travel Security?

As I simmer with anger over how TSA is subpoening bloggers, it occurs to me that the state of airline security is very similar to that of information security in some important ways:

  • Failures are rare
  • Partial failures are generally secret
  • Actual failures are analyzed in secret
  • Procedures are secret
  • Procedures seem bizarre and arbitrary
  • External analysis seems to show that the procedures are fundamentally flawed
  • Those charged with doing the work appear to develop a bunker mentality

In this situation, anyone can offer up their opinions, and most of us do.

It’s hard to figure out which analysis are better than others, because the data about partial failures is harder to get than opinions. And so most opinions are created and appear equal. Recommendations in airline security are all ‘best practices’ which are hard to evaluate.

Now, as Peter Swire has pointed out, the disclosure debate pivots on if an attacker needs to expose themselves in order to test a hypothesis. If the attacker needs to show up and risk arrest or being shot to understand if a device will make it through a magnometer, that’s very different than if an attacker needs to send packets over the internet.

I believe much of this swivels on the fact that most of the security layers have been innocently exposed in many ways. The outline of how the intelligence agencies and their databases work is public. The identity checking is similarly public. It’s easy to discover at home or at the airport that you’re on a list. The primary and secondary physical screening layers are well and publicly described. The limits of tertiary screening are easily discovered, as an unlucky friend discovered when he threw a nazi salute at a particularly nosy screener in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. And then some of it comes out when government agencies accidentally expose it. All of this boils down to partial and unstructured disclosure in three ways:

  1. Laws or public inquiries require it
  2. The public is exposed to it or can “innocently” test it
  3. Accidents

In light of all of this, the job of a terrorist mastermind is straightforward: figure out a plan that bypasses the known defenses, then find someone to carry it out. Defending the confidentiality of approaches is hard. Randomization is an effort to change attacker’s risk profiles.

But here’s the thing: between appropriate and important legal controls and that the public goes through the system, there are large parts of it which cannot be kept secret for any length of time. We need to acknowledge that and design for it.

So here’s my simple proposal:

  1. Publish as much of the process as can be published, in accordance with the intent of Executive Order on Classified National Security Information:

    “Agency heads shall complete on a periodic basis a comprehensive review of the agency’s classification guidance, particularly classification guides, to ensure the guidance reflects current circumstances and to identify classified information that no longer requires protection and can be declassified,”

    That order lays out a new balance between openness and national security, including terrorism. TSA’s current approach does not meet that new balance.

  2. Publish information about failed attempts and the costs of the system
  3. Stop harassing and intimidating those like Chris Soghoian, Steven Frischling or Christopher Elliott who discuss details of the system.
  4. Encourage and engage in a fuller debate with facts, rather than speculation.

There you have it. We will get better security through a broad set of approaches being brought to the problems. We will get easier travel because we will understand what we’re being asked to do and why. Everyone understand we need some level of security for air travel. Without an acrimonious, ill-informed firestorm, we’ll get more security with less pain and distraction.

Abdulmutallab/Flight 253 Airline Terror links

And for the prurient interest, the underwear, apparently still containing the explosives. It looks like they were cut off with scissors, implying that he was wearing them at the time. I wonder how much explosive energy a human thigh absorbs?

In conversation, a friend mentioned that the media whirlwind overwhelms the right response, which is to go on with our lives. Which is what I shall now do. Look! A burning goat!

Navigation