Monday, October 20, 2008

security theater

Michael Markman referred me to this Web site, “When Obama Wins,” with things like:

When Obama wins, chickens will cross the road because they realize it's time for change.
When Obama wins, fortune cookies will really end with "in bed."
When Obama wins, everyone will know the difference between its and it's.
When Obama wins, jeans will always fit perfectly.
When Obama wins, there will be a chick in every car and pot in every garage.

Go ahead and dream of the world as you wish it was.

(I also love this Web site: “Things Younger Than McCain”. Among other things, Alaska, the peanut and jelly sandwich, the LP record, Dick Cheney, penicillin, 91% of America, Margaritas, the zip code, and duct tape are younger than McCain.)

So my candidate for “When Obama wins …”: Some sort of rationality will be restored to airport security. (I know, I know – but we can dream.)

Jeffrey Goldberg has a
good piece in the new issue of Atlantic magazine on what he calls the “security theater” of the Transportation Security Agency. (Coincidentally, this is the same term I made up and have been using for years.)

Airport security in America is a sham—“security theater” designed to make travelers feel better and catch stupid terrorists. Smart ones can get through security with fake boarding passes and all manner of prohibited items—as our correspondent did with ease.

Here is a bit of it:

During one secondary inspection, at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, I was wearing under my shirt a spectacular, only-in-America device called a “Beerbelly,” a neoprene sling that holds a polyurethane bladder and drinking tube. The Beerbelly, designed originally to sneak alcohol—up to 80 ounces—into football games, can quite obviously be used to sneak up to 80 ounces of liquid through airport security. (The company that manufactures the Beerbelly also makes something called a “Winerack,” a bra that holds up to 25 ounces of booze and is recommended, according to the company’s Web site, for PTA meetings.) My Beerbelly, which fit comfortably over my beer belly, contained two cans’ worth of Bud Light at the time of the inspection. It went undetected. The eight-ounce bottle of water in my carry-on bag, however, was seized by the federal government.

On another occasion, at LaGuardia, in New York, the transportation-security officer in charge of my secondary screening emptied my carry-on bag of nearly everything it contained, including a yellow, three-foot-by-four-foot Hezbollah flag, purchased at a Hezbollah gift shop in south Lebanon. The flag features, as its charming main image, an upraised fist clutching an AK-47 automatic rifle. Atop the rifle is a line of Arabic writing that reads Then surely the party of God are they who will be triumphant. The officer took the flag and spread it out on the inspection table. She finished her inspection, gave me back my flag, and told me I could go. I said, “That’s a Hezbollah flag.” She said, “Uh-huh.” Not “Uh-huh, I’ve been trained to recognize
the symbols of anti-American terror groups, but after careful inspection of your
physical person, your behavior, and your last name, I’ve come to the conclusion that you are not a Bekaa Valley–trained threat to the United States commercial aviation system,” but “Uh-huh, I’m going on break, why are you talking to me?” …

[Security expert Bruce] Schnei­er and I walked to the security checkpoint. “Counter­terrorism in the airport is a show designed to make people feel better,” he said. “Only two things have made flying safer: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.” This assumes, of course, that al-Qaeda will target airplanes for hijacking, or target aviation at all. “We defend against what the terrorists did last week,” Schnei­er said. He believes that the country would be just as safe as it is today if airport security were rolled back to pre-9/11 levels. “Spend the rest of your money on intelligence, investigations, and emergency response.”

Schnei­er and I joined the line with our ersatz boarding passes. [Schnei­er … had made these boarding passes in his sophisticated underground forgery works, which consists of a Sony Vaio laptop and an HP LaserJet printer] “Technically we could get arrested for this,” he said, but we judged the risk to be acceptable. … Schnei­er took from his bag a 12-ounce container labeled “saline solution.”

“It’s allowed,” he said. Medical supplies, such as saline solution for contact-lens cleaning, don’t fall under the TSA’s three-ounce rule.

“What’s allowed?” I asked. “Saline solution, or bottles labeled saline solution?”

“Bottles labeled saline solution. They won’t check what’s in it, trust me.”

They did not check. As we gathered our belongings, Schnei­er held up the bottle and said to the nearest security officer, “This is okay, right?” “Yep,” the officer said. “Just have to put it in the tray.”

“Maybe if you lit it on fire, he’d pay attention,” I said, risking arrest for making a joke at airport security. (Later, Schnei­er would carry two bottles labeled saline solution—24 ounces in total—through security. An officer asked him why he needed two bottles. “Two eyes,” he said. He was allowed to keep the bottles.)

We were in the clear. But what did we prove?

“We proved that the ID triangle is hopeless,” Schneier said.

The ID triangle: before a passenger boards a commercial flight, he interacts with his airline or the government three times—when he purchases his ticket; when he passes through airport security; and finally at the gate, when he presents his boarding pass to an airline agent. It is at the first point of contact, when the ticket is purchased, that a passenger’s name is checked against the government’s no-fly list. It is not checked again, and for this reason, Schnei­er argued, the process is merely another form of security theater.

“The goal is to make sure that this ID triangle represents one person,” he explained. “Here’s how you get around it. Let’s assume you’re a terrorist and you believe your name is on the watch list.” It’s easy for a terrorist to check whether the government has cottoned on to his existence, Schnei­er said; he simply has to submit his name online to the new, privately run CLEAR program, which is meant to fast-pass approved travelers through security. If the terrorist is rejected, then he knows he’s on the watch list.

To slip through the only check against the no-fly list, the terrorist uses a stolen credit card to buy a ticket under a fake name. “Then you print a fake boarding pass with your real name on it and go to the airport. You give your real ID, and the fake boarding pass with your real name on it, to security. They’re checking the documents against each other. They’re not checking your name against the no-fly list—that was done on the airline’s computers. Once you’re through security, you rip up the fake boarding pass, and use the real boarding pass that has the name from the stolen credit card. Then you board the plane, because they’re not checking your name against your ID at boarding.”

What if you don’t know how to steal a credit card?

“Then you’re a stupid terrorist and the government will catch you,” he said.

What if you don’t know how to download a PDF of an actual boarding pass and alter it on a home computer?

“Then you’re a stupid terrorist and the government will catch you.”

I couldn’t believe that what Schneier was saying was true—in the national debate over the no-fly list, it is seldom, if ever, mentioned that the no-fly list doesn’t work. “It’s true,” he said. “The gap blows the whole system out of the water.” …

When Obama is president we will address actual security threats in a logical, rational manner.


polit2k said...

Chomsky says pick the lesser of two evils

Noam Chomsky: People should vote against McCain and for Obama - but without illusions

Matt DeBlass said...

I know, but it's a fun game.

I was just reading that article in The Atlantic