Thursday, December 31, 2009

Bricking ourselves into a dark corner

Bruce Schneier's brilliant piece on Security Theater got me thinking.  Terrorism's aim isn't solely to kill people, it's main goal is to instill fear and force a change in the way of life of a people.  That people is us civilized westerners.  Think about it.

What's interesting is this: every time a suspected terrorist is arrested the media circus around it makes it feel like another episode of 24 with Jack Bauer just around the corner ready to fend off another bad terrorist plot.  The problem with this is that we're building fear - exactly what the terrorists want to happen.  Psychologically this actually achieves almost as much damage as actually committing the terrorist act and being successful.

What's worse is the results that happen afterwards in the political theater, here in the US.  Politicians and clueless bureaucrats [like Janet Napolitano who heads up the DHS (Dept. of Homeland Security)] have what we call knee-jerk reactions to these types of situations which actually amplify the effects beyond anything the terrorist can create himself.  Allow me to explain.

Remember Richard Reid, the would-be shoe bomber?  What about those idiots in the UK who were going to bring down a plane with liquid explosives?  The result was the same predictable one each and every time.  The response from our beloved TSA (Transportation Security Administration) was to react to the previous threat in a way that could have prevented that threat, had we been able to go back in time.

You see, the TSA believes in a policy of reactive security.  More specifically, reactive security theater, as Bruce so eloquently coined the phrase.  It's not that taking your shoes off and sending them through the x-ray machine will likely prevent any future attacks; rather, it's a reaction meant to prevent a repeat offender.  Same with the 3.0oz of liquid in the plastic baggie.  Same goes for not being able to get up during the last hour of flight -although the logic behind this one is truly bizarre, even when I really try and think it through.

This kind of thinking is dangerous, and should be eradicated from a department as critical to our way of life as the Department of Homeland Security (especially the TSA).  When we enact these half-cocked measures of illogical security we endanger more lives than we protect.  What I'm alluding to here is what we in computer security always refer to as the "false sense of security".  It's like having anti-virus installed, running, and 2 years out of date.  Sure you have something there that makes you "feel good" that you're protected but in reality you're doing nothing for your actual security.

Think I'm crazy?  Think of how the last several uncovered and publicized terrorist plots have affected your life.  UK liquids plot ... 3.0oz or less in a plastic 1Qt baggie.  Shoe bomber ... take your shoes off and place them in the bin, or on the conveyor, no wait, in the bin.  Crotch-bomber nearly burns his twig n' berries off ... can't get up for last 60 minutes of flight and the pilot can't even point out what you're flying over anymore.  Do I need to continue?

Open your eyes and realize the terrorists are winning.  They're effectively changing our way of life.  They're forcing hapless, clueless government which we're all living under to enact changes that restrict our personal liberties and ability to move about our country freely.  They're drastically breaking the rights afforded to us against unwarranted search and seizure.  Hell, you can't even take a picture of a national monument without some rent-a-cop security guard in your face about it!

So let's take a minute to step back this holiday season and apply some logic.  If we continue to allow our politicians to create these knee-jerk, backwards-looking reactionary policies we will effectively paint ourselves into a corner the American people won't be able to get out of.  Think about it!  What if terrorists are discovered trying to make laptop battery bombs?  No more laptops on planes?!  What about iPod bombs?  No more iPods or worse yet, electronics, on planes?  At what point will air travel become so incomprehensibly painful and unnecessarily inconvenient that people simply stop leisure travel by air?  Have our politicians thought of what that does to the air travel industry?

I know I've heard people say that we get what we pay for, and that the TSA simply doesn't have enough money to work with... If I read this correctly the president's budget allocated over $6 Billion dollars for security, what have we done with that?!  From the Budget document:
"...Devotes nearly $6 billion to the multi-layered, risk-based aviation security system"

All I'm asking is that we evaluate the actions the TSA and the DHS are taking and see them for what they are - knee-jerk reactions to deter already-happened events.  We can't possibly keep our nation safe trying to prevent what's already happened, that's logical right?

Here's to hoping 2010 is a more prosperous, safer, and more logical year.

From his blog Chris Elliott has a great post about the schizophrenic TSA rules after this latest disaster near-miss.  Chris also has a few things to say about the TSA, go give him a read.


Steve said...

Nice article. I couldn't agree with you more. As someone who has a "liesure" flight scheduled soon, I am not looking forward to the idiotic "can't get up one hour before the flight ends" rule. What a load of crap, as I don't see how that particular rule will prevent anything. I'm seriously considering driving.

Armorguy said...

The terrorists are winning because you can only take 3 ounce containers of fluids onto a plane in carryon luggage?


I get the frustration with aviation security. It's maddening to deal with the changes since 9/11.

But, I'm going to challenge you and all of the commenters with these questions:

"What Should We Do Instead? Be specific and complete with your answers. Just saying "Not what the TSA does" will not cut it."


"How do propose implementing it?"

Have at it!

Unknown said...

@armorguy when did you become a TSA fanboy or their savior? And when did you start discounting the frustrations and thoughts of your peers so much?

The reality is that the TSA is terribly ineffective and focused on fighting yesterday’s war - I think you agree they are ineffective - if not I would like you to write a blog detailing why you feel they are effective and positioned to deal with tomorrow’s threats.

So if we agree they are ineffective, which I believe most do, then let's turn to your comments that go something like... well of course they are ineffective because of you taxpayer you don't want to pay for it? Really we don't? Again I ask where is the bill, measure, or bond requesting that we do, and again show me where anyone at TSA, the administration, anyone besides some lone TSA fanboy points to this as the problem (I'm only poking fun with the fanboy stuff - I do respect your thoughts). Additionally as I mentioned the TSA (as with many government agencies) is probably mismanaged leading to significant misspending. A through review and accounting of their own budget would likely lead to cost reductions throughout the organizations that could be reapplied to the more effective controls, such as full-body scanners.
So there is absolutely no proof this is a money problem

As you are probably somewhat aware terrorists want maximum impact, they want to impact our society, our way of life, they want us to live in fear and be inconvenienced, they want us to live every day knowing that they may be able reach out and kill us. So even though taking your shoes off when you fly, being strip-searched, mothers unable to carry certain liquid items like breast milk over a certain quantity, air travel that has turned from pleasant to acceptable to a total and utter nightmare doesn’t seem like the terrorists are winning for me personally it sure does feel that their tail is wagging this dog and many people feel the same way.

You are quick to discount others when they feel like their freedoms are being impacted, or the TSA is ineffective, or that the controls are a sign that yes the terrorists are winning but you so cavalierly defend the incompetence of the TSA – why?

Finally as to what the TSA should do, well they can start with this list:

- Hire qualified security personnel and pay commensurate with protecting our nations safety
- Train these personnel using the latest interrogation, law enforcement techniques, and teach them how to deal with mom and dad Ameria
- Implement annual testing and review
- Increase the number of air marshals
- Implement full-body scanners at all airports

But most important, as Schneir rightly points out in the article is all that we wouldn't see, such as increasing the intelligence apparatus, the inter-agency and international communication, etc...

If your response is "yeah well they don't have the money because the taxpayers won't give it to them, then this entire discussion is pointless"

- Amrit