What Kip Hawley Doesn’t Understand About Terrorism

Former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley was on NPR a few minutes ago, opining on the 2nd panty bomber. He said two remarkable things. First, that the operators of nudatrons, who see thousands of naked people per day, would notice the bomb. Second, he didn’t understand why Al Qaeda would continue to focus on underwear bombs.

Once again, Kip’s wrong.

First, Kip is wrong, and ought to know he’s wrong about those operators. Those operators are likely to get bored and be unable to focus on the images after a while. That’s why the TSA inserts fake images of weapons in its XRays. Detecting these anomalies is hard. (Perhaps TSA inserts fake images in the nudatron images, but I didn’t see any mention of such functionality in the system requirements that EPIC forced TSA to release.

Second, he doesn’t understand why Al Qaeda would focus on underwear bombs. Really? You don’t get that for a failed attempt, millions of people will be photographed naked, groped and humiliated? They focus on the things that make the bureaucracy that Hawley built convulse. That bomb didn’t even make it onto the plane, and we’re all expecting the next shoe to drop.

The TSA’s Approach to Threat Modeling

“I understand people’s frustrations, and what I’ve said to the TSA is that you have to constantly refine and measure whether what we’re doing is the only way to assure the American people’s safety. And you also have to think through are there other ways of doing it that are less intrusive,” Obama said.

“But at this point, TSA in consultation with counterterrorism experts have indicated to me that the procedures that they have been putting in place are the only ones right now that they consider to be effective against the kind of threat that we saw in the Christmas Day bombing.” (“Obama: TSA pat-downs frustrating but necessary“)

I’ve spent the last several years developing tools, techniques, methodologies and processes for software threat modeling. I’ve taught thousands of people more effective ways to threat model. I’ve released tools for threat modeling, and even a game to help people learn to threat model. (I should note here that I am not speaking for my employer, and I’m now focused on other problems at work.) However, while I worked on software threat modeling, not terror threat modeling, the President’s statement concerns me. Normally, he’s a precise speaker, and so when he says “effective against the kind of threat that we saw in the Christmas Day bombing,” I worry.

In particular, the statement betrays a horrific backwards bias. The right question to ask is “will this mitigation protect the system against the attack and predictable improvements?” The answer is obviously “no.” TSA has smart people working there, why are they letting that be the headline question?

The problems are obvious. For example, in a Flyertalk thread, Connie asks: “If drug mules swallow drugs and fly, can’t terrorists swallow explosive devices?” and see also “New threat to travellers from al-Qaeda ‘keister bomb’.”

Half of getting the right answer is asking the right questions. If the question the President is hearing is “what can we do to protect against the threat that we saw in the Christmas day bombing (attempt)” then there are three possible interpretations. First is that the right question is being asked at a technical level, and the wrong question is being asked at the top. Second, the wrong questions are being asked up and down the line. Third is that the wrong question is being asked at the top, but it’s the right question for a TSA Administrator who wants to be able to testify before Congress that “everything possible was done.”

I’ve said before and I’ll say again, there are lots of possible approaches to threat modeling, and they all involve tradeoffs. I’ve commented that much of the problem is the unmeetable demands TSA labors under, and suggested fixes. If TSA is trading planned responses to Congress for effective security, I think Congress ought to be asking better questions. I’ll suggest “how do you model future threats?” as an excellent place to start.

Continuing on from there, an effective systematic approach would involve diagramming the air transport system, and ensuring that everyone and everything who gets to the plane without being authorized to be on the flight deck goes through reasonable and minimal searches under the Constitution, which are used solely for flight security. Right now, there’s discrepancies in catering and other servicing of the planes, there’s issues with cargo screening, etc.

These issues are getting exposed by the red teaming which happens, but that doesn’t lead to a systematic set of balanced defenses.

As long as the President is asking “Is this effective against the kind of threat that we saw in the Christmas Day bombing?” we’ll know that the right threat models aren’t making it to the top.

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

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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.

Dear England, may we borrow Mr. Cameron for a bit?

Back when I commented on David Cameron apologizing for Bloody Sunday, someone said “It’s important to remember that it’s much easier to make magnanimous apologise about the behaviour of government agents when none of those responsible are still in their jobs.” Which was fine, but now Mr. Cameron is setting up an investigation into torture by UK security services. (“
Britain Pledges Inquiry Into Torture
.”

And yes, it’s certainly more fun to investigate the opposition, but…I’d really like to bring Mr. Cameron over here for a little while. Some investigations would do us, and our fight against al Qaeda, a great deal of good.

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.

What the FBI Was Doing on Beethoven’s Birthday

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This is unfair, but I can’t resist. Nine days before we found out again that PETN is hard to detonate, the FBI was keeping us safe:

FBI FINALLY MAKES AN ARREST OVER ‘WOLVERINE’ LEAK

The FBI has announced the capture of an individual connected with the leak of 20th Century Fox’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”

“Wolverine” has raked in nearly $375 million in worldwide gross since its release. How much money the leak cost Fox will never be settled for certain.

I’m glad we’re spending money on things to keep us safe.

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!

Observations on the Christmas Bomber

Since there’s been so much discussion about the Chrismas Bomber, I want to avoid going over the same ground everyone else is. So as much as I can, I’m going to try to stick to lightly-treaded ground.

This is a failure for the terrorists. A big one. Think about it; put yourself on the other side of the chessboard and read this movie-plot description. Yemeni Al Qaeda has a newly-radicalized, rich engineering student who wants to strike a blow against the evilness of George Clooney and Vera Farmiga. Despite being ratted out by his father, the student gets a visa, likely because he’s “wealthy, quiet, unassuming.” Using the very clever tactic of getting on a plane in Africa and transferring onto an American flight, he has one of the most powerful high explosives known sewn into his pants. Before landing in MoTown, he — fails to detonate it. Think about that again. An engineering student from one of the best universities in the world fails to set off a bomb in his lap. Worse, he ended up with a fire in his pants, leading to many humiliating jokes.

Fail, fail, fail. Epic fail. Face-palm-worthy epic fail. Worse, the US is sending counter-terrorism folks to Yemen to help find the people who planned this epic failure. For them, this is just bad, and about as bad as it gets. Supposedly, recruit these guys with promises of a half-gross of virgins, not with burning their nuts off. Ridicule is one of the most powerful forces there is, and this is deserved.

On top of this, now that the would-be bomber has been captured, he is singing like the proverbial canary. So that means that the planners really should be looking for new places to stay, because even their allies will want to purge losers from their ranks, or at least not take the fall for them.

Yet, all is not lost for the forces of terrorism. The world’s security services have panicked and instituted to security procedures that will actually make it easier for the next person by setting up rules that everyone’s supposed to stay in their seats in the last hour of flight. But that’s pretty slim pickings for them. It’s not even as good as the one-last-shocker in the traditional horror film.

Defense-in-Depth Works. The major problem in fighting terrorism is that the fraction of figure to ground is between six and nine orders of magnitude. If you look at it as a signal processing issue, that’s -60 to -90 decibels of signal in noise.

Any detection system has to deal with false positives and false negatives. In the counter-terrorism biz, that means you have to deal with the inevitability that for every terrorist, you’ll be stopping tens if not hundreds of thousands of innocents. And remember as well, the times that the terrorist is not actually on a terror mission, they’re innocents.

So yeah, the guy was on a watch list. So are a million other people. (And yes, this is a reason why we need to trim the watch list, but that’s a different issue and has a different set of problems.) (And yes, yes, those million other people are only the US citizens on the list.) This still leaves the problem of what they’re supposed to do when some rich guy complains that his son has fallen in with the wrong crowd.

Here are some hard questions: Do we search every kid who pissed off a relative? Do we search everyone who ever went to Yemen? Damascus? How about people who change planes? Travel in carry-on? Have funny underwear?

The answer is that we can’t do that, and even if we do, we merely teach the bad guys how to adapt. The point of defense-in-depth is that you stack a series of defenses, each of which is only a partial solution and the constellation of them works, not any given one. Airport screening worked some — he didn’t get in a good detonator. Passenger resistance worked some — once there was a firecracker-like explosion and a fire, they saved the plane. Defense-in-depth in toto worked.

This is not the reason to disband DHS. This is not the reason to sack Napolitano. Note that I did not say that DHS shouldn’t be disbanded. Nor did I say that Napolitano shouldn’t be sacked, merely that if you’re looking for a reason, this isn’t it.

If we look at what happened and think about what we could do better, DHS isn’t involved. The visa issue is the one to examine and DHS doesn’t give out visas, State does.

My criticism of DHS is that they flinched. They’ve put up these brain-dead stupid policies that are going to annoy travelers and are as likely to make us less safe, not more safe. They should have said that the system worked and there will be no changes so have a happy new year and stay calm.

I am willing to cut them a bit of slack, but if they don’t change their tune to “Keep Calm and Carry On,” then there will be a reason to start demanding heads. Sending people to Yemen was the right response. No headphones on the plane is the wrong one.

If DHS and TSA want to give people reason to call for firings and disbandings, they should keep doing what they’re doing now, not then.

Life is Risk. Keep calm and carry on is good advice for the rest of us, too. The vast majority of us are more likely to be struck by lightning while being eaten by a shark than we are to be a victim of a terrorist. Nonetheless, there are bad, crazy people out there. Sooner or later, no matter what we do, somethings’s going to happen. A plane will go down, a ship will have a bomb on it, a train will be attacked, or something will happen.

The actual risk of terrorism is so low that most adaptations are worse than the threat. More people died in traffic accidents as a result of shunning airplanes after 9/11 than in the actual attacks. After those attacks, the best terrorist second punch would have been a simple suicide bomber in the airport security lines.

When we wring our hands because we think that risk should be zero, we’re part of the problem, too. Schneier is right: we need more investigation and counter-terrorism and less security. Kudos to CNN and Maddow for airing a bit of reason.

So we should all thank our lucky stars that PETN isn’t as easy to detonate as we’re told. We should thank the same stars for passenger resistance. And we should breathe a sigh of relief for an incident that was botched so badly it’ll make others think twice or three times or more. And while you’re at it, don’t play with sharks in a thunderstorm.