“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov
Tag Archives: Transportation Security Administration
The competence of the Transportation Security Administration is being called into question after agents failed to find fake explosives and weapons in more than 60 tests at the nation’s largest airports.
Acting TSA Administrator Melvin Carraway was removed from office on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the report’s findings went public, and lawmakers are demanding a broader overhaul of the agency before it’s too late.
Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said the results of the undercover TSA probe were “shocking,” and called for “immediate action.”
“This has got to be a top-to-bottom effort looking at the trainers, how we hire them, how we train them, how they perform their jobs, looking at the equipment that’s supposed to detect a lot of this stuff,” Coats said on Fox News.
The TSA is coming under scrutiny, after the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general (IG) documented a series of undercover stings in which agents tried to pass through security with prohibited items.
The undercover agents made it through security in nearly all the tests — 67 of 70 — including one instance where a TSA screener failed to find a fake bomb, even after the undercover agent set off a magnetometer. The screener reportedly let the agent through with the fake bomb taped to his back, having missed it during a pat-down.
The leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee expressed alarm over the findings, warning they could encourage groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to attempt an attack.
The Transportation Security Administration has found yet another way to make traveling terrible: Passengers boarding U.S.-bound flights at some foreign airports will not be allowed to board with electronic devices that don’t have enough juice to turn on. Forget to charge your gadget and being stuck in line without the joy of checking Twitter is the least of your worries. You’ll have to throw your phone away when it’s finally your turn to run the screening gauntlet.
The new rule—announced with no explanation of why it’s been created—has been widely and swiftly lampooned as one more example of TSA nonsense. It’s impressive that the agency has managed to make the already crummy ordeal of flying even worse. But don’t assume this is more TSA idiocy just yet.
The rule change may be obnoxious, but it’s not stupid, says Rafi Ron, the former director of security at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport, notorious for its strict screening procedures. The TSA is likely responding to new intelligence that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has developed explosives that are difficult to detect with current technology, Ron says. That calls for a change in procedure.
“I think that the measures that are taken make a lot of sense,” Ron says.
It should be noted that Ron is not a TSA apologist. He’s the guy who called the agency’s decision to make us all remove our shoes in response to Richard Reid’s shoe bomb debacle “an extremely unintelligent conclusion.”
The National Security Agency is harvesting huge numbers of images of people from communications that it intercepts through its global surveillance operations for use in sophisticated facial recognition programs, according to top-secret documents.
The spy agency’s reliance on facial recognition technology has grown significantly over the last four years as the agency has turned to new software to exploit the flood of images included in emails, text messages, social media, videoconferences and other communications, the N.S.A. documents reveal. Agency officials believe that technological advances could revolutionize the way that the N.S.A. finds intelligence targets around the world, the documents show. The agency’s ambitions for this highly sensitive ability and the scale of its effort have not previously been disclosed.
The agency intercepts “millions of images per day” — including about 55,000 “facial recognition quality images” — which translate into “tremendous untapped potential,” according to 2011 documents obtained from the former agency contractor Edward J. Snowden. While once focused on written and oral communications, the N.S.A. now considers facial images, fingerprints and other identifiers just as important to its mission of tracking suspected terrorists and other intelligence targets, the documents show.
“It’s not just the traditional communications we’re after: It’s taking a full-arsenal approach that digitally exploits the clues a target leaves behind in their regular activities on the net to compile biographic and biometric information” that can help “implement precision targeting,” noted a 2010 document.
One N.S.A. PowerPoint presentation from 2011, for example, displays several photographs of an unidentified man — sometimes bearded, other times clean-shaven — in different settings, along with more than two dozen data points about him. These include whether he was on the Transportation Security Administration no-fly list, his passport and visa status, known associates or suspected terrorist ties, and comments made about him by informants to American intelligence agencies.
It is not clear how many people around the world, and how many Americans, might have been caught up in the effort. Neither federal privacy laws nor the nation’s surveillance laws provide specific protections for facial images. Given the N.S.A.’s foreign intelligence mission, much of the imagery would involve people overseas whose data was scooped up through cable taps, Internet hubs and satellite transmissions.
Because the agency considers images a form of communications content, the N.S.A. would be required to get court approval for imagery of Americans collected through its surveillance programs, just as it must to read their emails or eavesdrop on their phone conversations, according to an N.S.A. spokeswoman. Cross-border communications in which an American might be emailing or texting an image to someone targeted by the agency overseas could be excepted.
Civil-liberties advocates and other critics are concerned that the power of the improving technology, used by government and industry, could erode privacy. “Facial recognition can be very invasive,” said Alessandro Acquisti, a researcher on facial recognition technology at Carnegie Mellon University. “There are still technical limitations on it, but the computational power keeps growing, and the databases keep growing, and the algorithms keep improving.”
State and local law enforcement agencies are relying on a wide range of databases of facial imagery, including driver’s licenses and Facebook, to identify suspects. The F.B.I. is developing what it calls its “next generation identification” project to combine its automated fingerprint identification system with facial imagery and other biometric data.
The State Department has what several outside experts say could be the largest facial imagery database in the federal government, storing hundreds of millions of photographs of American passport holders and foreign visa applicants. And the Department of Homeland Security is funding pilot projects at police departments around the country to match suspects against faces in a crowd.
The N.S.A., though, is unique in its ability to match images with huge troves of private communications.
“We would not be doing our job if we didn’t seek ways to continuously improve the precision of signals intelligence activities — aiming to counteract the efforts of valid foreign intelligence targets to disguise themselves or conceal plans to harm the United States and its allies,” said Vanee M. Vines, the agency spokeswoman.
She added that the N.S.A. did not have access to photographs in state databases of driver’s licenses or to passport photos of Americans, while declining to say whether the agency had access to the State Department database of photos of foreign visa applicants. She also declined to say whether the N.S.A. collected facial imagery of Americans from Facebook and other social media through means other than communications intercepts.
“The government and the private sector are both investing billions of dollars into face recognition” research and development, said Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer and expert on facial recognition and privacy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. “The government leads the way in developing huge face recognition databases, while the private sector leads in accurately identifying people under challenging conditions.”
Ms. Lynch said a handful of recent court decisions could lead to new constitutional protections for the privacy of sensitive face recognition data. But she added that the law was still unclear and that Washington was operating largely in a legal vacuum.
Laura Donohue, the director of the Center on National Security and the Law at Georgetown Law School, agreed. “There are very few limits on this,” she said.
And yes, we were laughing. Confessions of an ex-TSA agent.
On Jan. 4, 2010, when my boss saw my letter to the editor in the New York Times, we had a little chat.
It was rare for the federal security director at Chicago O’Hare to sit down with her floor-level Transportation Security Administration officers—it usually presaged a termination—and so I was nervous as I settled in across the desk from her. She was a woman in her forties with sharp blue eyes that seemed to size you up for placement in a spreadsheet. She held up a copy of the newspaper, open to the letters page. My contribution, under the headline “To Stop a Terrorist: No Lack of Ideas,” was circled in blue pen.
One week earlier, on Christmas Day 2009, a man named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had tried to detonate 80 grams of a highly explosive powder while on Northwest Airlines Flight 253. He had smuggled the bomb aboard the plane in a pouch sewn into his underwear. It was a masterpiece of post-9/11 tragicomedy: Passengers tackled and restrained Abdulmutallab for the remainder of the flight, and he succeeded in burning nothing besides his own genitals.
The TSA saw the near-miss as proof that aviation security could not be ensured without the installation of full-body scanners in every U.S. airport. But the agency’s many critics called its decision just another knee-jerk response to an attempted terrorist attack. I agreed, and wrote to the Times saying as much. My boss wasn’t happy about it.
“The problem we have here is that you identified yourself as a TSA employee,” she said.
They were words I had heard somewhere before. Suddenly, the admonishment from our annual conduct training flashed through my head—self-identifying as a government employee in a public forum may be grounds for termination.
I was shocked. I had been sure the letter would fall under the aegis of public concern, but it looked as though my boss wanted to terminate me. I scrambled for something to say.
“I thought the First Amendment applied here.”
She leaned back in her chair, hands up, palms outfaced. Now she was on the defensive.
“I’m not trying to tread upon your First Amendment rights,” she said. “All I’m saying is: Couldn’t you have run those First Amendment rights past the legal department first?”
She dismissed me with the assurance that we would discuss the matter further at some point in the future.
I never heard anything more about it during the next three years of my employment at the TSA, save for some grumbling from one upper-level manager (“What’s this I hear about you writing letters to the New York Times? You can’t do that here.”) It was the last time I would speak out as a government employee under my real name.
But it was by no means the last time I would speak out.
Both lawmakers and the president have called for airport security reviews. | Reuters
Friday’s slaying of a Transportation Security Administration officer at Los Angeles International Airport is fueling calls from union leaders to give some of the agency’s employees guns, handcuffs and the power to make arrests.
But that would be a tough sell for many conservatives in Congress, where some lawmakers until recently were trying to take away TSA agents’ badges.
Federal prosecutors have filed homicide and other charges against 23-year-old Los Angeles resident Paul Ciancia, whom authorities have suggested was specifically targeting TSA employees.
Both lawmakers and the Obama administration have called for reviewing airport security procedures after the shooting spree. But union officials are already offering a concrete proposal: create a new category of TSA agent in addition to the 45,000 existing screeners. People in the new positions would be law enforcement officers, who could carry handcuffs and firearms as well as make arrests.