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Professional Troublemaker

 Jonathan Corbett, Civil Rights Advocate

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Update: Newest TSA Carry-On X-Rays Can Indeed See Through Laptop Batteries

I just passed through a TSA checkpoint at Miami International Airport, where, during my pat-down after opting out of the body scanner, I was placed directly facing a monitor that showed a laptop that was being screened (notwithstanding that TSA policy is that such screens should be hidden from view of passengers).  From that image, it was clear that components underneath the battery of the laptop were indeed visible to the operator, and looked more like this image posted by bomb-detection specialists DSA Detection:

Laptop under AT X-Ray

In other words, lithium batteries are not completely opaque “black boxes” which airport x-rays cannot penetrate.

DSA Detection has been nice enough to publish a how-to guide to detecting explosives concealed in a laptop.  While the guide doesn’t go through how to detect an explosive specifically concealed within a battery, it is clear that the x-rays can penetrate through the battery.  Given that materials of different densities are color-coded differently, and given that the density of PETN is 1.77 g/cm3 and the density of C4 is 1.73 g/cm3, but the density of lithium metal is 0.53 g/cm3, there should be no reason why a properly calibrated x-ray with a well-trained and attentive operator cannot tell the difference between a lithium battery and a box filled with explosives.

Now, are the x-ray machines in the 10 airports subject to the current laptop ban of the newer technology which produces images like the one shown here, or the older that produces images like in my previous post?  I must assume that if DHS has used any logic whatsoever, these 10 airports are using the older technology and that’s why they’ve been shit-listed.  But there is no way all of Europe uses this older technology, and I truly hope that DHS’s European counterparts continue to resist the nagging of DHS to ban carry-on laptops anyway.  DHS should be helping any airport with inferior technology or training to get up to speed, not treating everyone outside of the country as if they are inept and inferior (especially when comparing others to the TSA… you know what they say about those in glass houses…).

Exclusive: Laptop Ban Reaction to X-Ray Equipment Stolen by ISIS

Carry-On X-Ray
Carry-On X-Ray Equipment.  Courtesy: Narita Airport

On March 21st, 2017, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ordered airlines flying to the U.S. out of 10 airports, mostly in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, to refuse to transport any electronic devices of iPad size or greater in their passenger compartments.  This effective ban on in-flight laptop usage on these flights, all of which would be between 6 and 12 hours in duration, assuredly caused any airline who uses those airports as a hub to face massive losses as travelers rush to connect through Europe instead.  For the last several weeks, DHS has allegedly been considering expanding the ban to all airports in Europe as well, a move which European officials seem to have talked our government down from.

What has been missing from the story is, “Why?”  Authorities have only disclosed a generalized fear that laptops could be used to conceal explosives, and have expressly denied a specific threat.  But laptops have been around for decades, and as surely any sophisticated terrorist has heard of timers, why does it matter if you ban them from the passenger cabin if you allow them in the cargo hold?

A commercial aviation security official that I have verified but will not publicly name has explained the rationale to me: x-ray equipment of the variety commonly used for screening carry-on baggage disappeared a few months ago from a location in the Middle East, and it is suspected (perhaps even recently confirmed, given the desire to expand the ban) that ISIS members have stolen the equipment such that they can study how to properly conceal an explosive.  Given that a bomb smuggled in a laptop exploded at an airport security checkpoint in Somalia on March 6th, 2017, it appears DHS has concluded that the theft was related and laptops were the concealment method of choice.

X-rayed Laptop
An x-rayed laptop. The battery is in the lower right.

It’s not bad reasoning since lithium batteries are completely opaque to x-rays, and therefore a battery-sized metal box filled with explosives would look exactly the same [Edit – This is not true for the newest technology x-rays… read more…].  But, there’s three problems with the reaction that make the laptop ban the wrong idea:

  1. Once the laptop ban was put in place, anyone who planned to use a laptop to conceal a bomb was tipped off and will simply try another approach.  This is reminiscent of the failed “toner cartridge bomb,” after which the U.S banned toner cartridges from flights.  But obviously, a toner cartridge is only what they chose that day… a stereo, Xbox, or, well, laptop, would have worked just as well.  Likewise, just because they’re doing it in carry-ons now does not mean they won’t switch to checked baggage next.
  2. A laptop battery actually holds similar energy to a small bomb.  While it’s not easy to make a laptop battery release that energy all at once in an explosion, a fire in the cargo hold created by batteries malfunctioning (not Galaxy S7!) resulted in at least 2 deaths by plane crash so far (all-cargo, not passenger, flight, thankfully).  By forcing all these batteries into the cargo hold where a fire cannot be rapidly detected and contained, DHS would be countering any deceased risk of terror with an increased risk of fire.
  3. It is simply not economically viable.  Taking away what would surely amount to millions of man-hours of productivity every year is simply not the solution (exactly $1.1B of loss, industry group IATA estimates, quite conservatively in my opinion).  It would be far less economically impactful to swab every laptop that comes through the checkpoint for explosive trace residue.

So why was the stolen x-ray equipment kept a secret?  I asked my source if there was some security reason for keeping the stolen x-ray equipment from the public, and was told, unequivocally, no.  “It’s because the mom from the midwest planning to fly her kids to Disney would freak out.  They are worried that people would stop flying if they knew.”

My thought would be that the public would be much more understanding if the government was more forthcoming.  But apparently the U.S. government feels that you can’t handle the truth and therefore hides behind secrecy laws to withhold the full story.  This hiding is, of course, illegal, since, with exceptions not relevant, to withhold information as “sensitive security information” (SSI) requires that the release of the information would be “detrimental to the security of transportation,” not detrimental to mom’s willingness to go on vacation (49 C.F.R. § 1520.5(a)(3)).  The TSA, a sub-component of DHS, is well-known for using the · SSI designation in an · “inconsistent and arbitrary” nature, as well as merely to avoid embarrassment, so it is not particularly surprising when the parent agency does so as well.  [I have reached out to the DHS press office, which has declined to comment on this story.]

(Note that my source did not specify whether this information was SSI, classified, or otherwise protected, but I assume it is presently SSI and not classified given my source’s role and reports that U.S. authorities have discussed the situation with airline officials, which would not be done for classified information.)

Putting together one more piece of the puzzle, it seems to me that the classified information leaked by President Trump to the Russians earlier this month was very likely the details (beyond that which are reported here and beyond my knowledge) about the how the government was able to infiltrate ISIS to investigate the use of the stolen x-ray machines.  Most news organizations did not report the nature of Trump’s disclosure other than that it related to “a plot by Islamic State,” although the Washington Post actually did describe it as laptop-ban related.   So at the same time as the American people are mislead about the risks of flying, the Russians were given more information than the airlines and airport operators who are responsible for actually keeping bombs off of planes.

So, to recap: the government lied to us when they said there wasn’t a specific threat, they withheld information from us because they thought we’d be scared, and they implemented a laptop ban that will be ineffective and expensive at best, dangerous (as a result of increased fire risk) at worst.  Business as usual.


“Jon Corbett is a civil rights advocate known for filing the first lawsuit against the deployment of TSA nude body scanners, as well as defeating the body scanners live in ‘How to Get ANYTHING Through TSA Nude Body Scanners.’  Presently a law student, he continues to advocate for travel and privacy rights.  Twitter: @_JonCorbett, Web: https://professional-troublemaker.com/

Fighting for civil rights in court is expensive!  Want to contribute to the fight against government assholery? Donate via PayPal, Venmo, Chace QuickPay, Bitcoin, or check

DHS Quietly Testing Mandatory Facial Recognition of Passengers *Exiting* U.S.

facescanWe’re all used to having to identify ourselves as we enter a country.  It is the only way we can hope to have any attempt at a secure border.  But, so-called “exit controls,” where documents are checked as travelers are leaving the country, were popularized last century by Nazi Germany as a great way to ensure that they could control, round up, and exterminate the Jews and other “undesirables.”  It can obviously serve no purpose of keeping terrorists out, because it only affects those who are already in.  The U.S. has never had exit controls, although they remain popular in Europe, Russia, and China.

Last week, privacy advocate and blogger Jeffrey Tucker posted his experience before a flight from Atlanta to Mexico:

Halfway down the jetbridge, there was a new layer of security. Two US Marshals, heavily armed and dressed in dystopian-style black regalia, stood next to an upright machine with a glowing green eye. Every passenger, one by one, was told to step on a mat and look into the green scanner. It was scanning our eyes and matching that scan with the passport, which was also scanned (yet again).

Welcome Aboard, But First U.S. Marshals Will Scan Your Retina,” published 2/25/2017.

A bit of research uncovered that CBP announced a 2-month pilot program last year for flights between Atlanta and Japan in which they would be doing facial scans as passengers were about to board their flights:.

As part of the testing, travelers will present their boarding pass while their digital photo is taken. The process will take less than three seconds before travelers proceed to the passenger loading bridge to board their flight. Travelers over the age of 14 and under 79 will be required to participate in the test. The test will evaluate CBP’s ability to successfully compare the image of a traveler taken during departure against an image the traveler previously provided, in an automated fashion and without impacting airport operations.

This was, apparently, announced sufficiently quietly that I had not before heard of the program.  The 2 month window has expired, and there is no mention on their Web site, that I can find, of a new program between Atlanta and Mexico.  But, it seems to me that the likely scenario is that CBP has re-started this program and Mr. Tucker confused U.S. Marshals with CBP officers, and retinal scanning with face recognition scanners (not that it makes a difference in terms of our privacy).

What exactly is the point of this?  Are we hoping to catch someone who has overstayed their visa so that we can stop them from leaving, then take them into custody so that the taxpayer can fund their leaving?  It may simply be a dumb idea, or it may be a far more sinister plan to further control the movements of everyone in the country, citizen or otherwise.

Either way, count me out, and I encourage you to refuse as well.

Transcript of Oral Arguments in Muslim Ban Case Shows Department of Justice Entirely Lost on How to Defend; Trump Fires Acting Attorney General

darweesh_transcriptBefore U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly issued a temporary restraining order against
Donald Trump and the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol from enforcing a “Muslim ban” — prohibiting travel by green card holders and individuals with refugee status from 7 Muslim-majority countries — a hearing was held in which both attorneys for plaintiff Darweesh and attorneys from the Department of Justice for the government appeared.  Early media reports indicated that the U.S. Attorneys were entirely unprepared and had no defense for Trump’s executive order.  And, yesterday, Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, allegedly after “she defiantly refused to defend his executive order closing the nation’s borders to refugees and people from predominantly Muslim countries,” according to the New York Times.

I noticed on the docket today (PDF or live version if you have a PACER account) that the transcript of these oral arguments was ready but not available over the Court’s Web site.  I managed to obtain a copy anyway which I’m now publishing for you all.

Darweesh v. DHS – Transcript of Oral Arguments on Motion for TRO, 1/28/2017 (.pdf)

Some highlights:

  1. There were five attorneys from the government there — four from the U.S. Attorney’s office and one from U.S. Customs & Border Patrol.  Not a single one of them, at any point in the 21 pages of transcript, even remotely attempted to argue that Trump’s order was lawful and the plaintiffs could not succeed on the merits.
  2. The test for whether to issue a stay is a balancing of whether: 1) the requesting party is likely to succeed on the merits, 2) the requesting party will suffer irreparable injury, 3) the opposing party will be injured, and 4) the public’s interest will be harmed.  The only one the government even tried to address was irreparable injury, by saying that Darweesh was already released and therefore couldn’t be harmed.  The judge was not interested.
    not_so_moot
  3. But, the 3 attorneys for the plaintiff from the ACLU successfully argued that they would likely meet the requirements to proceed as a class-action, and thus were arguing on behalf of everyone who was detained or threatened with deportation under Trump’s new order — so Darweesh being released didn’t end the case.
  4. The judge made clear that her ruling applied to all affected by Trump’s order.  Thus, if at other airports across the country CBP was still detaining people, they were clearly in violation of the court’s order.  And for those who feel that Trump’s order is totally constitutional, the judge specifically ruled that it was likely that plaintiffs could prove otherwise:
    so_classy
  5. The judge at times was clearly irritated with the government’s lack of response to her questions, and at one point told them that they would not be able to speak any longer.say_no_more_fam

Apparently, Trump is upset that his Acting Attorney General refused to defend his executive order.  But the real question is: What defense could they have plausibly given, especially given that apparently Trump gave the Department of Justice no notice of his plans?

If you want your executive agencies to work with you, they have to be kept in the loop.  Even then, however, it will be a hard sell for any attorney to walk into a courtroom with a straight face and say that the executive order by the guy who said he’d ban Muslims isn’t about banning Muslims, but just happens to be directed at 7 almost-all-Muslim countries.

I don’t envy anyone in the U.S. Attorney’s office’s civil litigation division right now.  They’re not getting paid enough for this shit.


“Jon Corbett is a civil rights advocate known for filing the first lawsuit against the deployment of TSA nude body scanners, as well as defeating the body scanners live in ‘How to Get ANYTHING Through TSA Nude Body Scanners.’  Presently a law student, he continues to advocate for travel and privacy rights.  Twitter: @_JonCorbett, Web:https://professional-troublemaker.com/

Fighting for civil rights in court is expensive!  Want to contribute to the fight against government assholery? Donate via PayPal, Venmo, Chace QuickPay, Bitcoin, or check

DHS Wants Tourists To List Their Facebook Accounts to Enter Country

If you’re a non-U.S. citizen entering the U.S. with a passport issued by one of our friends in Europe, you can enter “without a visa” by completing an “Electronic System for Travel Authorization” form online and paying a fee (which, if you think about it, is really no different from getting a visa… it’s just you print a piece of paper instead of get a mark in your passport).

The questions on the application are mostly the typical stuff you’d expect we might ask those entering our country, but DHS now proposes to add one more:

“Please enter information associated with your online presence—Provider/Platform—Social media identifier.”

What’s wrong with that?  Well, I’ve explained in a letter opposing the proposed rule that there are many problems with this.  The first is that it’s not even clear what one would need to disclose, and sometimes disclosure may be a troubling basis for discrimination:

Do I need to think back to the MySpace account that I created in 2003 and have not used since 2006?  If I have a username for a chat room or message board, does that count?  What about Tinder?  Or perhaps I use the popular dating app for gay men known as Grindr.  Do you think it’s reasonable that I would then need to indirectly disclose my sexual preference as a condition of entering this country?  Or perhaps I use the Web site for connecting individuals with sexual fetishes known as FetLife.  Will you then review my FetLife account and determine if my preferred variety of kinky sex is acceptable?  If it is uncovered that I enjoy being dominated by women in latex bodysuits while ball gagged, will a CBP officer consider me the same level of security risk as one who prefers long walks on the beach and seeks a partner who loves Jesus?  Speaking of Jesus, many people use social networking related to their religion (Christian Mingle, JDate, etc.).  Now you’d like to know my religion, too?

Not particularly worried since you’re a U.S. citizen and therefore won’t have to personally deal with this problem?  Think again…

When the U.S. government implements a stupid rule affecting foreign visitors, other countries implement retaliatory rules on U.S. citizens seeking to enter their territory. …  Many other countries require visa fees only from U.S. citizens (or higher visa fees only for U.S. citizens), or fingerprinting only for U.S. citizens, in retaliation for what we do to their citizens.  I don’t want to have to share my Facebook details in order to travel, and if you implement this rule, it is all but certain that I shall have to do so as other countries decide to implement retaliatory rules.

It would be nice if DHS, for once, could do something that would actually improve our safety rather than play around with technology that they know nothing about.

[Edit – Online comments are now allowed from the public!  Let DHS know what you think!]

DHS Purchases 2,700 Tanks for Domestic Use

http://www.thegatewaypundit.com/2013/03/obama-dhs-purchases-2700-light-armored-tanks-to-go-with-their-1-6-billion-bullet-stockpile/

If we do not start making changes now, you will see these in your neighborhood. Again, that timeframe to act is now. Please share, call your reps (much harder to ignore phone calls than e-mails), and demand change.

DHS “Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties” Admits It Is A Farce

I mean, they didn’t say that explicitly, but you be the judge: the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was asked to review the policy of DHS’s Customs and Border Patrol regarding conducting suspicionless searches of electronic media (generally, your laptop) at border crossings. This policy means that any time you enter the country, the government feels it has the right to look through all the documents on your hard drive, even if there’s no reason at all to suspect that you might be engaged in criminal activity.

The review concluded that “imposing a requirement that officers have reasonable suspicion in order to conduct a border search of an electronic device would be operationally harmful without concomitant civil rights/civil liberties benefit.”

Do you see a problem here with an office, whose job it is to ensure that an agency respects the civil rights of the people, that does not understand how requiring the government to have a reason before it paws through the photos of your kids and wife (yeah, those photos!), reads through all of your e-mail, and makes sure the music you’re listening to and books you’re reading are not “suspicious,” would have a civil liberties benefit? DHS does this, ostensibly, to prevent the trafficking of child pornography and corporate espionage. I’m no expert on either subject, but it would seem to me that if one were to engage in either crime, wouldn’t they simply upload their contraband to a secure location on the Internet, where they can easily download it at their destination, rather than travel the globe with it sitting on their hard drive?

It seems clear to me that the alleged desired benefit of these searches is unobtainable since they are easier to circumvent than the TSA’s body scanners. It seems clear to me that this is a new technique to spy on the citizens, collect data (“Oh, Mr. Corbett here has files on his hard drive relating to aviation security… let’s put him in a database!”), and chip away at the Fourth Amendment. It seems clear to me that this furthers the government’s, and particularly the Obama administration’s, desire to fellate the copyright industry — from its absurd extrajudicial prosecution of Megaupload, to its attempts to pass SOPA and related laws, to these hard drive searches at borders that have already seen travelers questioned about whether they illegally downloaded songs and movies.

While this battle is fought on the legal front, you can protect your data now: free software such as TrueCrypt can scramble the data on your computer such that, if done right, it cannot be unscrambled without the correct password, even by the government (and, even if the government can decrypt your hard drive, they won’t: to admit that they know how to break the world’s strongest encryption algorithm would be giving away a secret that is worth much more than prosecuting you). As U.S. Courts of Appeals have refused to compel people to provide passwords, for the time being, encryption allows you to force the government to respect your rights.

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