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TSA reports 25,000 security breaches since 2001. House subcommittee to hear testimony from security directors

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Today, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Oversight and Government Reform will hold a hearing on airport perimeter security. According to documents released by the Department of Homeland Security, there have been more than 25,000 security breaches at U.S. airports since November 2001, reported USA Today.

The documents released don't provide details of the security breaches, but many argue that 25,000 is far too high, especially considering the amount of money being spent on airport security. However, Transportation Security Administration spokesman Nicholas Kimball told the publication that the breaches represent a tiny fraction of 1% of the air travelers who used U.S. airports in the past decade. The term "breach" is broadly defined and can mean accidental violations that pose no real danger to the public, he said.

At today's hearing, "TSA Oversight Part 2: Airport Perimeter Security", Rafi Ron, the former security director at Tel Aviv Ben-Gurion International Airport, will be providing testimony as will Jerry Orr, Airport Director and Operator, Charlotte International Airport.

I'll have a story based on their testimony for next week's Newswire, but here are some figures that will be introduced at the hearing today:

• 6,000 security breaches in which Transportation Security Administration screeners failed to screen, or improperly screened, a passenger or a passenger's carry-on items.

• 2,616 security breaches involving an individual gaining unauthorized access to the "sterile area" at screening checkpoints or an exit lane without submitting to all screening procedures and inspections.

• 1,026 incidents when someone gained unauthorized access to a sterile area but was "contained" or "constantly monitored" by airport or security personnel until apprehended.

• 1,318 incidents in which someone gained unauthorized access from airport perimeters to aircraft operations or security identification display areas and was under constant surveillance until apprehended.

DHS warns of surgically implanted bombs. Pistole: 'We can't eliminate that risk'

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Thursday, July 7, 2011

After all the hullabaloo over full-body x-ray machines being invasive, it turns out they may not be invasive enough. The Department of Homeland Security recently announced that Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen recently discussed surgically implanting an explosive device under the skin of a suicide bomber to get past airport detectors and blow up a U.S.-bound passenger plane, a U.S. official said Wednesday, according to this article in the Los Angeles Times.

While there is no evidence of an actual plot, the government has issued warnings to airports and stepped up security. My question is: How? How is it possible for TSA to possibly screen for this? The LA Times article suggests increasing the number of bomb-sniffing dogs as well as how many passengers are screened for explosive materials, but other than running people through x-ray machines, there's really no way to check for internal bombs.

Even John Pistole knows the TSA doesn't have the ability to do such internal screens. According to this article on Slate.com:

He was asked whether "current technology" could detect an explosive "in a body cavity," he said no. "If they do a body cavity bomb, we're not going to detect that," he told USA Today. "We can't eliminate that risk." Yesterday, the vice president of Rapiscan Systems, which makes the backscatter machines used in U.S. airports, agreed. The machines, he explained, are "designed to detect threats on the body, not in the body."

Basically, we're banking on the fact that it's not easy to surgically implant bombs in someone and even if it is implanted, hopefully something else will tip off screeners, like visible discomfort or stress from, you know, carrying a fricken bomb inside your body. I personally think the TSA should be training all of its officers in behavior detection skills so they can better identify suspicious people. And do we need a better reason to step up training than the prospect of people boarding planes with bombs in the bodies? I can't think of one either.

Is this video a breach in aviation security or just fun to watch?

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

There is never a shortage of potential blog opportunities about aviation security. As a matter of fact, I often have to hold myself back from sharing articles about the latest media firestorm involving the TSA.

For example, I just read this article that two Republican House members are calling for an investigation of the TSA after serious lapses in security led to the firing of dozens TSA employees at the Honolulu airport. Not familiar with that case? Check out this story. Basically, TSA employees weren't properly screening baggage.

Just yesterday, I posted a story about the Texas governor supporting and attempting to push through an "anti-groping" bill making it possible to criminalize enhanced pat downs at Texas airports. This bill previously passed the Texas House, but never made it to the Senate for a vote because the TSA sent a letter saying it wouldn't allow planes to come into the state's airports if passengers weren't being properly screened.

Texas's largest airport, Dallas Fort Worth, has had some security lapses of its own lately. Or that's what some people are saying after two filmmakers posted a video of themselves screwing around at the airport after their flight was canceled. Check it out:

I personally don't think these two men pose a real threat to aviation security (especially since they did have to go through security checkpoints), but the video certainly does reveal some shortcomings of internal security. The fact that they were able to break into the bar and help themselves to a beer would worry me if I were an airport vendor. In the CBS Early Show clip, airport officials say they were keeping an eye on the pair, but if they had seen some of the stuff they were doing (like pounding on the keyboard at the gate or breaking into a restaurant) I'm confident they would have done something about it.

What do you think?

Is this an example of security officials lacking awareness of activity happening in the airport? Or just two people having some harmless fun?

DHS to ease up on airport security policies? Maybe. Let's give it another year or two.

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Thursday, June 9, 2011

In the relatively near future you may not have to remove your laptop from your carry-on bag or your shoes from your feet before going through airport security. This potential change in security comes straight from the head honcho herself:

“We are looking at what we can do to minimize the amount of divestiture of passengers waiting in line so that it’s possible that most people can leave their shoes on,” DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano told the annual conference of the American Association of Exporters and Importers in New York on Tuesday, reported the The Journal of Commerce.

But she was clear this change would take time. Like, say, in a year or two. It takes time to adjust policies, people.

Speaking of policies, I also read this interesting article from The Economist. I'm not sure if you've been following the media stories about the woman who claimed she was molested by a TSA officer during security screening. A large part of the incident was captured on video by her son. That incident (and several in the recent past) have raised questions about the ability of passengers to video tape at security checkpoints. According to Blogger Bob, the official blogger for the TSA, the policy is currently under review.

The Economist author had an interesting point, I thought, and started out by tipping his/her hat to the way TSA saying the agency has been handling these public incidents "quickly and professionally with public statements and explanations of its policies."

Tightening the rules to defuse criticism, the Economist correspondent writes, will just be "another strike against an organization not known for its embrace of passenger rights."

He dismissed the argument that photography shouldn't be allowed for terrorism reasons, although I think that could be a good argument myself.

Also, the TSA is not budging on its liquid policy, apparently. I read this story a few days ago in The Guardian, the U.S. had warned the European Union Commission not to relax its liquids ban:

A planned change in liquids regulations for transfer passengers carrying duty free purchases on April 29, 2013, viewed as a step change to a complete lifting of the ban in two years' time, was cancelled at the 11th hour after the US warned that it would introduce its own measures in response.

That's too bad. I never remember to leave room in my checked luggage for those bottles of duty-free liquor when I fly internationally.

Hey TSA, don't mess with Texas.

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Friday, May 27, 2011

Texas is taking matters into its own hands when it comes to the Transportation Security Administration's enhanced pat down procedures - and it wants hands off.

The state's House passed HB 1937 that would make it a misdemeanor offense for a federal Transportation Security Administration agent to “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly [touch] the anus, sexual organ, buttocks, or breast” of a person going through airport security, according to this article in The Texas Tribune.

The bill is currently stalled in the Senate after the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to legislators on May 3 saying the bill would be in direct conflict with federal law and could lead to a shut down of Texas airports.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Dan Patrick, withdrew the legislation from consideration after a visit from TSA officials, which led to several Senators withdrawing their support for the legislation. So for now, Texans will have to endure the same enhanced screening as the rest of us.

Will the government revamp aviation security? Tom Ridge and other experts make recommendations in new report

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Complaints about aviation security will never end. Whether it's pissed off pilots or alleged high-doses of radiation from screening devices (certainly worthy of double-checking, don't get me wrong), there's always some sort of drama unfolding in the aviation security space.

Many security professionals would tell you (and have told me, as a matter of fact) that enhanced security measures in airports was a knee-jerk reaction to the events of 9/11. Was it an overreaction? Yeah, probably. But 9/11 was an event that changed the risk landscape in our country forever and made us all realize our gaping vulnerabilities. There are ongoing accusations that aviation security is just "security theater," but I strongly disagree, as I suspect most security professionals would. No one would ever say the Transportation Security Administration is perfect or that it's capable of stopping every person with ill intent. That's an impossible task. The TSA has admittedly gone through some serious trial and error to make the system work, and fails regularly in a very public way. Heck, the agency was so embattled it took a year and five months just to find someone who was willing to run it.

I just read a very interesting announcement that there could be some HUGE security changes coming down the pike. The U.S. Travel Association just finished up a year-long analysis of ways to improve air travel security and screening procedures. In case you're not familiar with this organization, they're a 2,100-member organization that "leverages the collective strength of those who benefit from travel to grow their business beyond what they can do individually" (which would mean pretty much any company, right?).

Recommendations based on this study were released in a report titled “A Better Way: Building a World Class System for Aviation Security.” An important recommendation to Congress was the need to authorize TSA to implement a new, voluntary, government-run trusted traveler program that utilizes a risk-based approach to checkpoint screening, with the goal of refocusing resources on the highest risk passengers. I think that would be smart and a lot of businesses would support bringing back a trusted traveler program for frequent travelers.

Also, an extremely important measure was in regards to the procurement of technology. With the ongoing debacle of whole-body imaging, the panel suggested that the TSA should develop a comprehensive strategy for implementing necessary checkpoint technology capabilities and that Congress should provide multi-year funding plans for TSA to execute this strategy. This kinda seems like a no-brainer, but apparently it isn't.

I thought the mention of developing risk-management methods and tools, while a very vague statement, could be critical as well. To me, this means adopting more of an Israeli approach to security. Pretty much every aviation security expert I've ever spoken to has acknowledged that the Israeli's have superior security measures, but such a system just isn't feasible due to the amount of air travelers in the U.S., especially if the goal is to IMPROVE efficiency for passengers. I understand and agree with that, but think the TSA could stand to improve its behavior detection training and other methods to identify travelers who may pose a risk (it's not profiling people, so just stop saying it).

Anyway, just to put an exclamation point on the report, here's what former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who was also a chair of this panel had to say: “A strong aviation security screening system must feature several characteristics, including efficient methods of deterring and interdicting terrorists and criminals; tailored security based upon risk assessment; frequent, clear communication with the traveling public; and cost-effective use of resources.”

Will anything come from this report? Hard to say not knowing.

TSA supervisor gets busted for helping smuggle 200 pounds of marijuana

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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Sometimes people's stupidity astounds me. While I try not to add to the sensational nature of much of the mainstream media's focus on the Transportation Security Administration, I couldn't let this one slip by. Here's a story from the New York Post about how a TSA supervisor who is accused of helping a man bypass airport security measures in order to smuggle cash and 200 POUNDS (!) of marijuana out of the state:

Behavior detection officer Minnetta Walker, 43 — whose position gave her free reign at the airport — used her status to help drug boss Derek Frank’s gang avoid full body scanners, luggae x-ray machines and secondary screening at the gates, authorities said.

First of all, I can't even imagine what 200 pounds of pot must look like. That's got to be at least several suitcases worth, right? I just don't understand how people think they could get away with such things, inside help or not. According to the article, Walker had been involved in such illegal activity since February 2010 and was only caught after she was wiretapped. But once again, more bad publicity for the TSA. It's pretty clear this agency will never be the recipients of good press, but I'm pretty sure John Pistole knew that going in.

FBI says no-fly list isn't as long as people think

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

On a recent business trip I sat next to a gentleman who told me he was on a government watchlist. Trying not to look nervous and in my head debating whether or not I should ask for a different seat, I asked him how he knew this. He said every time he went through security he was pulled aside and subjected to secondary screening. The man was obviously a seasoned business traveler and he said after the fourth or fifth time he started telling TSA officers that he was on the list. They immediately pulled him aside, screened him, and sent him on his way. "It's great," he told me. He hasn't waited in a security line since.

Well, few of us would have the same sentiment about being included on a government watchlist, especially the no-fly list. I just read an article on NPR that the FBI is saying the list isn't as long as people think:

"About 10,000," said Timothy Healy, director of the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, which maintains the list. "And [the number of] U.S. citizens on the no-fly list is even much smaller, between 500 and 1,000."

But, the government won't say who is or is not on the list. Douglas Laird (also of SDN fame) told NPR that the system isn't perfect—and would-be terrorists can get around it.

"If that person is a professional, it's too easy to change an identity, so for that reason I wouldn't put a lot of faith in the system," Laird says.

I think having such a system has its place - there are certainly people we don't want on planes - but like every other system, there needs to be checks and balances. Intelligence gathering is probably the most challenging, and, also one of the most important tasks for federal agencies and it has to continue refining such systems to make sure it only hinders the bad guys. And, the government also has to expand training so personnel can spot suspicious behavior or activity and people who aren't on such watchlists are still identified and scrutinized.

Moscow airport bombing is a stark reminder of what aviation security is up against

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Monday, January 24, 2011

As I continue to read reports coming in about the bombing at the Domodedovo airport in Moscow, I can't help but think that this should serve as a reminder to the public and aviation practitioners alike about what we're up against when it comes to securing the world's airports.

The latest news reports say 35 people have been killed and more than 100 injured from the blast that detonated in the international terminal at Moscow's busiest airport. Russian authorities are treating this as a terrorist attack, but no parties have yet taken responsibility for the attack.

Some are saying that this attack is evidence that Russia hasn't taken security seriously enough despite previous attacks:

Leonid Mlechin, an independent journalist who covers security issues, says the return of terrorism to Moscow shows that Russian security forces have failed to address the lessons of past terrorist attacks.

"This is a serious failure of special services," he says. "No one can carry out such acts alone. He needs to be trained, equipped, and supported by an organized group. Our intelligence services have clearly not been able to catch these groups."

While Russia has a long history of violence and unrest, those in aviation security in the U.S. and around the world must remain vigilant against such future attacks.

From "cooked rabbits" to fake White House emails - Welcome to the new year

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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Welcome to the new year. I took a week-long break from the working world, and I must say, it was wonderful. I actually unplugged myself for the most part, too, thanks to spotty cell phone coverage in northern Vermont and my parent's barely-better-than-dial-up satellite Internet. I highly recommend disconnecting, if even for a few days, it's very rejuvenating.

But now we're back and there's so much to catch up on. I'm getting excited for our upcoming conference, TechSec Solutions, which focuses on IP security technology. Our line up of speakers is looking great, covering everything from retail to critical infrastructure. For 2011 we're focusing largely on real-world situations and panels will be discussing ways that security folks have solved their biggest challenges by leveraging IP technology. The event is happening in Delray Beach, Fla., February 13-15th (can't beat Florida in February, now can you?).

In other news, things were somewhat quiet over the holidays (or compared to last year's Christmas Day bomber fiasco anyway). I've seen a few bizarre security stories come across my radar including this story about a man who accidentally butt-dialed his wife who thought he was being held hostage and called the police who then sent in the SWAT team. Oops.

Maybe you missed this story about a Yankee Stadium security guard who tried to get through airport security claiming he had "cooked rabbit" with him, but upon further investigation he actually had three large bricks of cocaine.

On a serious note, President Obama signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act, which is the largest overhaul of U.S. food safety laws in more than 70 years. The $1.4 billion legislation makes sweeping improvements to the security and safety of our nation’s food supply and gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authority to order product recalls, and requires food manufacturers to keep more detailed food safety plans.

In other White House news, an e-mailed Christmas greeting purportedly from the White House actually contained dangerous malware aimed at extracting sensitive financial data and documents from government employees. Yikes. Wonder what the cybersecurity czar thinks about this?

All in all, the year is off to an interesting start. Here's to hoping 2011 is a hell of a lot better than 2010.

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