Security Roundup Friday 4 March 2011

Usice Remember the good old days, when going through Customs upon returning home simply meant hoping they didn't discover you'd gone over your alcohol allowance and that you'd spent more than $400 on items you were bringing back into the country with you?  And, in turn, that was essentially all the Customs people were concerned about – oh yes, of course they were looking for drug smugglers too, but that was (hopefully!) not something that was anything to do with us.

But now the Customs people aren't just Customs people at all.  They are interchangeable with the Immigration people, and are part of that massive organization, the Department of Homeland Security.  Their mission has grown commensurately.

Now they're not just counting our bottles of whisky and guessing at the value of the souvenirs we admit to having purchased.  They're also wondering if we're a member of an international terrorist group, or in any other way, guilty of any other sort of crime, whether it be related to our international travels or not.  That's an awful lot of mission creep.

And so they've become interested not only in what they can see inside our suitcase, but in what they can't see as well – the electronic data stored in our cameras, on our iPods, iPads, iPhones, and all other computers and digital devices.  From time to time they'll seize and copy all the memory on all such devices belonging to an incoming traveler, no matter if that person is American or a foreign visitor.  If you are the unlucky person they single out, you'll be required to give over your passwords to your devices so they can copy everything on them to look through at their leisure subsequently.

This can be at best inconvenient and perhaps slightly embarrassing and unsettling.  If you're a corporate traveler with sensitive corporate documents, or an attorney with privileged client information, it can be very worrying.

It also seems they like to sometimes pick on journalists who write articles that are unfriendly to the government.  Fancy that.  In their snooping through all the electronic data the journalist has, they can also uncover the journalist's sources.

Here's one such example.  While the journalist in question doesn't seem a particularly sympathetic character, neither the first nor the fourth amendment applies selectively and only to 'nice' people who support the government – quite the opposite.  The Bill of Rights is designed to enable and encourage dissent, disagreement, discussion and debate.

Now for the really sad part of all of this.  These days the 'internet cloud' means that we no longer have to carry our sensitive data with us (or, if we do, a 32GB micro-SD card the size of a fingernail can have all the data we wish to hide stored on it, and hidden anywhere on our person secure from all but the most rigorous of personal searches).  Any real terrorist or other person with truly 'bad/illegal' data knows this, and makes sure that their obvious data storage devices are 'clean' and free of any traces of controversial content.

So the Customs people are on a pointless mission, unless of course, their point is simply to harass and hassle people they dislike and feel threatened by.

Talking about mission creep, the Homeland Security Department is looking to deploy portable 'instant' DNA testing machines to airports, enabling them to sample, test (and potentially store in perpetuity) the distinctive DNA profile of people of interest.  Details here.

To start with, the testing seems to have a brilliantly bona fide purpose – to provide a way of confirming if family groups arriving in the country on a family visa type entitlement are truly related to the primary visa holder.  That's a laudable purpose.

But think about it and the mission creep implications.  They already take fingerprints and pictures of all visitors into the country.  How long before they start taking DNA samples too?  And how long before they also start taking DNA samples of US citizens?

It is strange but true that the US already gives the most unfriendly treatment to intending and actual visitors of any country in the world.  DNA sampling increases this still further.

There's a ps to this story, too.  Reported in the story is that present methods of DNA testing cost $500 per sample and days or weeks to get results, compared to 'under $100' and less than an hour with the new machines.

How is/was it possible for the government to be paying $500 a test?  A quick search on Google shows that $79 seems to be the going rate for DNA testing by private parties on a one-off basis, and for sure, they'd quickly give massive quantity discounts to anyone who asked for them.

Still on the topic of mission creep, here's another whisper on a topic I've written about before – the government seeks to take their potentially dangerous X-ray machines out of airports, supercharge their power outputs, mount them in unmarked vans, and drive them around the streets, randomly X-raying everyone they pass.

This is not only appallingly bad from a Fourth Amendment point of view, and from a public health point of view, but it is also ridiculously ineffective.  If you've gone through one of these electronic strip searchers at an airport (and I hope you haven't – I hope you always opt out when confronted with a Rapiscan machine) you'll know you have to remove everything from your pockets before entering the radiation chamber and standing motionless for several seconds while receiving a dose of X-rays.

So how can a mobile scanner, getting brief images of moving people (and itself moving), with the people having their pockets and purses full of a clutter of all sorts of objects anyway, hope to generate any sort of meaningless imagery for the people monitoring it to detect anything dangerous?

Besides which, by the time they've seen a suspicious looking object on a person, the van might have gone a block down the street, and the person may have turned into a building or got obscured in the crowd.  What will they do then?  Cordon off several city blocks and then scan every one of the thousands of people within that area?

The implications of this are truly terrifying.  Either it is a total waste of time, or they'll unavoidably have to do exactly this – cordon off city blocks at a time and then screen every person individually, plus search all the buildings and alleys and everything.

That is of course 100% impractical.  So why start gratuitously X-raying us in public in the first place?

The Homeland Security Department is running amok.

Boxcutters on planes.  In another example of how ineffective the TSA airport screening is, read about this passenger who accidentally took not one or two but three boxcutters in his carry-on bag, through security without them being noticed, and onto a flight from JFK to the Dominican Republic.  Ooops.

Lastly this week, here's something not to take on a flight with you.  While box cutters, firearms and explosives might sneak past the TSA, these objects are sure to be noticed and seized.

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