May 17 2010

Three Strikes?

Having been passed over for appointment to head the Drug Enforcement Administration, Deputy FBI Director John S. Pistole today got the booby prize as President Obama’s third-choice nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration.

For those who haven’t been keeping score, retired spymaster and Army General Robert A. Harding withdrew his name from nomination in response to questions about overbilling and cronyism in contracts between his security consulting firm and his former military comrades. Obama’s first choice, former Las Angeles airport cop Erroll Southers, withdrew earlier after apparently lying to Congress about his having used his police connections improperly to get derogatory information from supposedly restricted police files about his estranged wife’s lover.

We have the same questions for Mr. Pistole as we’ve had for the previous nominees for TSA administrator.

As of now, the TSA is still being run on auto-pilot by caretakers from the previous administration.  Unfortunately, we don’t see anything in Mr. Pistole’s official biography as a career cop, or the President’s statement about his nomination (which mentions only a desire to “stengthen” screening at airports, and says nothing about strengthening civil liberties or human rights) to suggest any likelihood of improvement in TSA policies.

May 17 2010

What happens when you “show” ID?

It’s tempting to think that when you show a business or government agency your identity credentials, all that happens is an ID “check”.  They verify that your ID is genuine, and that it shows that you are in a category of people who are authorized to cross a border, buy alcohol, operate a motor vehicle, or whatever.  And then you’re on your way.

What’s wrong with this?  Demands for ID are wrong, but what’s also wrong with this picture is that, increasingly often, this isn’t all that’s happening.

A new product announcement shows how much more than “verification” is sometimes going on behind the scenes.  A press release from Uveritech announces their new North American franchise to distribute a document authenticator made by L-1 Identity Solutions, the prime contractor for producing US drivers licenses as well as many countries’ passports.

L-1’s website describes the desktop device as, “A combined hardware and software product that automatically authenticates a wide range of documents, including passports, visas, immigration cards, driver’s licenses and military ID cards.”  But the product description shows that it performs much more than mere “authentication”, including scanning, optical character recognition (conversion of the image of the document to text), and reading of RFID chips in passports, enhanced drivers’ licenses, and other documents, as well as:

  • “Automatically Cross Reference Smartchip data in the MRZ [Machine Readable Zone].
  • “Collect and organize data and images from document transactions through the configurable options in the embedded relational database….
  • “Print and/or send … executable files with the images….
  • “Seamlessly integrate with any existing government or commercial network infrastructure, (i.e. Australian Customs, ABN AMRO, Brazilian Border Police.)”

So what’s being advertised under the rubric of “authentication” is actually automated capture of information about you (not just the visible data but also the machine-readable data in the magnetic stripe, lines of OCR type, and/or RFID chip, using L-1’s expertise in document and data formats derived from its role as government contractor ), conversion of this information about you to standardized digital format, loading of this data into an embedded relational databases, and “seamless[] integrat[ion]” of that database “with any existing government or commercial network infrastructure”.

Still feeling sanguine that it’s “just a quick check” of your ID, after which you can be on your way without further concern for future repercussions as long as you’ve been allowed to pass?

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May 17 2010

Canadian privacy office questions US surveillance of Canadian travelers

In testimony before a Canadian parliamentary hearing last week by Assistant Commissioner Chantal Bernier, the office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada raised questions (previously asked in the Canadian press) about the implications for Canadian travelers of the US Secure Flight program — questions that travelers in the US and other countries should share.

Asst. Privacy Commissioner Bernier noted that despite Canadian objections, the US continues to insist on applying the Secure Flight requirements (transmission of passenger data to the DHS, and receipt by the airline of affirmative DHS permission before each prospective passenger is allowed to board a flight) to flights that pass through US airspace to and from Canada, even if they never land in the USA. This includes most flights between Canada and Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.  As Bernier pointed out to Members of Parliament, “This means that DHS will collect personal information of Canadian travelers. This is not without risk.”

It’s worth noting, although it wasn’t reported to have been mentioned at the hearing, that Canada imposes no comparable requirement for the vastly larger number of flights to and form the USA that pass through Canadian airspace.  These include virtually all transatlantic flights to and from the USA, and transpacific flights to and from all points in the USA east of the West Coast. Nor does any other country through which flights routinely pass en route to and from the USA.  Most flights between Miami and Latin America, for example, pass over Cuba.  But American Airlines is required neither to provide the Cuban government with detailed information about each passenger on those flights, nor to obtain Cuban government permission before allowing them to board.

Important as they are, however, the concerns raised in last week’s testimony suggest that even the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada still doesn’t fully appreciate the scope of the problem or of the violations of Canadian law.

Asst. Comm. Bernier’s statement was limited to flights to, from, or overflying the USA.  We suspect that her office is unaware that the DHS already has ways to get access — without the knowledge or consent of anyone in Canada, including airlines and travel agencies — to information about passengers and reservations for flights within Canada and between Canada and other countries, regardless of whether they pass though US airspace.

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