Oct 29 2015

Can the US be a “safe harbor” for travel surveillance?

At its plenary session today in Strasbourg, the European Parliament adopted a “Resolution on the electronic mass surveillance of European Union citizens”.

As part of that resolution, the European Parliament, “Calls on the EU Member States to drop any criminal charges against Edward Snowden, grant him protection and consequently prevent extradition or rendition by third parties, in recognition of his status as whistleblower and international human rights defender.”

We’re pleased, of course, to see such a democratically and popularly elected body as the European Parliament coming to Mr. Snowden’s defense and joining the calls for recognition of his claim for asylum. But while the Snowden clause is getting most of the attention, it’s not all that’s included in today’s Europarl resolution.

The resolution adopted today by the European Parliament discusses what needs to be done, and by whom, to address the “electronic surveillance” Mr. Snowden has helped to expose. Notably, the resolution explicitly includes the electronic surveillance of travel and finance along with surveillance of telephone and Internet communications.

We have long argued, and we suspect Mr. Snowden would agree, that warrantless, suspicionless dragnet collection of metadata about the movements of people through root access by governments to PNRs stored in airlines’ Computerized Reservation Systems, warrantless, suspicionless dragnet collection of metadata about the movements of money through government access to electronic funds transfer intemediaries like SWIFT, and warrantless, suspicionless dragnet collection of metadata about the movements of messages through government root access to telecom and Internet backbone networks are all part of the same overarching surveillance program that raises issues common to all of these types of movement metadata.  That point of view is implicitly endorsed by today’s Europarl resolution.

Today’s action by the European Parliament was prompted in part by the decision earlier this month by the European Court of Justice (sometimes abbreviated “ECJ”, sometimes “CJEU”) in Schrems v. Facebook.  In that case, an Austrian user of Facebook, Max Schrems, asked the data protection authority in Ireland, where Facebook’s European subsidiary is based, to prohibit the transfer of personal data about him to Facebook servers in the USA where it would be subject to uncontrolled and secret access by the NSA and possibly by other US government agencies. The Irish authorities refused to investigate Facebook’s practices and dismissed Mr. Schrems’ complaint on the grounds that the European Commission had already determined that the so-called “Safe Harbor framework” for self-regulation assured adequate protection for personal data transferred from the EU to the US by participating companies.

The ECJ found that, “without there being any need to examine the content of the safe harbour principles,”  the Commission’s finding that US law “ensures” adequate protection for personal data transferred to the US was invalid, because “legislation permitting the public authorities to have access on a generalised basis to the content of electronic communications must be regarded as compromising the essence of the fundamental right to respect for private life, as guaranteed by Article 7 of the Charter” of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of the European Union.

Too bad that US courts haven’t yet recognized, as of course they should, that these US laws and government practices also violate fundamental rights guaranteed by the US Constitution.

The European Commission has previously brushed off questions — including questions from Members of the European Parliament and in a more recent expert report commissioned by the Council of Europe — about the legality of outsourcing and transfers of PNR data to CRSs to which the US government has unlogged root access. And EU data protection authorities have dismissed or declined to investigate complaints against airlines, travel agencies, and CRSs.

Now, however, the European Commission and European DPA’s have an explicit mandate to investigate complaints like that of Mr. Schrems against companies that are transferring personal data from the EU to the US, and the explicit authority and obligation to order the termination of such transfers.

It’s in this context that the European Parliament resolved today that it:

Urges the Commission to assess the legal impact and implications of the Court of Justice ruling of 6 October 2015 in the Schrems case (C-362/14) vis-à-vis any agreements with third countries allowing for the transfer of personal data, such as the EU-US Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP) Agreement, passenger name record (PNR) agreements, the EU-US umbrella agreement and other instruments under EU law which involve the collection and processing of personal data.

What does this mean for the future of travel surveillance in the EU, the example it might set for other countries, and the prospects for US efforts to globalize a panopticon of travel dataveillance as a new norm?

Read More

Oct 28 2015

6th Circuit Court of Appeals rules for right to trial over no-fly order

On October 26th, by a 2-1 vote, a  panel of judges of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has overruled a District Court’s decision that it lacked jurisdiction to hear a substantive challenge to the order by the “Terrorist Screening Center” (TSC) placing a US citizen on the “No-fly” list.

While the decision was based on arcane-seeming jurisdictional issues, and the government is already maneuvering to evade it and some other similar court decisions, it is a significant victory for the fundamental right to a trial in cases of challenges to no-fly orders.

The decision sends the lawsuit brought by Mr. Saeb Mokdad, represented by the Arab-American Civil Rights League,  back to the US District Court in Michigan where it was first filed more than two years ago.

The TSC is an inter-agency and inter-departmental entity, but the government has assigned nominal “ownership” of the TSC and its decisions — including, until recently, final authority for no-fly orders — to the FBI (a component of the Department of Justice).

At the same time, the government has argued that any challenges to the TSC’s no-fly orders must be made first through the kangaroo-court DHS TRIP administrative process, and then in a Court of Appeals that is allowed to consider only the “administrative record” of the TSA’s decision, as supplied to the court by the TSA itself.

Unlike some other people who have tried to challenge the government’s interference with their right to travel, Mr. Mokdad didn’t sue the TSA or DHS for implementing the TSC’s decision to put him on the no-fly list. Instead, he sued the TSC, FBI, and DOJ for ordering the TSA and DHS to put him on the no-fly list.

The government’s position is that no challenge to a no-fly order can be made with the agency that made the decision (the TSC/FBI/DOJ), and that any court review of the TSC decision must be based solely on TSA records (which will show, at most, that the TSA relied on a no-fly order from the TSC, and may not show anything about the factual basis, if any, or the criteria or procedures relied on by the TSC in its decision).

In its decision this week, the 6th Circuit rejected that duplicitous government position:

To the extent that Mokdad brings a direct challenge to his placement by TSC on the No Fly List, … he is challenging a TSC order, not a TSA order….  TSA does not determine who is placed on the No Fly List; TSC does. Notwithstanding the government’s attempts to characterize his claim as a challenge to TSA’s decision to deny him boarding, Mokdad makes clear that he is “challeng[ing] his actual placement on the No Fly List by the TSC.” R. 17, Appellant Br., 11. TSC is administered by the FBI. The fact that TSC is an inter-agency center that is staffed by officials from multiple agencies, including the FBI, DHS, Department of State, Customs and Border Protection, and also TSA, does not transform TSC’s order placing an individual on the No Fly List into an order of the TSA.

The 6th Circuit panel correctly held that the law assigning exclusive jurisdiction over challenges to TSA orders to Circuit Courts of Appeal, based on TSA administrative records, does not apply to challenges to TSC or other FBI orders — including no-fly listing orders.

The FBI’s hypocrisy in Mr. Mokdad’s case hasn’t been limited to its arguments in court.  The FBI has told Mr. Mokdad that it can’t tell him anything about why it put him on the no-fly list, and can’t even confirm or deny that he is barred from flying (although that’s obvious from the fact that he is denied boarding whenever he tries to fly). At the same time that the FBI officially declined to comment or give any information to Mr. Moktad, the FBI was happy to disclose derogatory alleagations about him to the local newspaper of record, the Detroit Free Press, in the form of leaks by “sources familiar with Mokdad” about what “the FBI suspects”.

Unfortunately, the next move in this legal chess game was already played by the government between the time that Mr. Mokdad’s case was argued a little over a year ago and when it was decided this week. While the Court of Appeals was contemplating its decision, the government shifted nominal final responsibility for no-fly decisions from the TSC/FBI/DOJ to the TSA/DHS, to try to bring them back within the scope of the jurisdiction-stripping statute, 49 USC §46110 (the Constitutionality of which is already being challenged in another no-fly case).

It’s unclear, in light of this evasive move by the government, what will happen to Mr. Mokdad’s case on remand. The next step will be discovery, and likely an assertion by the government in response that everything about no-fly decisions is a “state secret”.  Even if Mr. Mokdad eventually puts the FBI on trial, as has happened in only one no-fly case to date, he might win only a Pyrrhic victory, overturning the TSC’s no-fly order but then having to start from scratch, in a different court, with a new challenge to a new TSA no-fly order. Stay tuned.

Oct 23 2015

Court orders TSA to publish “rules” for use of strip-search machines

Acting on a petition submitted in July 2015 by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and the Rutherford Institute, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit today ordered the Department of Homeland Security to, within 30 days from today, “submit to the court a schedule for the expeditious issuance of a final rule” governing the TSA’s use of virtual strip search machines or body scanners (what the TSA calls “Advanced Imaging Technology “within a reasonable time”.

The court didn’t say what it would consider “expeditious” or a “reasonable” time for the TSA to finalize rules for its use of body scanners. Nor did the court even consider what such a rule should say, or what it would take for such a rule to be Constitutional.

But as we pointed out in the comments we submitted to the TSA three years ago in this as-yet-incomplete rulemaking, any “final rule” on body scanners promulgated by the TSA would be the first and to date only publicly-disclosed definition of any aspect of what the TSA and DHS think travelers are required to do and/or prohibited from doing in order to satisfy our obligation under Federal law to “submit” to “screening” as a condition of the exercise of our right to air travel by common carrier.

Five years ago, we were one of 35 organizations that petitioned the TSA and DHS to conduct a public “rulemaking” — including notice of the proposal, and opportunity for public comment, consideration of the comments by the agency, and finally the publication of rules for what is and isn’t prohibited and/or required — before deploying or continuing to deploy  as-though-naked body imaging machines in airports.

In  2011, in response to a lawsuit brought by one of the other petitioners, EPIC, the D.C. Circuit court ordered the DHS to conduct such a rulemaking.  The DHS dragged its feet, but under pressure from the Coiurt, finally published proposed (vague and unconstitutional) rules for body scanners in 2013. Basically, the DHS proposed rules that would require travelers to submit to whatever “imaging technology” the TSA chooses to use.

The Identity Project and more than 5000 other organizations and individuals submitted comments to the DHS, the overwhelming majority of which opposed the proposed rules, the TSA’s use of virtual strip-search machines, and the TSA practices of groping travelers including those who “opt out” of the imaging machines.

In response to the latest lawsuit by CEI, the DHS says that it is still working diligently, three years later, to read, analyze, and respond to the public comments and prepare a (possibly revised) final rule.

Today, the Court declined (for now, at least) to set a deadline for the DHS to stop dragging its feet and publish final rules for the body scanners. But the Court ordered the DHS to come up with a timeline of specific dates by which it intends to do so. Once the DHS gives dates certain to the Court, it will risk sanctions for contempt if it fails to meet those deadlines without an explanation satisfactory to the Court.

It’s a small but significant step toward subjecting the TSA, for the first time, to the rule of law.

Oct 14 2015

Fundraiser for “Naked American Hero”

John Brennan, the “Naked American Hero” who took off all his clothes at a TSA checkpoint at the Portland, Oregon, airport to show that he wasn’t carrying any weapons or explosives and in protest of the TSA’s practices, has finally gotten a chance to defend himself in court after more than three years of legal and administrative water torture.

But he needs your help to mount the strongest possible challenge to the TSA, and he’s launched an online crowdfunding appeal for a portion of his legal costs.

The TSA’s first line of attack on Mr. Brennan was, in accordance with TSA standard operating procedures, to call the local police. And the cops, as is equally standard, arrested Mr. Brennan on the TSA’s say-so, and only after the fact came up with a charge (“indecent exposure”) to justify the arrest.  But there was nothing “indecent” about the way Mr. Brennan had exposed himself, and a Portland judge acquitted Mr. Brennan of all criminal charges on the grounds that Mr. Brennan’s action was an act of politically expressive conduct protected by Oregon law and the First Amendment.

Unable to get Mr. Brennan convicted of any crime, the TSA put Mr. Brennan through an elaborate administrative proceeding that ended with the TSA deciding to fine him $500 for “interfering” with the TSA by taking off his clothes.

Only after the completion of the TSA’s internal administrative process was Mr. Brennan allowed to ask a court to consider whether the TSA’s proposed fine would violate his First Amendment rights. And that challenge has to be made in the first instance in a Federal Circuit Court of Appeals — an expensive and high-risk legal forum only one step below the US Supreme Court.

Mr. Brennan has petitioned the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to review whether the TSA violated his Constitutional rights by trying to fine him for expressive conduct that was protected by the First Amendment and that didn’t actually interfere with the TSA at all. (On the contrary, his nakedness made it easier for the TSA staff to tell whether Mr. Brennan was carrying weapons or explosives.)

Mr. Brennan is now waiting to find out whether the 9th Circuit will decide his case on the basis of his written submissions and those of the TSA, or will schedule oral argument before making its decision.

Considering the importance of the case, Mr. Brennan’s appeal for $15,000 in partial payment of his legal expenses is modest.  And did we mention that he was unjustly fired for exercising his First Amendment right to protest the TSA, on his own time, in a way that had no impact on his ability to do his job?

John Brennan needs our help to defend our rights.

If you wish you had the balls to strip naked (and keep your cool completely while doing so!) when the TSA tells you you’ve tested positive (falsely) for explosive residues, and they want to put their hands in your pants, here’s your chance to support someone who stood up and stripped down for all of us.

Oct 09 2015

Airline and TSA insecurity

Recent news stories have called new attention to longstanding vulnerabilities in the security of travelers’ luggage and personal information created by TSA and airline practices.

Exhibit A: TSA-mandated “key escrow” for luggage locks:

Before the creation of the TSA, airline passengers were encouraged by airlines to secure their suitcases with locks against pilferage in transit. Some airlines’ rules provided that unless passengers locked their luggage, they would not be reimbursed for items that went missing from their luggage.

The TSA, in its infinite wisdom, initially decided that everyone would be more secure if travelers were forbidden to lock our luggage, so as to make it as easy as possible for anyone (especially, of course, TSA staff and baggage handlers) to introduce dangerous items into luggage, or remove valuables from luggage.

The predictable result was a wave of organized theft from checked luggage by groups of TSA staff and baggage handlers at airports throughout the country who used “security” x-rays of luggage to identify which bags contained things worth stealing.  400 TSA employees have been fired for stealing from luggage since 2003.  As for airline and airport staff, 37 have been arrested in multiple cases of organized luggage theft at the Miami airport alone just since 2012.

In response, the TSA proposed a fig leaf of pseudo-security: Starting in 2003, air travelers were once again allowed to lock our bags — but only with TSA-approved “Travel Sentry” locks which could all be opened with one of a small set of master keys provided to all TSA baggage screeners.

That makes no sense, of course, in terms of any rational threat model: Almost the only people who have access to checked luggage in transit are airline, airport, and TSA staff. Unsurprisingly, allowing the use of locks to which all of the likely thieves were given master keys did little or nothing to deter or decrease theft.

But that’s not all.  Any “key escrow” system is only as secure as the controls on access to the master keys or the information needed to replicate them. The other shoe has now dropped: Specifications for the TSA master keys (obtained from photos accurate enough to make working keys) have been made public. Anyone with a 3D printer can use these files to make their own complete set of keys to open any Travel Sentry lock.

For what it’s worth, while you aren’t allowed to use physical measures to secure your luggage, you still have some legal protection, at least in theory. Up to a liability limit fixed by law, the airline is strictly liable for loss, theft, or damage to luggage or contents between the time the passenger is given a claim check and the time the passenger reclaims their luggage. The TSA and the airlines both want to divert passengers into an arduous claims process against the TSA, but it’s actually the airline that is liable to the passenger for any damage to luggage while it is checked, even if the damage is caused by the TSA or any other third party.  You can sue the airline in small claims court for any damage between check-in and baggage claim. The airline can pursue a claim against the TSA, but that’s not your problem and has no affect on the liability of the airline to the passenger. If airlines have to absorb some of these losses, maybe they’ll get motivated to rein in TSA thievery.

Exhibit B: Airlines’ use of non-secrets printed on boarding pass stubs and checked-baggage tags as “passwords” for access to the details of airline reservations and personal profiles:

Airlines store “passenger name records” (PNRs) in “computerized reservation systems” (CRSs) that were developed for purely internal use by airline and travel agency staff. Access to reservations and passenger profiles was controlled by physical controls on access to networked terminals, and by user IDs and passwords for system access. Once a CRS user was logged in, they could retrieve any PNR by “record locator”.  There’s never been an individual password in the CRS for each PNR or each passenger profile.

Record locators and passenger names were and are printed on boarding passes, baggage tags and claim checks, and itineraries.  At first they were machine-printed in text. More recently they have also been incorporated into barcodes with standard and publicly-disclosed encoding.

Nothing changed when CRSs were connected to Web gateways for self-service booking, ticketing, itinerary review, check-in, and so forth.  Once a user is “signed in” to a CRS, all they need is a record locator and name to retrieve all or part of the data in a PNR of interest. But now every Web user in the world is, in effect, already signed in to the CRSs through these Web gateways provided by airlines and directly by each major CRS. Not all of these sites display the same subset of data, but even the most basic information available at any itinerary-viewing or check-in site (Where is this passenger going? When are they coming back?) can pose a major threat in the hands of house-burglars, stalkers, domestic abusers, or kidnappers.

Airlines and CRSs have been alerted and aware for years of the vulnerability created by the lack of passwords for access to PNR data, but have chosen to do nothing.  Do they think it wouldn’t be worth the cost?  Or do they think that if travelers had to remember and use a password to check in online, they would check in at the airport instead, taking up more airline staff time? Your guess is as good as ours.

The latest report this week from IT security expert Brian Krebs is that some airlines have expanded the information accessible with only the data on a discarded boarding pass (or, we suspect, a baggage tag) from the PNR for a single journey to the passenger’s entire travel history and profile from their frequent flyer record.  Krebs found that he could even hijack the password on a frequent flyer account using the information encoded using a public algorithm on a boarding pass barcode. That, in turn, would allow ID thieves to have “free” tickets issued for themselves or other criminals, using the target’s mileage points.

What’s the takeaway? Neither the TSA nor the airlines have paid the least attention to rational risk assessment, risk-based security, or even the most elementary norms of physical and data security. Yet these are the entities to which the government wants to compel us to turn over even more personal information.