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ID checks ineffective
February 3, 2004 9:32 AM   Subscribe

How We Are Fighting the War on Terrorism: IDs and the illusion of security IDs and the illusion of security Bruce Schneier at sfgate.com writes about why ID checks are ineffective.
posted by tbc (18 comments total)

 
It seems, to me, fairly obvious that ID checks won't catch all but the most incompetent of terrorists. If a terrorist can't procure a decent ID and do a couple of dry runs to make sure no alarms are raised, they are unlikely to be effective enough to do any harm. The question that we all should be asking ourselves is: if I.D. checking is so ineffective at its purported purpose, what is the real reason this way of tracking the movements of people is so desired by the government, the airlines or other interested parties?
posted by jester69 at 10:55 AM on February 3, 2004


Here's another good piece by Schneier: Slouching toward Big Brother.
posted by homunculus at 11:05 AM on February 3, 2004


On the other hand, there is something to be said for catching incompetent terrorists (qv Richard Reid). It's just that we shouldn't feel like our safety has been increased by *that* much.
posted by Slothrup at 11:22 AM on February 3, 2004


It seems, to me, fairly obvious that ID checks won't catch all but the most incompetent of terrorists.

It does however, raise the cost and complexity of their operation. Now they need document guys or contacts with document guys to get what they need done. The more links in the chain, the greater the costs and likelihood of something going awry. Ditto finding people with "clean" records who want to be suicide terrorists: they are more expensive to find in terms of resources and risk and are often pretty weird people.

Sure, the Sep 11 hijackers used their own docs (it seems), but there was a very different state of mind in law enforcement and the general public before that. Just listen to all the Muhammad Atta stories that people reported after the events. With today's mindset, that dude would have been turned in right quick.

Schneier works in a world where attacking is cheap. How much does it cost to launch an attack on a network from some PC in Russia? Not a lot. Contrast this with the money that has to be spent by real world terrorists. Not huge sums, but orders of magnitude more.

Also, in Schneier's world, thwarting an attack may help you make yourself more secure, but doesn't generally hurt the attackers, they just try again. Here, a botched plot can lead to arrests, rolling up the other side's network.
posted by ednopantz at 11:27 AM on February 3, 2004


if I.D. checking is so ineffective at its purported purpose, what is the real reason this way of tracking the movements of people is so desired by the government, the airlines or other interested parties?

"Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence." ;) People, including powerful but naive people, want to feel like they're accomplishing something.

Seriously though, even a forged ID is likely to provide some information. Perhaps someone uses it twice. Perhaps the system notices that 45 year old Abe has never flown before but somehow has the profile of a frequent flyer. Perhaps false IDs are more likely to have certain names or characteristics. Perhaps IDs are cross-checked against something else and its noted that such an ID has never been issued from such a state. There are lots of ways other than the obvious ones to detect anomolies.
posted by callmejay at 12:29 PM on February 3, 2004


Every week I go into a major downtown DC gov't building where they started checking IDs after 911. Noting that it is a public building that anyone can enter without an appointment and that they have no list to check anything against, I finally felt friendly enough with the guards I saw all the time to ask what they were checking for.

"I dunno. They just told us to look at them."

So do you check for anything?

"Just to see that you have one."

I think there's a lot of that going on. Real effective, guys.
posted by umberto at 1:17 PM on February 3, 2004


Joe Soucheray on a local radio station in Minneapolis suggests that anyone who agrees actively actively partake in subduing a terrorist should wear a t-shirt that says "I'M IN". Twenty or thirty people wearing these t-shirts (of which I'd be one) on a flight would certainly make me feel more secure than ID'ing or random searches.

T-shirts or not, I'm more confident in other peoples' unwillingness to put up with an on board threat than any sort of "inspection".
posted by pedantic at 1:19 PM on February 3, 2004


Wow, this is really in contrast to my response in the AskMe thread. Fake IDs being easy to obtain?

They make it sound like any teenager can get a fake, but since 9/11 there's been major crackdowns -- at least in my area. As in, 3 years ago I could have easily got a fake ID (forged holograms, replicated magstrips) but since then are none, zip, nada. Even both my big near schools (KU and MU), my wide variety of friends (frat, sorority and not) none are able to get fakes. I know some frats that tried to make printed out and laminated ids (no barcode, no hologram, obviously really fake), but nothing on the pre-9/11 article.

Obviously this is purely anecdotal, and disregards paying the DMV some employee exhorbitant amount of money (you can alway get something at a price), forging IDs is not as easy as it once was.

Oh, and from what I understand the Internet fakes are all rip-offs nowadays.
posted by geoff. at 1:30 PM on February 3, 2004


See also this essay on the impressive professionalism of the Transportation Security Administration.
posted by moonbiter at 1:39 PM on February 3, 2004


I'm so tired of it all. I flipped past a talking head on the news the other night and they were ranting about the streaker on during the superbowl. "With a zillion security people on site, this guy still managed to put on a fake uniform and get on the field! He could have killed the quarterback or something! Are we safe?"

Are you ever safe? I don't care how many I.D. checks, how many background checks, or how carefully people are screened! People are still going to get through. If someone wants to kill, they'll kill.

Heck, even in a maximum security prison prisoners can, and do, kill other prisoners.
posted by tomplus2 at 1:40 PM on February 3, 2004


Yeah, killing the quarterback would be a tragedy. Opening a can of a biological or chemical agent in the middle of the Super Bowl would have sucked too.
posted by ilsa at 2:37 PM on February 3, 2004


So, tbc, did Bruce Schneier spam you too? I got a semi automated email from him informing me of his writing and asking me to plug his book if I mentioned his columns. I suspect I got it because I linked to one of his articles on my blog.

Don't get me wrong - I think his writing is really important and I like what he's doing. It's just funny to watch someone promote himself, even if what he's promoting is worthwhile.
posted by Nelson at 3:20 PM on February 3, 2004


The issue isn't just fake ID's. There are plenty of crazy people that look normal on paper. Also, there are other countries that have more lax requirements and can be more easily bribed to give out fake papers. Plenty of these people visit and live in the United States. Identity theft is another option. I have a feel if all one did was to get ID and not steal monetarily from and identity theft victim, this could go undetected for a long time.

The essence of what I was saying is that ID checks have a very low benefit to cost ratio. We loose some freedom, and the false positives are very high. Mainly innocent people will be harassed. I'd much rather see our money/time/effort being spent on things that have a higher benefit, such as randomly searching people. Sure, it seems odd when a Judge or old lady gets the third degree, but it is the unpredictability of randomness that makes the practice so effective. A terrorist can game the system with a good ID or history, but they can't game true randomness by its very nature.

Richard Reid is a perfect example. His ID passed muster and he got on the plane. Had he randomly had his shoes swabbed for exploives, that would have been better. I fly frequently and wish we would do things that would really make the airports safer rather than things, like ID checking, that do little more than make people feel better.
posted by jester69 at 3:21 PM on February 3, 2004


Also, if more customs officers had some basic interrogation skills and used little common sense and intuition like this guy, it would make more of an impact than any technology-based solution I can imagine.
posted by psmealey at 3:48 PM on February 3, 2004


Id checks, alone, are of marginal use. As are bag checks on airlines. And anti-money laundering programs at banks. And rapid response training for public health workers. And increased survelliance at nuclear power plants.

The problem with articles like this (and the authors that produce them by the bushel) is that it is easy to take any single piece of the larger security picture and relatively easily demonstrate that it can be subverted (and if the author is snarky, can suggest that there are dark, ulterior motives behind it).

However ... um, so what? You can also demonstrate that a single policeman in New York City will be utterly ineffective at stopping crime - even on the blocks s/he patrols. But put the total picture of NYPD together, and Manhattan is considerably safer than it would otherwise be.

From the larger perspective, the total effect of many changes since 9/11 - and the enhanced emphasis on ID checking is merely one small one - is that if you're a terrorist sitting in a cave in the middle-east, it is much more difficult to plan, fund, and execute attacks on US soil.
posted by MidasMulligan at 6:17 PM on February 3, 2004


True story, Midas. I really don't think his article made a very persuasive case against IDs. What he probably ought to have concentrated on was the points of failure and asking how those failures can be made rarer.

The answer, unfortunately, is probably as much good judgement as anything you can put into a system.
posted by weston at 9:28 PM on February 3, 2004


Sure, the Sep 11 hijackers used their own docs (it seems), but there was a very different state of mind in law enforcement and the general public before that. Just listen to all the Muhammad Atta stories that people reported after the events. With today's mindset, that dude would have been turned in right quick.

That sort of arguement demonstrates why these sorts of measure will never work. If terrorists want to hijack planes again, they will.

It's the whole 'close the gate after the horse has bolted' thing. The fact is, that 'the terrorists' are probably evolving their ideas quicker than the large beauricratic organisations. They will have plans to avoid the basic airport security measures well and truely in place, and be working on much more important issues now, like where to best place the explosives or whatever.

All the measures I've seen put in place seem to be reactionary - they may have stopped Sept 11, but that's not the level we are playing at anymore.
posted by sycophant at 11:32 PM on February 3, 2004


The fact is, that 'the terrorists' are probably evolving their ideas quicker than the large beauricratic organisations.

We are talking about the same guys who attacked the WTC twice eight years apart, because they couldn't think of anything better. They have responded to increased US security not through diabolical plots but by using the same old car bombs elsewhere. You give these guys way too much credit.

The fact that they keep targeting air travel (if Reid was part of a bigger plot and if the chatter about BA hijackings is more than smoke) indicates a profound lack of vision. Not surprising for guys who encounter one of the world's great religious traditions and see only "kill yankee." Rocket scientists they aren't.
posted by ednopantz at 5:44 AM on February 4, 2004


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