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COVID-19 Risks of Flying

I fly a lot. Over the past five years, my average speed has been 32 miles an hour. That all changed mid-March. It’s been 105 days since I’ve been on an airplane — longer than any other time in my adult life — and I have no future flights scheduled. This is all a prelude to saying that I have been paying a lot of attention to the COVID-related risks of flying.

We know a lot more about how COVID-19 spreads than we did in March. The “less than six feet, more than ten minutes” model has given way to a much more sophisticated model involving airflow, the level of virus in the room, and the viral load in the person who might be infected.

Regarding airplanes specifically: on the whole, they seem safer than many other group activities. Of all the research about contract tracing results I have read, I have seen no stories of a sick person on an airplane infecting other passengers. There are no superspreader events involving airplanes. (That did happen with SARS.) It seems that the airflow inside the cabin really helps.

Airlines are trying to make things better: blocking middle seats, serving less food and drink, trying to get people to wear masks. (This video is worth watching.) I’ve started to see airlines requiring masks and banning those who won’t, and not just strongly encouraging them. (If mask wearing is treated the same as the seat belt wearing, it will make a huge difference.) Finally, there are a lot of dumb things that airlines are doing.

This article interviewed 511 epidemiologists, and the general consensus was that flying is riskier than getting a haircut but less risky than eating in a restaurant. I think that most of the risk is pre-flight, in the airport: crowds at the security checkpoints, gates, and so on. And that those are manageable with mask wearing and situational awareness. So while I am not flying yet, I might be willing to soon. (It doesn’t help that I get a -1 on my COVID saving throw for type A blood, and another -1 for male pattern baldness. On the other hand, I think I get a +3 Constitution bonus. Maybe, instead of sky marshals we can have high-level clerics on the planes.)

And everyone: wear a mask, and wash your hands.

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TSA Admits Liquid Ban Is Security Theater

The TSA is allowing people to bring larger bottles of hand sanitizer with them on airplanes:

Passengers will now be allowed to travel with containers of liquid hand sanitizer up to 12 ounces. However, the agency cautioned that the shift could mean slightly longer waits at checkpoint because the containers may have to be screened separately when going through security.

Won’t airplanes blow up as a result? Of course not.

Would they have blown up last week were the restrictions lifted back then? Of course not.

It’s always been security theater.

Interesting context:

The TSA can declare this rule change because the limit was always arbitrary, just one of the countless rituals of security theater to which air passengers are subjected every day. Flights are no more dangerous today, with the hand sanitizer, than yesterday, and if the TSA allowed you to bring 12 ounces of shampoo on a flight tomorrow, flights would be no more dangerous then. The limit was bullshit. The ease with which the TSA can toss it aside makes that clear.

All over America, the coronavirus is revealing, or at least reminding us, just how much of contemporary American life is bullshit, with power structures built on punishment and fear as opposed to our best interest. Whenever the government or a corporation benevolently withdraws some punitive threat because of the coronavirus, it’s a signal that there was never any good reason for that threat to exist in the first place.

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Software Vulnerabilities in the Boeing 787

Boeing left its software unprotected, and researchers have analyzed it for vulnerabilities:

At the Black Hat security conference today in Las Vegas, Santamarta, a researcher for security firm IOActive, plans to present his findings, including the details of multiple serious security flaws in the code for a component of the 787 known as a Crew Information Service/Maintenance System. The CIS/MS is responsible for applications like maintenance systems and the so-called electronic flight bag, a collection of navigation documents and manuals used by pilots. Santamarta says he found a slew of memory corruption vulnerabilities in that CIS/MS, and he claims that a hacker could use those flaws as a foothold inside a restricted part of a plane’s network. An attacker could potentially pivot, Santamarta says, from the in-flight entertainment system to the CIS/MS to send commands to far more sensitive components that control the plane’s safety-critical systems, including its engine, brakes, and sensors. Boeing maintains that other security barriers in the 787’s network architecture would make that progression impossible.

Santamarta admits that he doesn’t have enough visibility into the 787’s internals to know if those security barriers are circumventable. But he says his research nonetheless represents a significant step toward showing the possibility of an actual plane-hacking technique. “We don’t have a 787 to test, so we can’t assess the impact,” Santamarta says. “We’re not saying it’s doomsday, or that we can take a plane down. But we can say: This shouldn’t happen.”

Boeing denies that there’s any problem:

In a statement, Boeing said it had investigated IOActive’s claims and concluded that they don’t represent any real threat of a cyberattack. “IOActive’s scenarios cannot affect any critical or essential airplane system and do not describe a way for remote attackers to access important 787 systems like the avionics system,” the company’s statement reads. “IOActive reviewed only one part of the 787 network using rudimentary tools, and had no access to the larger system or working environments. IOActive chose to ignore our verified results and limitations in its research, and instead made provocative statements as if they had access to and analyzed the working system. While we appreciate responsible engagement from independent cybersecurity researchers, we’re disappointed in IOActive’s irresponsible presentation.”

This being Black Hat and Las Vegas, I’ll say it this way: I would bet money that Boeing is wrong. I don’t have an opinion about whether or not it’s lying.

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The Latest in Creepy Spyware

The Nest home alarm system shipped with a secret microphone, which — according to the company — was only an accidental secret:

On Tuesday, a Google spokesperson told Business Insider the company had made an “error.”

“The on-device microphone was never intended to be a secret and should have been listed in the tech specs,” the spokesperson said. “That was an error on our part.”

Where are the consumer protection agencies? They should be all over this.

And while they’re figuring out which laws Google broke, they should also look at American Airlines. Turns out that some of their seats have built-in cameras:

American Airlines spokesperson Ross Feinstein confirmed to BuzzFeed News that cameras are present on some of the airlines’ in-flight entertainment systems, but said “they have never been activated, and American is not considering using them.” Feinstein added, “Cameras are a standard feature on many in-flight entertainment systems used by multiple airlines. Manufacturers of those systems have included cameras for possible future uses, such as hand gestures to control in-flight entertainment.”

That makes it all okay, doesn’t it?

Actually, I kind of understand the airline seat camera thing. My guess is that whoever designed the in-flight entertainment system just specced a standard tablet computer, and they all came with unnecessary features like cameras. This is how we end up with refrigerators with Internet connectivity and Roombas with microphones. It’s cheaper to leave the functionality in than it is to remove it.

Still, we need better disclosure laws.

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Can Everybody Read the US Terrorist Watch List?

After years of claiming that the Terrorist Screening Database is kept secret within the government, we have now learned that the DHS shares it “with more than 1,400 private entities, including hospitals and universities….”

Critics say that the watchlist is wildly overbroad and mismanaged, and that large numbers of people wrongly included on the list suffer routine difficulties and indignities because of their inclusion.

The government’s admission comes in a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court in Alexandria by Muslims who say they regularly experience difficulties in travel, financial transactions and interactions with law enforcement because they have been wrongly added to the list.

Of course that is the effect.

We need more transparency into this process. People need a way to challenge their inclusion on the list, and a redress process if they are being falsely accused.

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Drone Denial-of-Service Attack against Gatwick Airport

Someone is flying a drone over Gatwick Airport in order to disrupt service:

Chris Woodroofe, Gatwick’s chief operating officer, said on Thursday afternoon there had been another drone sighting which meant it was impossible to say when the airport would reopen.

He told BBC News: “There are 110,000 passengers due to fly today, and the vast majority of those will see cancellations and disruption. We have had within the last hour another drone sighting so at this stage we are not open and I cannot tell you what time we will open.

“It was on the airport, seen by the police and corroborated. So having seen that drone that close to the runway it was unsafe to reopen.”

The economics of this kind of thing isn’t in our favor. A drone is cheap. Closing an airport for a day is very expensive.

I don’t think we’re going to solve this by jammers, or GPS-enabled drones that won’t fly over restricted areas. I’ve seen some technologies that will safely disable drones in flight, but I’m not optimistic about those in the near term. The best defense is probably punitive penalties for anyone doing something like this — enough to discourage others.

There are a lot of similar security situations, in which the cost to attack is vastly cheaper than 1) the damage caused by the attack, and 2) the cost to defend. I have long believed that this sort of thing represents an existential threat to our society.

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Don’t Fear the TSA Cutting Airport Security. Be Glad That They’re Talking about It.

Last week, CNN reported that the Transportation Security Administration is considering eliminating security at U.S. airports that fly only smaller planes — 60 seats or fewer. Passengers connecting to larger planes would clear security at their destinations.

To be clear, the TSA has put forth no concrete proposal. The internal agency working group’s report obtained by CNN contains no recommendations. It’s nothing more than 20 people examining the potential security risks of the policy change. It’s not even new: The TSA considered this back in 2011, and the agency reviews its security policies every year. But commentary around the news has been strongly negative. Regardless of the idea’s merit, it will almost certainly not happen. That’s the result of politics, not security: Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of numerous outraged lawmakers, has already penned a letter to the agency saying that “TSA documents proposing to scrap critical passenger security screenings, without so much as a metal detector in place in some airports, would effectively clear the runway for potential terrorist attacks.” He continued, “It simply boggles the mind to even think that the TSA has plans like this on paper in the first place.”

We don’t know enough to conclude whether this is a good idea, but it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. We need to evaluate airport security based on concrete costs and benefits, and not continue to implement security theater based on fear. And we should applaud the agency’s willingness to explore changes in the screening process.

There is already a tiered system for airport security, varying for both airports and passengers. Many people are enrolled in TSA PreCheck, allowing them to go through checkpoints faster and with less screening. Smaller airports don’t have modern screening equipment like full-body scanners or CT baggage screeners, making it impossible for them to detect some plastic explosives. Any would-be terrorist is already able to pick and choose his flight conditions to suit his plot.

Over the years, I have written many essays critical of the TSA and airport security, in general. Most of it is security theater — measures that make us feel safer without improving security. For example, the liquids ban makes no sense as implemented, because there’s no penalty for repeatedly trying to evade the scanners. The full-body scanners are terrible at detecting the explosive material PETN if it is well concealed — which is their whole point.

There are two basic kinds of terrorists. The amateurs will be deterred or detected by even basic security measures. The professionals will figure out how to evade even the most stringent measures. I’ve repeatedly said that the two things that have made flying safer since 9/11 are reinforcing the cockpit doors and persuading passengers that they need to fight back. Everything beyond that isn’t worth it.

It’s always possible to increase security by adding more onerous — and expensive — procedures. If that were the only concern, we would all be strip-searched and prohibited from traveling with luggage. Realistically, we need to analyze whether the increased security of any measure is worth the cost, in money, time and convenience. We spend $8 billion a year on the TSA, and we’d like to get the most security possible for that money.

This is exactly what that TSA working group was doing. CNN reported that the group specifically evaluated the costs and benefits of eliminating security at minor airports, saving $115 million a year with a “small (nonzero) undesirable increase in risk related to additional adversary opportunity.” That money could be used to bolster security at larger airports or to reduce threats totally removed from airports.

We need more of this kind of thinking, not less. In 2017, political scientists Mark Stewart and John Mueller published a detailed evaluation of airport security measures based on the cost to implement and the benefit in terms of lives saved. They concluded that most of what our government does either isn’t effective at preventing terrorism or is simply too expensive to justify the security it does provide. Others might disagree with their conclusions, but their analysis provides enough detailed information to have a meaningful argument.

The more we politicize security, the worse we are. People are generally terrible judges of risk. We fear threats in the news out of proportion with the actual dangers. We overestimate rare and spectacular risks, and underestimate commonplace ones. We fear specific “movie-plot threats” that we can bring to mind. That’s why we fear flying over driving, even though the latter kills about 35,000 people each year — about a 9/11’s worth of deaths each month. And it’s why the idea of the TSA eliminating security at minor airports fills us with fear. We can imagine the plot unfolding, only without Bruce Willis saving the day.

Very little today is immune to politics, including the TSA. It drove most of the agency’s decisions in the early years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That the TSA is willing to consider politically unpopular ideas is a credit to the organization. Let’s let them perform their analyses in peace.

This essay originally appeared in the Washington Post.

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Remote Hack of a Boeing 757

Last month, the DHS announced that it was able to remotely hack a Boeing 757:

“We got the airplane on Sept. 19, 2016. Two days later, I was successful in accomplishing a remote, non-cooperative, penetration,” said Robert Hickey, aviation program manager within the Cyber Security Division of the DHS Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate.

“[Which] means I didn’t have anybody touching the airplane, I didn’t have an insider threat. I stood off using typical stuff that could get through security and we were able to establish a presence on the systems of the aircraft.” Hickey said the details of the hack and the work his team are doing are classified, but said they accessed the aircraft’s systems through radio frequency communications, adding that, based on the RF configuration of most aircraft, “you can come to grips pretty quickly where we went” on the aircraft.

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Needless Panic Over a Wi-FI Network Name

A Turkish Airlines flight made an emergency landing because someone named his wireless network (presumably from his smartphone) “bomb on board.”

In 2006, I wrote an essay titled “Refuse to be Terrorized.” (I am also reminded of my 2007 essay, “The War on the Unexpected.” A decade later, it seems that the frequency of incidents like the one above is less, although not zero. Progress, I suppose.

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