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What Happened to Cyber 9/11?

A recent article in the Atlantic asks why we haven’t seen a”cyber 9/11″ in the past fifteen or so years. (I, too, remember the increasingly frantic and fearful warnings of a “cyber Peal Harbor,” “cyber Katrina” — when that was a thing — or “cyber 9/11.” I made fun of those warnings back then.) The author’s answer:

Three main barriers are likely preventing this. For one, cyberattacks can lack the kind of drama and immediate physical carnage that terrorists seek. Identifying the specific perpetrator of a cyberattack can also be difficult, meaning terrorists might have trouble reaping the propaganda benefits of clear attribution. Finally, and most simply, it’s possible that they just can’t pull it off.

Commenting on the article, Rob Graham adds:

I think there are lots of warning from so-called “experts” who aren’t qualified to make such warnings, that the press errs on the side of giving such warnings credibility instead of challenging them.

I think mostly the reason why cyberterrorism doesn’t happen is that which motivates violent people is different than what which motivates technical people, pulling apart the groups who would want to commit cyberterrorism from those who can.

These are all good reasons, but I think both authors missed the most important one: there simply aren’t a lot of terrorists out there. Let’s ask the question more generally: why hasn’t there been another 9/11 since 2001? I also remember dire predictions that large-scale terrorism was the new normal, and that we would see 9/11-scale attacks regularly. But since then, nothing. We could credit the fantastic counterterrorism work of the US and other countries, but a more reasonable explanation is that there are very few terrorists and even fewer organized ones. Our fear of terrorism is far greater than the actual risk.

This isn’t to say that cyberterrorism can never happen. Of course it will, sooner or later. But I don’t foresee it becoming a preferred terrorism method anytime soon. Graham again:

In the end, if your goal is to cause major power blackouts, your best bet is to bomb power lines and distribution centers, rather than hack them.

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Mailing Tech Support a Bomb

I understand his frustration, but this is extreme:

When police asked Cryptopay what could have motivated Salonen to send the company a pipe bomb ­ or, rather, two pipe bombs, which is what investigators found when they picked apart the explosive package ­ the only thing the company could think of was that it had declined his request for a password change.

In August 2017, Salonen, a customer of Cryptopay, emailed their customer services team to ask for a new password. They refused, given that it was against the company’s privacy policy.

A fair point, as it’s never a good idea to send a new password in an email. A password-reset link is safer all round, although it’s not clear if Cryptopay offered this option to Salonen.

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Daphne Caruana Galizia’s Murder and the Security of WhatsApp

Daphne Caruana Galizia was a Maltese journalist whose anti-corruption investigations exposed powerful people. She was murdered in October by a car bomb.

Galizia used WhatsApp to communicate securely with her sources. Now that she is dead, the Maltese police want to break into her phone or the app, and find out who those sources were.

One journalist reports:

Part of Daphne’s destroyed smart phone was elevated from the scene.

Investigators say that Caruana Galizia had not taken her laptop with her on that particular trip. If she had done so, the forensic experts would have found evidence on the ground.

Her mobile phone is also being examined, as can be seen from her WhatsApp profile, which has registered activity since the murder. But it is understood that the data is safe.

Sources close to the newsroom said that as part of the investigation her sim card has been cloned. This is done with the help of mobile service providers in similar cases. Asked if her WhatsApp messages or any other messages that were stored in her phone will be retrieved, the source said that since the messaging application is encrypted, the messages cannot be seen. Therefore it is unlikely that any data can be retrieved.

I am less optimistic than that reporter. The FBI is providing “specific assistance.” The article doesn’t explain that, but I would not be surprised if they were helping crack the phone.

It will be interesting to see if WhatsApp’s security survives this. My guess is that it depends on how much of the phone was recovered from the bombed car.

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Extending the Airplane Laptop Ban

The Department of Homeland Security is rumored to be considering extending the current travel ban on large electronics for Middle Eastern flights to European ones as well. The likely reaction of airlines will be to implement new traveler programs, effectively allowing wealthier and more frequent fliers to bring their computers with them. This will only exacerbate the divide between the haves and the have-nots — all without making us any safer.

In March, both the United States and the United Kingdom required that passengers from 10 Muslim countries give up their laptop computers and larger tablets, and put them in checked baggage. The new measure was based on reports that terrorists would try to smuggle bombs onto planes concealed in these larger electronic devices.

The security measure made no sense for two reasons. First, moving these computers into the baggage holds doesn’t keep them off planes. Yes, it is easier to detonate a bomb that’s in your hands than to remotely trigger it in the cargo hold. But it’s also more effective to screen laptops at security checkpoints than it is to place them in checked baggage. TSA already does this kind of screening randomly and occasionally: making passengers turn laptops on to ensure that they’re functional computers and not just bomb-filled cases, and running chemical tests on their surface to detect explosive material.

And, two, banning laptops on selected flights just forces terrorists to buy more roundabout itineraries. It doesn’t take much creativity to fly Doha-Amsterdam-New York instead of direct. Adding Amsterdam to the list of affected airports makes the terrorist add yet another itinerary change; it doesn’t remove the threat.

Which brings up another question: If this is truly a threat, why aren’t domestic flights included in this ban? Remember that anyone boarding a plane to the United States from these Muslim countries has already received a visa to enter the country. This isn’t perfect security — the infamous underwear bomber had a visa, after all — but anyone who could detonate a laptop bomb on his international flight could do it on his domestic connection.

I don’t have access to classified intelligence, and I can’t comment on whether explosive-filled laptops are truly a threat. But, if they are, TSA can set up additional security screenings at the gates of US-bound flights worldwide and screen every laptop coming onto the plane. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had additional security screening at the gate. And they should require all laptops to go through this screening, prohibiting them from being stashed in checked baggage.

This measure is nothing more than security theater against what appears to be a movie-plot threat.

Banishing laptops to the cargo holds brings with it a host of other threats. Passengers run the risk of their electronics being stolen from their checked baggage — something that has happened in the past. And, depending on the country, passengers also have to worry about border control officials intercepting checked laptops and making copies of what’s on their hard drives.

Safety is another concern. We’re already worried about large lithium-ion batteries catching fire in airplane baggage holds; adding a few hundred of these devices will considerably exacerbate the risk. Both FedEx and UPS no longer accept bulk shipments of these batteries after two jets crashed in 2010 and 2011 due to combustion.

Of course, passengers will rebel against this rule. Having access to a computer on these long transatlantic flights is a must for many travelers, especially the high-revenue business-class travelers. They also won’t accept the delays and confusion this rule will cause as it’s rolled out. Unhappy passengers fly less, or fly other routes on other airlines without these restrictions.

I don’t know how many passengers are choosing to fly to the Middle East via Toronto to avoid the current laptop ban, but I suspect there may be some. If Europe is included in the new ban, many more may consider adding Canada to their itineraries, as well as choosing European hubs that remain unaffected.

As passengers voice their disapproval with their wallets, airlines will rebel. Already Emirates has a program to loan laptops to their premium travelers. I can imagine US airlines doing the same, although probably for an extra fee. We might learn how to make this work: keeping our data in the cloud or on portable memory sticks and using unfamiliar computers for the length of the flight.

A more likely response will be comparable to what happened after the US increased passenger screening post-9/11. In the months and years that followed, we saw different ways for high-revenue travelers to avoid the lines: faster first-class lanes, and then the extra-cost trusted traveler programs that allow people to bypass the long lines, keep their shoes on their feet and leave their laptops and liquids in their bags. It’s a bad security idea, but it keeps both frequent fliers and airlines happy. It would be just another step to allow these people to keep their electronics with them on their flight.

The problem with this response is that it solves the problem for frequent fliers, while leaving everyone else to suffer. This is already the case; those of us enrolled in a trusted traveler program forget what it’s like to go through “normal” security screening. And since frequent fliers — likely to be more wealthy — no longer see the problem, they don’t have any incentive to fix it.

Dividing security checks into haves and have-nots is bad social policy, and we should actively fight any expansion of it. If the TSA implements this security procedure, it should implement it for every flight. And there should be no exceptions. Force every politically connected flier, from members of Congress to the lobbyists that influence them, to do without their laptops on planes. Let the TSA explain to them why they can’t work on their flights to and from D.C.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

EDITED TO ADD: US officials are backing down.

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Testing for Explosives in the Chicago Subway

Chicago is doing random explosives screenings at random L stops in the Chicago area. Compliance is voluntary:

Police made no arrests but one rider refused to submit to the screening and left the station without incident, Maloney said.

[…]

Passengers can decline the screening, but will not be allowed to board a train at that station. Riders can leave that station and board a train at a different station.

I have to wonder what would happen if someone who looks Arab refused to be screened. And what possible value this procedure has. Anyone who has a bomb in their bag would see the screening point well before approaching it, and be able to walk to the next stop without potentially arousing suspicion.

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