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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Terror and Science

If he's still alive (properly alive, as opposed to being kept alive like Ingsoc kept Immanuel Goldstein alive) I wonder what Whitney Houston fan Osama is thinking about the fact that every time someone makes the least commotion on a transatlantic flight these days a couple of fighter planes are sent up? I bet he's thanking Allah that didn't happen on September 11th 2001 over the North East United States...

It seems that most people here have no faith in the Government telling the truth, or anything like the truth, about The War Against Terror any more. To quote John Arbuthnot from 1735 "All political parties die at last of swallowing their own lies", and it seems New Labour has reached the point when it can dig that hole no more.

It seems the same is true in the USA. The piece below by Ted Rall (via Lew Rockwell's blog) draws on an article by The Register which basically suggests that the "plotters" would have had to take over the toilets on the plane for a suspiciously long time for the liquid explosives that were supposed to be at the heart of the "plot" to work...

Americans Shrug at Phony Binary Explosives Threat

LOS ANGELES--Attention, citizens of the national community: stay tuned for a HomeSec alert! A fiendish plot has been uncovered! Terrorists loyal to the sinister forces of Eastasia have been apprehended! It is another glorious victory for the homeland! All hail Oceania!

It was hard not to suffer a 1984 flashback on August 10th, when UK authorities and their rhetorical American partners claimed to have rounded up more than two dozen British Muslims accused of--or so they claimed--participation in an elaborate plot to commit "mass murder on an unimaginable scale." According to Britain's national Crown Prosecution Service the suspects planned "to smuggle the component parts of improvised explosive devices onto aircraft and assemble and detonate them on board" as many as ten passenger jets bound for the United States from England.

The airline industry, long teetering on the edge of financial catastrophe, could easily be shoved headlong into oblivion as the result of harsh new security restrictions. Travelers are being asked to arrive at the airport three hours before their scheduled departure times because of longer lines at shortstaffed security checkpoints. All liquids and gels--staple components of cosmetics, toothpaste, medicine and other toiletries--have been banned from carry-on baggage, adding at least another hour to the trips of carry-on-only passengers who previously never had to wait for their belongings to disgorge upon the baggage carousel.

Industry analysts say travelers aren't afraid of being blown up by terrorists. They're right. Hundreds of millions of people fly each year; very few end up shredded among the wreckage of an office tower. But passengers are afraid. They fear that the government's draconian security measures will make them miss their flights. That real and wholly justifiable fear has already cut ticket sales by as much as 20 percent.

A mere two days after British officials announced that they had foiled the dastardly Islamofascists terror plot, and the Bush Administration crowed that this news somehow proved that they had once again kept us safe, Americans weren't fazed in the least. People polled by Newsweek said, 54 to 26 percent, they still didn't want to give up their carry-on bags. As the Republican Party continued its suicidal stay-the-course mantra into the November midterm elections, the sound of a Great National Shrug greeted the latest triumphalist shrieks from America's telescreens.

Could it be, despite our leaders' long-established record of always telling us the truth no matter what, that we can't be sure there was a plot at all? Or that, if there was a plot, it wasn't viable--certainly not nearly enough to justify the risk to the airline industry or hassling hundreds of millions of travelers?

According to the respected and irreverent British technology publication The Register, the plot--if it existed--was a joke. Smuggling the component parts of triacetone triperoxide (TATP)--the liquid explosive we've been told was the object of the wannabe jihadis' vengeance fantasies--and successfully mixing them into a brew powerful enough to bring down a plane would require skills far beyond the capabilities of, well, anyone.

"First," wrote The Register, "you've got to get adequately concentrated hydrogen peroxide. This is hard to come by, so a large quantity of the three per cent solution sold in pharmacies might have to be concentrated by boiling off the water...Take your hydrogen peroxide, acetone, and sulfuric acid, measure them very carefully, and put them into drink bottles for convenient smuggling onto a plane. It's all right to mix the peroxide and acetone in one container, so long as it remains cool. Don't forget to bring several frozen gel-packs (preferably in a Styrofoam chiller deceptively marked "perishable foods"), a thermometer, a large beaker, a stirring rod, and a medicine dropper. You're going to need them.

"It's best to fly first class and order champagne. The bucket full of ice water, which the airline ought to supply, might possibly be adequate...Once the plane is over the ocean, very discreetly bring all of your gear into the toilet. You might need to make several trips to avoid drawing attention. Once your kit is in place, put a beaker containing the peroxide/acetone mixture into the ice water bath (champagne bucket), and start adding the acid, drop by drop, while stirring constantly. Watch the reaction temperature carefully. The mixture will heat, and if it gets too hot, you'll end up with a weak explosive. In fact, if it gets really hot, you'll get a premature explosion possibly sufficient to kill you, but probably no one else.

"After a few hours--assuming, by some miracle, that the fumes haven't overcome you or alerted passengers or the flight crew to your activities--you'll have a quantity of TATP with which to carry out your mission. Now all you need to do is dry it for an hour or two."

The conclusion is clear: "Certainly, if we can imagine a group of jihadists smuggling the necessary chemicals and equipment on board, and cooking up TATP in the lavatory, then we've passed from the realm of action blockbusters to that of situation comedy."

The "plot," or at least the prosecution thereof, is already unraveling. Two "terrorists" have been released. Of the remaining 23, only 11 have been charged. Of those charged, only eight face charges related to the "plot."

Indeed, perhaps the technology which is supposed to make us safer in T.W.A.T. is more dangerous than anything wannabe loverboys of 72 virgins could ever dream up. For example, electronic passports. The piece below (hat-tip to no2id) comes from mobile security firm Flexisis:

In order to increase the security of United States travel documents, the Government has developed a new ‘electronic passport’ system. This new passport system, slated for deployment in October 2006, will contain RFID tags: chips that will wirelessly send passport and biometric information to an inquiring RFID reader. Through extensive research and real world experimentation, Flexilis has discovered a significant issue in the State Department’s proposed solution. This issue, if not immediately addressed, could put American passport holders at increased risk while traveling abroad for the ten year lifetime of the passport deployment.

RFID e-Passport Vulnerability

Starting October 2006, new U.S. passports will contain RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips which hold an individual’s picture and personal information. These chips can be “read” wirelessly from a distance of several feet. In order to prevent thieves from stealing sensitive personal data, the State Department has included several security measures in the proposed passport standard.
Reading a passport’s RFID chip requires a password generated by scanning the machine readable data on the inside front cover. Additionally, a small shield in the front cover is supposed to only allow wireless passport reading when the booklet is open.
The current system prevents attackers from accessing the onboard RFID tag when a passport is fully closed; however, when in a pocket, purse, or briefcase, a passport has a very high probability of being slightly open. Our research has shown that, even when open only a fraction of an inch, the current proposed passport will fail to prevent unwanted RFID communications.

Although the current shield is often ineffective, the chip’s password prevents personal information from being unknowingly disclosed; however, the simple ability for an attacker to know that someone is carrying a passport (and where he or she is carrying it) is a dangerous security breach.

Additionally, it may be possible to determine the nationality of a passport holder by “fingerprinting” the characteristics inherent in each country’s RFID chips. Taken to a logical extreme, this security vulnerability could make it possible for terrorists to craft explosives that detonate only when someone from the U.S. is nearby.

A better solution utilizes a dual cover shield and a specifically designed RFID tag assembly which is able to shield the passport until it is significantly open, not just a fraction of an inch. Thus, even when your passport is slightly open in your pocket, purse, or briefcase, you are protected from malicious data-theft, and (in a pessimistic future) RFID-equipped terrorists.

Even though no personal information is disclosed due to the failure of the current shielding system, such a breach of security has a real potential for people to be hurt, and, given the time until implementation, has a real potential to be corrected with a better solution.

So e-passports may make Americans more vulnerable to terror attacks. Knowing that it's American technology, it'll probably be taken up by our lot here with gusto ("Hey, look, you know, it truly is the People's Passport...").


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