Print 27 comment(s) - last by JKflipflop98.. on Oct 28 at 3:59 AM

  (Source: Lifehacker)
Vulnerable information could help malicious parties plan attacks

The U.S. Transportation Safety Administration has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to blanket the nation's airports in "nude" full-body scanners. However, base security still relies heavily on conventional searches -- pat-downs and luggage scans -- amid concerns regarding the efficacy of the nude scanners.

I. TSA Uses Unencrypted Barcode Info to Designate Not-so-Random "Random" Searches

That's why the findings of an aviation blogger -- John Butler -- are particularly troubling. They represent a serious compromise in security procedures by allowing passengers to know, via inspecting their barcode, whether they will be subject to conventional screens.

Mr. Butler published his findings to his blog PuckInFlight.

The flaw is specific to the TSA's pre-screening program.  That program allows frequent fliers to pay a fee to get to skip certain digital screening requirements.  Passengers who pay the fee get to carry on approved liquids in their luggage, don't have to remove their personal electronics, and can keep their belts/shoes on, when travelling through the scanners.

The idea is that the passengers are pre-screened to try to weed out potential violent threats, and then to use the possibility of random screens to deter any would be terrorists from going to great lengths to try to exploit the program.

Except the screens weren't random.  According to Mr. Butler, they appear to be pre-determined, and worse yet the barcode on your ticket tells -- without encryption -- whether you will be screened.

Boarding pass wide
The decoded contents of Mr. Butler's boarding pass. [Image Source: PuckInFlight]

The majority of the barcode encodes your name, flight number, departure city, destination city, seat number, etc.  But the final encoded number is a mysterious '1' or '3'.  The number encodes a number of beeps that prompts the TSA agents -- in predetermined fashion -- whether to screen the passenger (1 beep means no conventional pre-check, 3 beeps means to do a conventional pre-check).

II. Want to Illegally Skip Security? Print a Modified Boarding Pass

As Mr. Butler points out, a malicious flyer could read their bar code information, then re-encode a new bar code with the '3' replaced with a '1'.  The blogger summarizes:

What  terrorists  or really anyone can do is use a website to decode the barcode and get the flight information, put it into a text file, change the 1 to a 3, then use another website to re-encode it into a barcode. Finally, using a commercial photo-editing program or any program that can edit graphics replace the barcode in their boarding pass with the new one they created. Even more scary is that people can do this to change names. So if they have a fake ID they can use this method to make a valid boarding pass that matches their fake ID. The really scary part is this will get past both the TSA document checker, because the scanners the TSA use are just barcode decoders, they don’t check against the real time information. So the TSA document checker will not pick up on the alterations. This means, as long as they sub in 3 they can always use the Pre-Check line.

Sterling Payne, in a comment to The Washington Post, refused to say whether Mr. Butler's findings were accurate or not.  He comments, "TSA does not comment on specifics of the screening process, which contain measures both seen and unseen.  TSA Pre Check is only one part of our intelligence-driven, risk-based approach."

According to The Washington Post, many boarding passes come with verification codes, which could prevent the attack from being carried out.  However, the publication notes that some boarding passes are marked as "unverified" and appear to still be validated.  As boarding passes can be printed up to 24 hours in advance, attackers could have a window of opportunity to analyze and modify an unverified pass.

TSA screener
A modified unverified pass could offer a free pass through security.
[Image Source: OC Register]

Chris Soghoian, an advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union, said poor security is nothing terribly new for the TSA.  He created a website back in 2006 that allowed people to create fake boarding passes to test TSA security.

He comments on the latest hole, "If you have a team of four people [planning an attack], the day before the operation when you print the boarding passes, whichever guy is going to have the least screening is going to be the one who’ll take potentially problematic items through security.  If you know who’s getting screened before you walk into the airport, you can make sure the right guy is carrying the right bags."

The temptation, he points out, might be to use profiling or other tactics, but he notes the ACLU opposes them.  He says such methods are unnecessary, if the TSA just did its job and encrypted the information on the passes.  At the end of the day that's the same conclusion Mr. Butler came to.

Both men made it clear that they did not test the attack by printing fake boarding passes.  Mr. Butler stated that he believed that was a "legally grey area and morally black one", while The Washington Post suggests, "[It] is illegal to tamper with a boarding card under U.S. law."

Sources: Puck In Flight [John Butler], The Washington Post

Comments     Threshold

This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

By 91TTZ on 10/25/2012 4:26:29 PM , Rating: 0
Except the screens weren't random. According to Mr. Butler, they appear to be pre-determined, and worse yet the barcode on your ticket tells -- without encryption -- whether you will be screened.

I don't get this guy's point. The screens could still be random- they'd just be randomly selected by the computer before printing your ticket. And the fact that the barcode isn't encrypted doesn't mean anything, either- it could print a red flag on your ticket for all I care.

The fact is that if they actually randomly selected people at the checkpoint, eventually they'd randomly select an innocent Muslim guy, and eventually one of those innocent Muslim guys would sue the TSA, claiming he was singled out because of his race. The TSA wanted to avoid that so they made the random selection happen when you printed your ticket, without ever seeing what you look like.

RE: Huh?
By Digimonkey on 10/25/2012 4:31:09 PM , Rating: 2
They gave an example. You get the ticket before going through security so you could check it before security. If you're in a group chances are all of you aren't getting checked. So you just give the stuff you want to get through security to guy with the winning ticket.

RE: Huh?
By JasonMick on 10/25/2012 4:36:28 PM , Rating: 3
The screens could still be random- they'd just be randomly selected by the computer before printing your ticket.
The proper term would be pseudorandom, but yes you could argue that, if you want to pick and semantics.

But the point is that the passenger can know -- in advance -- whether they will be screened, rather than if the system simply relied on impromptu checks by agents following a code of guidelines, but with no specific instructions of when to search.

An encrypted ticket would also be a pseudorandom approach, but it would appear random to the passenger, as unless they cracked the encryption they would not know they were being searched.

When it comes to the digital world, most randomness is purely perceived and not really random at all.

RE: Huh?
By Flunk on 10/25/2012 4:43:46 PM , Rating: 4
I think the real point is that the TSA is stupid enough to encode the data on the barcode in the first place. Best practices would be to encode a psuedo-random ID or an obfuscated ID number that is linked to the information in TSA's database. That way the passenger doesn't have access to it or any reasonable way to change it.

RE: Huh?
By Samus on 10/27/2012 1:30:56 AM , Rating: 2
Exactly. Barcodes are way overutilized for security-sensitive situations.

RE: Huh?
By Iaiken on 10/25/2012 4:44:48 PM , Rating: 2
Encrypting bar codes is neither hard nor expensive; this problem is the product of either laziness or incompetence on the TSA's part.

RE: Huh?
By Motoman on 10/25/2012 6:06:12 PM , Rating: 2
Both. And the irrefutable fact that they're utterly useless in any case.

RE: Huh?
By fic2 on 10/25/2012 7:03:52 PM , Rating: 2
You don't even have to have a real boarding pass. Download a copy of photoshop and build your own.

If you really didn't care that it was a plane but still wanted to disrupt flying you don't even need a fake boarding pass you could just wait until you are in the middle of the security line and detonate yourself. Then TSA would have to have pre-security for the security line. Then someone could detonate themselves in the pre-security line forcing TSA to have a pre-pre-security line....

RE: Huh?
By Nutzo on 10/26/2012 11:13:17 AM , Rating: 2
Even worse.
What do you think would happen if a group of heavily armed terrorist jumped out of a van, rushed to the security line, and started shooting anyone in their way?
The TSA agents would scatter like cockroaches, and the terrorist would have a free run to the boarding area/planes.

RE: Huh?
By tng on 10/26/2012 5:45:30 PM , Rating: 3
You don't even have to have a real boarding pass. Download a copy of photoshop and build your own.
Nonsense, there is no need to go to such trouble as using photoshop.

Most of the boarding passes are put out as a PDF file. With acrobat, you can save a copy and just change dates and numbers of the original and reprint. Know someone who did this regularly did this to change his boarding status so he could get overhead space and never had a issue.

Same thing can be done to change the dates on a boarding pass or other numbers, just paste a new number over the old and as long as the font matches, no problem. People already do this.

“So far we have not seen a single Android device that does not infringe on our patents." -- Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith

Most Popular Articles5 Cases for iPhone 7 and 7 iPhone Plus
September 18, 2016, 10:08 AM
No More Turtlenecks - Try Snakables
September 19, 2016, 7:44 AM
ADHD Diagnosis and Treatment in Children: Problem or Paranoia?
September 19, 2016, 5:30 AM
Walmart may get "Robot Shopping Carts?"
September 17, 2016, 6:01 AM
Automaker Porsche may expand range of Panamera Coupe design.
September 18, 2016, 11:00 AM

Copyright 2016 DailyTech LLC. - RSS Feed | Advertise | About Us | Ethics | FAQ | Terms, Conditions & Privacy Information | Kristopher Kubicki