When Security is Not Secure

There are wide variations in the quality and security of identification used to gain access to secure facilities where there is potential for terrorist attacks. In order to eliminate these variations, U.S. policy is to enhance security, increase Government efficiency, reduce identity fraud, and protect personal privacy by establishing a mandatory, Government-wide standard for secure and reliable forms of identification issued by the Federal Government to its employees and contractors (including contractor employees). HSPD-12

The Commonwealth of Virginia is the latest state to move to RealID. And again, I ask, why?

For those who have not followed the issue, following the attacks on September 11, 2001, a number of these Homeland Security Presidential Directives were issued. Number 12 forms the basis for the RealID standard. Other documents in this bucket include the CAC/PIV card used by the Federal Government, Passport, Global Entry, and yes, driver’s licenses. And if you have blindly, or even grudgingly handed over your personal information to these agencies, you probably did not think about the actual directive. But since this new ID allows you to board an aircraft, you probably did not blink. But perhaps you should. After all, unless you are issued a CAC/PIV card, what sort of security is this new ID providing?

I will wait.

Still confused? Let me help you. The process likely goes like this. You handed over your old driver’s license, your passport or immigration status card, your social security number, and some proof of residency to a clerk at the DMV (mine had a passing familiarity with English) and boom, you have a RealID card that will get you access to airplanes, military bases, and other government buildings. You may not get past the front door, but you will get inside. And how does this enhance security? There is no background check run. There are no fingerprints, no FBI file. If, like me, you have had your driver’s license more than a week, all they do is check your eyesight and charge a processing fee. Virginia gives you the option to not get one. For a lower fee.

CAC/PIV cards are completely different. They do a background check. With fingerprints, and an FBI file. But not with most of the other documents.

Feel more secure now? Oh, and China called. They are willing to sell you your file back. For less than the processing fee you just paid.

What a Government Shutdown Really Means

Spoiler: It does not mean politicians feel any pain.

If you have not met a Federal employee or contractor, or live more than a short drive from the Beltway (what we call the I-495/95 asphalt loop that circles DC), it is understandable that you have a rose coloured glasses opinion about what a government shutdown (even a partial shutdown) means. So, to help you understand the impacts on ordinary people, let me explain it to you.

This current shutdown is a partial shutdown. What does that mean? In this case, it means that only a small number of agencies are affected — specifically, the Department of Homeland (In)security, Justice, EPA, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, HUD, and a handful of others. Agencies, including the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Health and Human Services, to name a few are not impacted because their budget was approved after the earlier shutdown this year (yes, that’s right, this is the second shutdown in 2018, now rolling into 2019). I will not discuss the political hand-waving being done, but that does not mean this had to happen. Instead, let us look at the impact.

Personnel

It is estimated that this shutdown will impact some 800,000 people. That is 800,000 full-time Federal employees, and contractors. Let’s put this in perspective, shall we?

In November, General Motors announced it was laying off 14,000 employees. Wells Fargo quietly laid off 26,000, and Verizon is dumping some 10,000 employees. The layoffs in the Auto Industry caused a great hue and cry, but the other layoffs barely caused a ripple, in the press. Everyone agrees, however, that those numbers are significant numbers to be laid off in an economy that is growing. That is less than 10% of the total workforce that has been idled by the Federal Government. The official term is furloughed, and it is important to remember that the Federal Workforce has not been laid off (the same cannot be said for the contractors).

So why the difference in wording. Because being a Federal Employee comes with many benefits, and those benefits, come with a couple of significant catches. As a Federal Employee, you get at least nine days off a year (you know, all those Federal Holidays that none of the rest of us generally get). They get discounts at hotels, transit benefits, and a generally stable pay structure. In exchange, they cannot do certain things that the average employee can (look up Hatch Act for example), but it also means they cannot legally hold a second job. Which means, that if they are furloughed they cannot apply for unemployment insurance (since they are still technically employed), they cannot go and get a part-time job to carry them over until they are paid again, and best of all, if they are deemed essential they have to continue to work without the benefits of pay.

Federal employees will, eventually, get their pay. The bill has already been passed to pay them once the budgets are allocated, but until the money is available, they cannot be paid, even if they are required to stay at their posts. So be kind to that TSA employee. He may not be making much money, but at the moment, he is working and not being paid.

I mentioned that contractors are a particular case. Most contractors, assigned to work for agencies that are shut down, are not being paid, because their companies are not being paid. Moreover, since they are not working, they cannot receive pay for that time. They are, in all reality, laid off. Some of the larger contractors will carry these employees over. Either by forcing them to take paid time off, or send them off to training, but even that will not be a long-term fix. If their agency is not funded in a short period of time, usually two weeks in my experience, they will be out of work. Let me repeat this. Federal contractors, who work for agencies that are close, will be out of work if this is not resolved quickly. How many people are we talking about? As many as 10% in some agencies, considerably higher in other agencies. So those layoffs at GM and Wells Fargo are comparable to the layoffs that are happening in the Federal sector over the Christmas break.

Economics

The Government is closed. Look at all the money the Fed is saving. Again, this is not entirely accurate. The people that are full-time employees are, in fact, going to be paid. So there are no payroll cost savings.

Further, the lights, heat, and phones are still being utilized, even at a minimum extent (although if you notice, many of the Federal websites are still online) so those bills will have to be paid to the local utilities, eventually. But so do the mortgage, utilities, and other bills for the 800,000 employees who are not receiving a paycheque. These 800,000 people still have to feed their families, put gas in their cars, put clothes on their bodies — all without a paycheque. The gas company continues to send gas to their houses on the assumption the bill will be paid. Remember that many of these employees are not being paid a great deal of money. You can look up exactly how much they are being paid online. Also, like most Americans, living paycheque to paycheque is the norm. So missing even one paycheque is economically risky.

However, there are other impacts, some of which are invisible. Some of which are quite visible.

Because an agency is shuttered, it means that no one is eating Enzo’s Lunch Special at the local deli. Most of these restaurants barely survive with the local trade. Take it away for a day, a week, a month, and suddenly Enzo’s deli is no longer there. Car repairs are put on hold. Home upgrades. Tuition. The impacts are a real example of how trickledown economics really works. One domino falls, and it might not cause a cascade. Several falling and the cascade may be unstoppable. Eight hundred thousand people represent a lot of falling dominos and a lot of small to medium businesses being impacted.

So if you think that is not that big a deal, then think about this. The Federal Government is not paying its bills. At least those agencies that are closed are not paying their bills. The largest business in the United States is not paying its bills. However, companies have started doing work on the assumption that they will be paid. Uniforms are being made; servers are boxed, boots are ordered. Dell might be able to absorb a week or two shutdown and not have it negatively affect their bottom line, or their stock price, but other companies have already announced or will be announcing the hit in the fourth quarter or the first quarter of 2019. If this shutdown goes more than two weeks, expect those impacts to begin to show on the markets. If they have not shown up already in the significant downturn just after the shutdown was announced.

Access

A commenter on a site posted: I just went to my local National Park. The gates were up. You don’t need park rangers to allow you access to our national resource.

All well and good. The National Park Service, part of Interior, is unfunded and many of the Rangers are not patrolling the parks. Some parks are open, unattended; others are closed. However, Rangers and other park workers are not there to just collect the entrance fee (which is trivial). They are there to keep bad things from happening to the natural resource: no Rangers, no fire watch. No fire watch, well, we could lose acres to wildfires. No Rangers, no one stopping poachers, or others doing bad things on Federal land. No Rangers, or even park workers, no one to clean up the trails when the trees fall or rebuild bridges, or come and get you if you get into trouble. Think about that before you go out.

In DC, more visible than anywhere else, many tourists have discovered what the shutdown means in person. The Smithsonian museums are closed. Many tried to stay open until at least New Years, but come January 1, they all closed. Moreover, this is impacting many people and their plans.

As I mentioned, most of the government websites are still operational, although many have banners saying they are unattended. Got a question about your Known Traveller status? It’s going to have to wait. How about that citizenship application? Sorry, not today. Import license that is critical for making that end of month deadline? Hope you have alternate plans. Anything that is not automated is not being processed. So even if it is automated, if there is a piece of paper required, it will not be sent out.

A Shutdown is Expensive

If I have not convinced you that a shutdown is impactful, and more than just a political stunt, let me share some additional numbers.

The 2013 shutdown estimated a one-week shutdown would likely decrease fourth quarter annualized growth by 0.1-0.2 percentage points. Politico posits that the cost of the current shutdown could cost millions of dollars a day.

Quantifying the exact cost to the government is difficult, in part because every shutdown is different. Between November 1995 and January 1996, the government shut down twice for a total of 27 days as Democrats and Republicans clashed over Medicare funding, among other issues. A subsequent analysis conducted by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget estimated that both shutdowns together cost the government $1.4 billion—more than $2 billion today after adjusting for inflation.

That is not an insignificant cost. So that money is in addition to the funds that must be allocated to keep things open and running.

So if like many, you are shrugging your shoulders over the shutdown, I hope I have convinced you that, despite your political leanings, a shutdown is just brinksmanship. It has no positive outcome. Moreover, for many, the hand they have been dealt is not a winner.

Can I have what they’re smoking?

Mick Mulvaney says DHS can’t ‘spend money from Mexico’ for wall: ‘We have to get it from the treasury’

Mulvaney said that through the new agreement, “American workers are going to do better, the government is going to do better, and you could make the argument that Mexico is paying for it in that fashion.”

Seriously? This is how the current administration is justifying taking five billion dollars from the US taxpayer for a device to prevent border crossings. A device that the Chinese will tell you did not work as advertised, but did employ a lot of people. Mostly slaves.

I can think of a lot of things that five billion dollars can buy that will do a lot more good for the US economy. And for those playing the home game, five billion is the buy in. Current estimates are north of $20 bn for actual completion. For that the US could make Dominica a State. With cash left over. Or how about 50,000 teachers for a decade? No? 50,000 miles of road repairs. Surely that is just as important, and the follow on spending would boost a number of local economies. How about feed 3.4 million people for a year. We always hear about the homeless, many of whom are veterans in need of more than just food. We could also house some 300k of them.

Clearly preventing a tiny percentage of illegals has a cost (yes, tiny. The Census estimates less than 20 million illegals are in the US. That is the population of the state of Texas or a bit more than 4 times the population of New York City. A drop in the bucket) but the cost of building an ineffective preventative wall is even higher when you consider what can be built with it. (The next aircraft carrier is only $13 bn).

Let’s go Congress, show some leadership. Fix immigration.

Your Rights Are Not What You Think

“Aden described the scene in a Facebook post Saturday, adding that the officer who told him that he wasn’t being detained has an “ignorance of the law and the Fourth Amendment” of the U.S. Constitution that should disqualify him as a customs officer.” (WTOP)

Regrettably for Mr. Aden, as well as everyone else that considers themselves a citizen of the United States, whether natural born or legally converted, the law is not that clear and the rights granted under the Constitution do not actually apply as you have been deluded into believing (and if you think a Founding Father or two just rolled over, join the crowd). The article What Customs and Border Officials Can and Can’t Do highlights this in chilling detail.

As more and more of us are learning, especially with the more tyrannical leadership under Number 45, the Constitutional provisions offer you no protections within 100 miles of the United States Border. Let me say that again. According to the law, any member of the Customs and Border Protection Agency (CPB) has the legal right to stop you, perform an unsanctioned search and seizure, and detain you without a warrant. If your jaw just hit the floor, join the club. If you are confused, think about this. The Border of the United States is not just with Canada and Mexico. There is an invisible border twelve miles off the coast of the United States. Take a ruler. Draw a line from that 12-mile limit one hundred miles into the interior of the United States. Draw it one hundred miles from the US/Canadian border and 100 miles from the Mexican border. Tell me how many cities are inside that border? Tell me how much of the population fo the United States lives inside that line. Upset yet? You should be. Inside that zone, many of the provisions of the Constitution can be suspended without cause and there is nothing you can do about it. And it is only going to get worse, not better.

The person in the street shrugs, security comes first [B. Cockburn]. If that is your attitude, either you never plan to travel anywhere, or you do not understand how damaging this is to our foreign relationships. But as this sort of nonsense continues, it is likely that the United States will see a departure of its citizens. Those citizens that have the option to go somewhere else. The brain drain started when the IRS cracked down, in many cases irrationally, on funds overseas. This resulted in a serious backlash in financial markets that is already causing issues with US funds abroad. This type of harassment of citizens and foreigners alike will have negative impacts. Travel, tourism, and goodwill are important in international relations. When the country’s citizens are treated as criminals, the only one left will be criminals.

Rand Paul and the Patriot Act

Passed in the wake of September 11, 2001, the Patriot Act was a rush to grant law enforcement sweeping powers that they had not had prior to its passage.  Most of the act is classified, and it it rumored that just talking about it is a felony.  Over the weekend, the Patriot Act was on the chopping block, with numerous politicians scrambling to save it, and the authorizations that it grants.  The most sweeping of those being the bulk collection of meta-data by the NSA. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) stood alone against its renewal. In fact, Senator John McCain (R-Az.) said:

He obviously has a higher priority for his fundraising and political ambitions than for the security of the nation.” (as heard on CBS World News Roundup – 1Jn2015).

Despite Senator McCain’s opinion, many people would disagree, both in the United States and abroad.

That being said, it is clear that Rand Paul is not naive, admitting that the bill will eventually pass and the wiretapping will go on.

What surprises me is that Senator McCain even thinks something like a filibuster could or would have any effect on the bulk collection of data. As if the expiration of a law could stop it? And before you get on your soapbox and rant that “It is a law, it is no longer in force, therefore it is illegal,” allow me to point out a few facts.

The federal bureaucracy moves with glacial inertia. It is very hard to get things moving but once you do, it is almost impossible to make them stop. This is even more so in the intelligence community with is not subject to any sort of real oversight. The bulk collection of data is a huge industry. There are building springing up like mushrooms to support the effort. Contracts worth billions of dollars have been let by the government and the companies that hold those contracts will do everything in their power to keep those contracts active.

Short of an international delegation overseeing the complete shutdown of the collection process (much like under the SALT agreements for nuclear disarmament) the bulk collection of data is here to stay.  Legally, or not.

The TSA Is Not Happy Unless You Are Not Happy

In case you missed it, the latest TSA/DHI scare has been released:

(CNN) — The U.S. government has warned airlines to pay particular attention to the possibility of terrorists attempting to hide explosives in shoes, a result of new intelligence, according to two people familiar with the situation. (CNN)

Of course, they are saying this is being done in an abundance of caution but honestly, I am not buying it. Call me cynical, but I believe it is more like this….

Because this affects only aircraft coming into the United States from overseas, not Canada or Mexico, I believe that the aviation administrations or the TSA equivalent in these countries were pressuring the United States to get with the program. There was no valid need to have people take off their shoes and subject themselves to what is essentially a strip search, so why was the United States still requiring it?  We have already heard the hue and cry from the so called flight attendants when the TSA tried to reduce the restrictions on knives being brought onto aircraft, so you can imagine the yelling that might occur if they dropped the constant screening of footwear.

But I am much more cynical than that. Despite protestations to the contrary, I fully expect that those of you who have shelled out money to the TSA to probe your background under the so called TSA Pre program and have been promised that you can keep your shoes on will find that you will treated no differently than us poor slaves who refuse to let the government have more access to our personal data than they already have.  So get ready America, you will have to keep taking your shoes off.  And to those of you flying the not so friendly skies, you will as well.

 

The TSA is behind the curve

This will come as no surprise:

The Homeland Security Department is banning all liquids from carry-on luggage for nonstop flights from the U.S. to Russia. The ban comes after the department warned airlines that terrorists might try to smuggle explosives on board hidden in toothpaste tubes. The warning said terrorist might try to assemble explosive device in flight or upon arrival at the Olympics. (www.wtop.com)

There is very little that I hear coming out of the Department of Homeland (In)security anymore that leaves me dumbstruck, but this was one of them.  The first thing that went through my mind was who is running the Game Theory office at the TSA/DHI, and have they ever seen a James Bond movie? Plastic explosives in a toothpaste tube is de rigueur in spy craft. Open any kids book on espionage and there it is.  So for the TSA to now, thirteen odd years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, ban liquids again is pretty stunning.

And then I am taken back to the Confessions of a TSA agent that appeared only a couple of weeks ago in Politico. The United States Government (in other words, you and me) are spending $150,000 per machine for full-body scanners, that do not work, and even if they did, there is a high likelihood that no one is watching the monitor anyway. And as been discussed numerous times, the x-ray machines, both above and below the security screening area cannot tell the difference between peanut butter and C-4, or chocolate powder and explosives.

So why, exactly is the TSA banning liquids on flights to Russia?  Because if no one complains about them banning liquids in this test scenario, they will be able to ban them in general, except for those of you silly enough to shell out $80 (or more) for their Pre-Check program, where the agency will, with your permission to boot, know more about you than anyone else.  All because they cannot procure, use, or understand the equipment that we are already paying too much for.

 

 

If you wondered, is the US a Police State? The answer is – yes.

Over the last few months, the citizens, residents, and visitors to the United States have been regaled with stories of how the Government of the United States has been invading their privacy, opening their mail, listening to their phone calls, and generally monitoring their daily lives.  Of course, this is all in the name of security and to protect the public from the bad guys.

Up to this point in time, the revelations have been about how the National Security Administration are capturing your metadata, but not actually listening to your calls or reading your mail in real-time – they claim. But we have always suspected that other aspects of our life were under scrutiny.

Today, we got our answer:

The Transportation Security Administration is expanding its screening of passengers before they arrive at the airport by searching a wide array of government and private databases that can include records like car registrations and employment information. (New York Times)

What starches my socks is not that the TSA is doing this.  We pretty much knew they were doing this, even if we did not know they were doing this. No, what really galls me is that the TSA has a new program, called TSA Pre, which:

…allows select frequent flyers of participating airlines and members of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Trusted Traveler programs who are flying on participating airlines, to receive expedited screening benefits. Eligible participants use dedicated screening lanes for screening benefits which include leaving on shoes, light outerwear and belts, as well as leaving laptops and 3-1-1 compliant liquids in carry-on bags.

And to get this benefit, you have to fill out an on-line application, have an in-person interview and, most importantly, pay the TSA for the privilege every five years!  Currently the fee is $85.  Now some frequent flyer programs include this in the ticket price, but for the average Joe Flyer, you are on the hook.  Yet the TSA is already doing a complete scan before you board for free!  OK, so it is not really free.  I have already paid for it with my taxes, fees, and other departure costs rolled into the ticket.

So what is the point?  Already, the United States has more secure screening processes in place, compared to the rest of the world.  I can leave my shoes and belt on in Europe and Canada.  The x-ray machines can already pick out my laptop.  And frankly the screening outside the US is much better than what the TSA is doing.  So why should I be paying the TSA?  They already know more about me than I do.  I have already paid the fee, several times over, and they already have done the in-person interview, every single time I fly.

I am opposed to the police state the United States has become.  There are a number of reasons for this. But to charge the flying public to go through security is really taking the cake. As the saying goes: There’s a sucker born every minute. Clearly the American public is the sucker, and their own government is taking advantage.

“Winging It” is not an emergency plan

As much as I mock the generally inept Department of Homeland (In)security, their sub-agency, FEMA is quite often on the mark with their Ready.gov projects.  The newest push, during National Preparedness Month (that would be now, September), is suggesting you make an emergency plan with your kids.  And really, when was the last time you checked your emergency plan.  September 10, 2001?

Worrying about terrorism is not going to help. Instead you should worry about a local disaster, such as a gas tanker exploding in your neighbourhood (Gainesville, VA in July), or a propane tanker overturning near volatile oil lines (Sudley Manor Road in 2012). Snow storms, earthquakes and severe weather (Sandy, Katrina, Ivan, Floyd) are more likely to cause a disaster, and result in serious damage to your home than any random act of terrorism.

And yet, most people have not done much to prepare. And worse, as the echos of the last storm (in this case Sandy), fade, and the real pressures of day-to-day life take over, the desire and focus on preparation fades.  When was the last time you checked the water in your basement?  How about that canned food? Do you have any emergency cash? Updated your document cache with all those new forms? What about that new pet?  If you had to evacuate now, would you be able to? Would you know where to go? Could your family reunite? Where? How? When? Under what conditions?

If the answers to the above questions start with “…umm…” then you are not prepared. Take sometime this weekend and look at your kits, your plans, and ensure your tools are ready.  Because you might not get a second chance.