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How 9/11 changed air travel: more security, less privacy

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How 911 changed air travel more security, less privacy

Ask anyone old enough to remember travel before Sept. 11, 2001, and you’re likely to get a gauzy recollection of what flying was like.

There was security screening, but it wasn’t anywhere near as intrusive. There were no long checkpoint lines. Passengers and their families could walk right to the gate together, postponing goodbye hugs until the last possible moment. Overall, an airport experience meant far less stress.

That all ended when four hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

The worst terror attack on American soil led to increased and sometimes tension-filled security measures in airports across the world, aimed at preventing a repeat of that awful day. The cataclysm has also contributed to other changes large and small that have reshaped the airline industry — and, for consumers, made air travel more stressful than ever.

Two months after the attacks, President George W. Bush signed legislation creating the Transportation Security Administration, a force of federal airport screeners that replaced the private companies that airlines were hiring to handle security. The law required that all checked bags be screened, cockpit doors be reinforced, and more federal air marshals be put on flights.

There has not been another 9/11. Nothing even close. But after that day, flying changed forever.

NEW THREATS, PRIVACY CONCERNS

Here’s how it unfolded.

Security measures evolved with new threats, and so travelers were asked to take off belts and remove some items from bags for scanning. Things that clearly could be wielded as weapons, like the box-cutters used by the 9/11 hijackers, were banned. After “shoe bomber” Richard Reid’s attempt to take down a flight from Paris to Miami in late 2001, footwear started coming off at security checkpoints.

Each new requirement seemed to make checkpoint lines longer, forcing passengers to arrive at the airport earlier if they wanted to make their flights. To many travelers, other rules were more mystifying, such as limits on liquids because the wrong ones could possibly be used to concoct a bomb.

“It’s a much bigger hassle than it was before 9/11 — much bigger — but we have gotten used to it,” Ronald Briggs said as he and his wife, Jeanne, waited at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport for a flight to London last month. The north Texas retirees, who traveled frequently before the pandemic, said they are more worried about COVID-19 than terrorism.

“The point about taking shoes off because of one incident on a plane seems somewhat on the extreme side,” Ronald Briggs said, “but the PreCheck works pretty smoothly, and I’ve learned to use a plastic belt so I don’t have to take it off.”

The long lines created by post-attack measures gave rise to the PreCheck and Global Entry “trusted-traveler programs” in which people who pay a fee and provide certain information about themselves pass through checkpoints without removing shoes and jackets or taking laptops out of their bag.

But that convenience has come at a cost: privacy.

On its application and in brief interviews, PreCheck asks people about basic information like work history and where they have lived, and they give a fingerprint and agree to a criminal-records check. Privacy advocates are particularly concerned about ideas that TSA has floated to also examine social media postings (the agency’s top official says that has been dropped), press reports about people, location data and information from data brokers including how applicants spend their money.

“It’s far from clear that that has any relationship to aviation security,” says Jay Stanley, a privacy expert at the American Civil Liberties Union.

More than 10 million people have enrolled in PreCheck. TSA wants to raise that to 25 million.

The goal is to let TSA officers spend more time on passengers considered to be a bigger risk. As the country marks the 20th anniversary of the attacks, the TSA’s work to expand PreCheck is unfolding in a way privacy advocates worry could put people’s information at more risk.

At the direction of Congress, the TSA will expand the use of private vendors to gather information from PreCheck applicants. It currently uses a company called Idemia, and plans by the end of the year to add two more — Telos Identity Management Solutions and Clear Secure Inc.

Clear, which recently went public, plans to use PreCheck enrollment to boost membership in its own identity-verification product by bundling the two offerings. That will make Clear’s own product more valuable to its customers, which include sports stadiums and concert promoters.

“They are really trying to increase their market share by collecting quite a lot of very sensitive data on as many people as they can get their hands on. That strikes a lot of alarm bells for me,” says India McKinney, director of federal affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group for digital rights.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske, though, sees Clear’s strategy as helping TSA. Says Pekoske: “We have allowed the vendors to bundle their offerings together with the idea that would be an incentive for people to sign up for the trusted-traveler programs.”

The TSA is testing the use of kiosks equipped with facial-recognition technology to check photo IDs and boarding passes rather than having an officer do it. Critics say facial-recognition technology makes errors, especially on people of color.

TSA officials told privacy advocates earlier this year that those kiosks will also pull photos taken when the traveler applied for PreCheck, McKinney says. That concerns her because it would mean connecting the kiosks to the internet — TSA says that much is true — and potentially exposing the information to hackers.

“They are totally focusing on the convenience factor,” McKinney says, “and they are not focusing on the privacy and security factors.”

‘SECURITY THEATER’?

Despite the trauma that led to its creation, and the intense desire to avoid another 9/11, the TSA itself has frequently been the subject of questions about its methods, ideas and effectiveness.

Flight attendants and air marshals were outraged when the agency proposed in 2013 to let passengers carry folding pocket knives and other long-banned items on planes again. The agency dropped the idea. And after another outcry, the TSA removed full-body scanners that produced realistic-looking images that some travelers compared to virtual strip searches. They were replaced by other machines that caused fewer privacy and health objections. Pat-downs of travelers are a constant complaint.

In 2015, a published report said TSA officers failed 95% of the time to detect weapons or explosive material carried by undercover inspectors. Members of Congress who received a classified briefing raised their concerns to Pekoske, with one lawmaker saying that TSA “is broken badly.”

Critics, including former TSA officers, have derided the agency as “security theater” that gives a false impression of safeguarding the traveling public. Pekoske dismisses that notion by pointing to the huge number of guns seized at airport checkpoints — more than 3,200 last year, 83% of them loaded — instead of making it onto planes.

Pekoske also ticked off other TSA tasks, including vetting passengers, screening checked bags with 3-D technology, inspecting cargo and putting federal air marshals on flights.

“There is an awful lot there that people don’t see,” Pekoske says. “Rest assured: This is not security theater. It’s real security.”

Many independent experts agree with Pekoske’s assessment, though they usually see areas where the TSA must improve.

“TSA is an effective deterrent against most attacks,” says Jeffrey Price, who teaches aviation security at Metropolitan State University of Denver and has co-authored books on the subject. “If it’s security theater, like some critics say, it’s pretty good security theater because since 9/11 we haven’t had a successful attack against aviation.”

This summer, an average of nearly 2 million people per day have flowed through TSA checkpoints. On weekends and holidays they can be teeming with stressed-out travelers. During the middle of the week, even at big airports like DFW, they are less crowded; they hum rather than roar. Most travelers accept any inconvenience as the price of security in an uncertain world.

Travel “is getting harder and harder, and I don’t think it’s just my age,” said Paula Gathings, who taught school in Arkansas for many years and was waiting for a flight to Qatar and then another to Kenya, where she will spend the next several months teaching. She blames the difficulty of travel on the pandemic, not the security apparatus.

“They are there for my security. They aren’t there to hassle me,” Gathings said of TSA screeners and airport police. “Every time somebody asks me to do something, I can see the reason for it. Maybe it’s the schoolteacher in me.”

THREATS FROM WITHIN

In 2015, a Russian airliner crashed shortly after taking off from Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt. American and British officials suspected it was brought down by a bomb.

It was, however, the exception rather than the rule. Even outside the United States, terror attacks on aviation since Sept. 11, 2001 have been rare. Is that because of effective security? Proving a negative, or even attributing it directly to a certain flavor of prevention, is always a dicey exercise.

And then there are the inside jobs.

— In 2016, a bomb ripped a hole in a Daallo Airlines plane shortly after takeoff, killing the bomber but 80 other passengers and crew survived. Somali authorities released video from Mogadishu’s airport that they said showed the man being handed a laptop containing the bomb.

— In 2018, a Delta Air Lines baggage handler in Atlanta was convicted of using his security pass to smuggle more than 100 guns on flights to New York.

— The following year, an American Airlines mechanic with Islamic State videos on his phone pleaded guilty to sabotaging a plane full of passengers by crippling a system that measures speed and altitude. Pilots aborted the flight during takeoff in Miami.

Those incidents highlight a threat that TSA needs to worry about — people who work for airlines or airports and have security clearance that lets them avoid regular screening. Pekoske says TSA is improving its oversight of the insider threat.

“All those folks that have a (security) badge, you’re right, many do have unescorted access throughout an airport, but they also go through a very rigorous vetting process before they are even hired,” Pekoske says. Those workers are typically reviewed every few years, but he says TSA is rolling out a system that will trigger immediate alerts based on law enforcement information.

With all the different ways that deadly chaos could happen on airplanes after 9/11, the fact remains: Most of the time, it hasn’t. The act of getting on a metal machine and rising into the air to travel quickly across states and countries and oceans remains a central part of the 21st-century human experience, arduous though it may be.

And while the post-9/11 global airport security apparatus has grown to what some consider unreasonable proportions, it will never neutralize all threats — or even be able to enforce the rules it has written. Just ask Nathan Dudney, a sales executive for a sporting goods manufacturer in Nashville who says he occasionally forgets about ammunition in his carry-on bag.

Sometimes it’s discovered, he says, and sometimes not. He understands.

“You can’t catch everything,” Dudney says. “They’re doing things to the best of their ability.”

Ethical Tech

New FTC memo will transform the way big tech operates

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FTC

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan recently publicized her policy priorities and vision in a memo that was sent out to staff members on Wednesday. 

Supervised by five commissioners who vote on enforcement actions and policy statements, Khan set in stone the main priorities of the agency in the recent FTC memo: fixing power imbalances, reducing harm on the consumers, and targeting “rampant consolidation.” 

Khan laid out the main focus of the agency, as well as how it can adjust its strategic approach to overcome issues born by “next-generation technologies, innovations, and nascent industries across sectors.” 

FTC’s new list of priorities indicates that tech giants, even though none of them were named, will be under extreme scrutiny going forward. 

The five principles outlined in the FTC memo are the following: 

  1. Conduct a “holistic approach to identifying harms.” Khan noted that the agency should acknowledge that employees, private corporations, as well as consumers, can be equally harmed by antitrust and consumer protection violations. The famous antitrust lawsuits have previously emphasized strictly on consumer harm, as it was mainly concerned with how to price a product to ensure fairness. However, Khan argued in her memo that a more productive approach could be utilized to better assess harm by tech giants, which often offer free of charge platforms in exchange to high levels of engagement. 
  1. Keep an eye on “targeting root causes rather than looking at one-off effects.” Khan explained that the FTC workers should examine how business models or conflicts of interest go against the law. 
  1. Incorporate more “analytical tools and skillsets” for an overall assessment of business methods. 
  1. Enjoy “forward-looking” and work on stepping up quickly when harm is done, this includes focusing on “next-generation technologies, innovations, and nascent industries across sectors.” 
  1. Democratize the FTC through ensuring it’s “in tune with the real problems that Americans are facing in their daily lives.” 

“Research documents how gatekeepers and dominant middlemen across the economy have been able to use their critical market position to hike fees, dictate terms, and protect and extend their market power,” Khan wrote in the memo, adding that “deeply asymmetric relationships between the controlling firm and dependent entities can be ripe for abuse.” 

The FTC chairwoman also included non-compete agreements in her memo, which she says have the ability to restrict workers from which jobs they can take on, as well as impose restrictions on consumer’s right-to-repair. Apple has been criticized in the past for the limit it imposed regarding the number of times users can repair Apple devices they purchased.  

Earlier this year, the FTC vocalized its intentions to fighting these restrictions. 

“Consumers, workers, franchisees, and other market participants are at a significant disadvantage when they are unable to negotiate freely over terms and conditions,” Khan wrote in the memo.

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Ethical Tech

Facebook’s Oversight Board demands answers on celebrity rules

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Facebook’s oversight board said on Tuesday that it will set in motion an urgent examination process to inspect whether the social networking platform is mitigating posts for famous personages, leading to a direct content rules breach, according to Wall Street inquiry.

Facebook’s oversight board is an independent group assigned by the platform to observe its moderation policies concerning politicians, athletes, celebrities, and other high-profile users.

The board revealed that it has already initiated an examination plan that demands Facebook executives to submit any data related to the Cross-Check Program, or popularly referred to as” XCheck.” It demanded proof of clarity to determine whether these allegations are true, and from there, it would work accordingly based on the findings.

“In light of recent developments, we are looking into the degree to which Facebook has been fully forthcoming in its responses in relation to cross-check, including the practice of whitelisting,” the board wrote in a statement.

Whitelisting is a cybersecurity strategy where users only act on their personal computers following exclusive administrator permission.

Initially, the XCheck program was initiated to take measures against all kinds of distinguished and famed accounts, which later exponentially grew to involve millions of accounts. 

Presumably, Facebook’s program was established to prohibit “PR fires,” or any type of unwanted press caused by removing photos, posts, and other types of content on the platform. In this case, these high-profile users are immune to any outcome disclosed by XCheck, or any moderating process for that matter. It aims to deliver additional premium control over the platform’s posts.

Thus, by being excluded from the program’s functionality, millions of celebrities are safeguarded from any future regulation on their profile, meaning Facebook is perpetually and intentionally misleading its oversight board on its rules.

“Mark Zuckerberg has publicly said Facebook allows its more than three billion users to speak on equal footing with the elites of politics, culture, and journalism, and that its standards of behavior apply to everyone, no matter their status or frame. In private, the company has built a system that has exempted high-profile users from some or all of its rules,” according to the Wall Street Journal’s report.

At the moment, Facebook’s oversight board will monitor the social networking’s conduct by investigating its cross-check program and will eventually release the findings to the public.

The board’s decision will entirely be based on the tech giant’s transparency regarding its freedom of speech and human rights policies, be it supportive or opposing to its program’s own guidelines.

While Facebook has publicly vowed to follow the board’s demands on its users’ regulations, it also has the right not to submit itself to extensive recommendations as it is not compelled legally to abide by its rules.

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Ethical Tech

U.S. Democrats push for tough data privacy regulations

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Australia

The U.S. Congress surely returned to work with full force after a summer recess, asa group of Senate Democrats are now pushing the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to construct new regulations around data privacy protection.

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal led the initiative after garnering eight signatures from his colleagues on a letter that was forwarded to agency Chair Lina Khan on Monday.

The letter’s details revolve around new rules that should be implemented to strengthen cybersecurity, which in return will improve civil rights and give back the consumer what’s rightfully theirs; their privacy.

The letter pointed the finger at Big Tech for having “unchecked access to private personal information” that they use to “create in-depth profiles about nearly all Americans and to protect their market position against competition from startups.”

The senators explained in the letter that previous attempts to hold big tech firms guilty for violating existing data privacy rules were not enough.

“We believe that a national standard for data privacy and security is urgently needed to protect consumers, reinforce civil rights, and safeguard our nation’s cybersecurity,” the senators wrote.

The news comes after U.S. President Joe Biden nominated vocal critic of privacy and facial recognition, Alvaro Bedoya, to acquire the job of the third Democratic FTC commissioner. Bedoya’s past experiences at Georgetown Law is highlighted in his research that delves into the aftermath of technologies like facial recognition on minority groups.

The professor at Georgetown Law’s Center for Privacy and Technology also created a number of surveys aimed at investigating tech’s capability for racial bias. In the past, Bedoya has also served as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law under Chairman Senator. A confirmation hearing for Bedoya is yet to be scheduled. However, if it goes according to plan, Bedoya will be able to support the FTC’s mission in coming up with regulations when it comes to data privacy.

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