The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: security

Well thought out airport security checks

In light of Paul Chambers this is possibly the riskiest post on this blog. What follows are criticisms of the security services (not the real Security Service, just airport staff, I’m not crazy), comments about holes in security processes and the word “blow” is used repeatedly in various different contexts. I can only hope and pray that Scotland’s public interest differs from England’s.

Disclosure:

I think a lot of airport security is a bit of a farce designed to look busy with little to no protective value. The images in this post are cropped, but otherwise unedited, screenshots taken from the security pages at www.glasgowairport.com and it really does say these things on the site.

I like security

I’m going away on my holidays soon and I was looking up the airport baggage restrictions so I’m not forced to post my luggage home or something. I’ve written about the restriction on liquids for the blog before which I consider a particularly ridiculous piece of security theatre.

The big reason I find it so offensive is that I most definitely would like my life to be protected from people who want to blow up my plane, and if my life is on the line I don’t want stupid rules about taking your shoes off and only buying drinks after you’re through the scanners when they could actually be doing something else that might save my life. Other reasons include generally not liking stupidity, or being hassled unnecessarily (“will you remove your shoes?” “why?” “in case you blow them up”) and the mind boggling costs involved in stupidly hassling people unnecessarily.

The 100 ml rule

Generally in any kind of security, computer or airport, somewhere in the middle is both the natural compromise and the worst option – it’s neither particularly convenient nor particularly safe. The 100 ml rule is a classic example of this.

As far as liquids being dangerous and the “100 ml rule” are concerned there are only two possible questions raised – either:

  1. Liquids, gels and pastes are dangerous. In that case why are you allowed to take them onto a plane with other people? (No one’s allowed to take 100ml of gunpowder in a clear plastic bag) or,
  2. Liquids, gels and pastes aren’t dangerous. Well, in this case why aren’t you allowed to bring as much as you like? (After all, lots of Scottish ex-pats would like to blow their weight allowance on Irn Bru)

I also don’t understand why 100ml of liquid, gel or paste explosive wouldn’t be enough to make a big bang or why terrorists couldn’t organise and pool their 100ml bottles together to make a bigger bang? Also, why are liquids only dangerous if you have them in carry-on? You can have your entire weight limit in liquid explosive stowed in the hold (it’s against the airline rules on explosives but, after all, you are a terrorist) that’s simply not looked at or tasted.

Tasted?

There’s some serious problems with the testing scheme as well:

This goes for baby milk and medicines, I’m not sure if it covers human/animal liquids or toiletries or perfumes but there’s kinda no reason why it wouldn’t.

Firstly, just tasting something isn’t actually a test for anything. In every movie where a cop sticks his finger in the white powder and tries a bit he then sends it to an actual forensic lab to be looked at properly. “I stuck my finger in it and had a bit” is never going to stand up in court. All you’re testing there is if someone will drink weird things out of a bottle if you ask them to. That’s a game very drunk students play.

Secondly, I don’t know if anyone’s realised this but I think, if I was planning to blow up a plane that I was on, then risking poisoning to convince the security guy to let me on the plane would be a total no-brainer. However, if I was on medicine and I was ordered to take a dose (or possibly more than a dose) outside of my prescription to prove to a guy with a plastic nametag and no medical degree that it was medicine I’d need to say no. The suicide bomber would be the one you’d let on the plane.

Baby milk

You’re expected to open and taste a full half of your baby milk. That’s just a weird policy – again, if baby milk is potentially dangerous you should damn well test it all if it’s going on my plane and if it’s not dangerous why are you testing any of it? Half is just not the right amount of testing to do.

The irritating thing to remember when looking at this rule is just how reasonable and common sense some of the restrictions are – no grenades, for example. That’s perfectly fine by me, I’m all for keeping grenades off planes.

And finally

…there are crazy things like this:

Seriously, they make you drink-test your medicine cabinet and breast milk from little bottles in a clear plastic bag but you get to take a pressurised gas cigarette lighter on board a non-smoking flight. Weirdly you only get to take one – yet again, if it’s dangerous why let any on at all and if it’s not dangerous why can’t you take two?

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Plane water bombers jailed, bring on the security measures?

The news coverage of the conviction of the people behind the “water bottle bombing” plot has literally used the words “this has vindicated the heightened security measures” (BBC News 24) which were put in place after the plot was uncovered.

Does it really? I’m going to be pedantic here because vindication is a powerful word, here’s what it means:

vindicate

vin·di·cate / ˈvindəˌkāt/ v. [tr.]

  1. clear (someone) of blame or suspicion: hospital staff were vindicated by the inquest verdict.
  2. show or prove to be right, reasonable, or justified: more sober views were vindicated by events.

The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English, 2009

I do appreciate the job that the security services have done in keeping what turned out to be a fairly clever and probably, had it not been detected and watched by the largest surveillance operation the UK had ever seen from an early stage and then immediately stopped once it moved beyond planning ending in the conviction of all but one of the suspects, damaging attack out of the skies over my head. That’s really, really fantastic news. I’m not pro-terrorist, make no mistake, and I’m very glad that the attack was stopped. This is a post on the use of words.

The security measures

My issue is that I do wonder if it really does “vindicate” the fact you couldn’t take enough baby food (baby food is now excepted from the restrictions, thankfully) on a transatlantic flight to feed a baby. Or how it now means that you can no longer bring water that you didn’t buy from the departure lounge onto a plane. Drinks that you pick up in the airport and quietly bring onto the plane unquestioned are clearly more friendly to allies of America than drinks from home that are subject to an x-ray scanner and security checkpoint, obviously. This isn’t as flippant as it seems because the explosive that the plotters planned to use was basically energy drink mixed with cleaning fluid. You can just buy that in the departure lounge.

You could even bring homemade liquid fiery death entirely legally “so long as the items are carried in a clear plastic food storage type bag with a capacity of no more than one quart” remembering that “each individual container must have a capacity of no greater than three ounces (90 ml)” And your friend could also bring his own clear plastic bag of liquid fiery death to top yours up if you wanted a bigger explosion and so on. Are we really safer with little bottles? Can I go out there and suggest that you could put it into a container of baby food which is exempt from the restrictions?

One of the main tricks of the trade when investigating a terrorist attack, or most crimes in fact, is asking the question “who benefits?” because if you know who had an incentive to commit a crime you narrow down the people who were likely to have committed it. By this metric, “who benefits from banning liquids from being taken through the baggage scanner?”, you end up with WHSmiths and Starbucks who get a legally enforced monopoly in the departure lounge shops because, legally, you haven’t got any other option unless you want to end up becoming a terror suspect. Is one textbook, wonderfully well executed police operation that kept us safe from even the slightest chance of harm to our air traffic at all times[1] a vindication of these measures?

Definition 1: to clear (someone) of blame or suspicion

This is probably not what the reporter meant when they dropped the v word. My comments above aside I don’t actually think WHSmith plotted to blow up planes to create a monopoly for their airport shops so it’s probably just commercially convenient rather than actually a dastardly conspiracy. The measures themselves have viewed with no greater and probably some lesser suspicion (I think everyone’s wondered in their heart of hearts if you actually can blow a plane up with a bottle of Oasis outside of a movie) because of this conviction but it is not “cleared” because of the trial and that’s what the definition of vindication requires.

Definition 2: show or prove to be right, reasonable, or justified: more sober views were vindicated by events.

This seems more sensible and probably what the reporter meant. This is what I’m not convinced about, the main problem is that the instant case just doesn’t seem to have needed the actions that were rolled out to protect anyone. Basically the liquids prohibition (now relaxed to pretty awkward restrictions) was just a belt and braces extra on top on a mind bogglingly thorough UK police operation as far as this case was concerned. This case didn’t actually need the prohibition at all.

The prohibition was for other people.

This case only showed the real and present threat of liquid explosives passing through the baggage checking process at airports disguised as other liquids. The restriction on liquids was levied to stop other attempts. The vindication will come when the measures, not the police and intelligence services, stop an attack using liquid explosives disguised as other liquids to defeat pre-“jet plot” baggage checking procedures against a commercial aeroplane. That is the difference. The success or failure of this conviction does not relates to the restrictions at all – the restrictions were never tested by the plotters.

What the trial is is a vindication of the police surveillance operation, not all of them but this one was certainly justified, and also justifies its snooping on email traffic. Admittedly the sort of snooping on email traffic that is justified in this case is that being sent to or coming from a known terrorist mastermind living in Pakistan so it’s still not reasonable to snoop on just everyone’s email because of this trial.

The problem of security precautions is that it’s next to impossible to tell if security measures have stopped an attack. I suppose if we test every 95ml bottle of baby food that’s left at the baggage check for explosive and find some then we know we’ve dodged a bullet. On the other end of the scale if someone manages to blow up a plane regardless then we’ve bought overpriced airport drinks for nothing and that’s the horrible dilemma. We simply can’t tell if the restrictions are sensible or not from this case. We should all celebrate the successful conclusion of a ground-breaking multi disciplinary police operation which has almost certainly saved thousands of lives but at the same time it’s important not to take lessons from it that it’s just not teaching us. The effect of baggage search on anything is irrelevant unless you actually go through a baggage search. I think the police and security services involved in this investigation have kept us very safe and they are to be applauded but throwing away sealed bottles of water at the scanner is still to prove its worth. It certainly hasn’t in this case.


[1] The arrests were sped up when the well known Pakistan based mastermind of the plot was captured, not because the hitherto unknown plotters were suddenly spotted getting on a plane. The UK plotters were had well in hand and under constant surveillance.

Taking a laptop to school or college

Mac Observer has published an article on the tips and details for students wanting to deal with the hassle and benefits of bringing a laptop to university. I think he makes some good points, although the advice certainly doesn’t depend on the brand of the laptop.

Transport

Transport is the biggest concern for students who stay at home and commute to university. Those living in dorms get away with, generally, less travel but with the concerns of possible theft.

I think the best way to transport a laptop at uni is a lot like how you’d do it with a bike. You want to immobilise it to stop it swinging about as you move and stressing the components.

Another good tip is to get a case which you can slide the laptop straight into – so a top opening, padded, laptop compartment in your bag is pretty brilliant. I use a padded neoprene slip case which fits in my backpack like a document wallet. It works and it protects my computer for less than a new bag but at the cost of being slower to unpack and pack when I want to use it, for example in lectures and tutorials. This needs to be added to the time needed for the laptop to be ready for you to use – starting up and loading programs. In this regard good and reliable sleep/suspend modes are a great asset.

Weight

Weight is an important issue but I think it can be overstated. Even for those who will never play prop on the university rugby team it is unlikely that any laptop you decide to pack in your bag will be cripplingly heavy. Today’s laptops are considerably lighter an d smaller than those of yesteryear. At the very worst you may find your bag works as weight training and you build some muscle. Obviously avoid a huge laptop because besides being weighty it will also be unwieldy. Most laptops are still portable enough for university without spending more for an ultraportable model. I think Mac Observer’s suggested MacBook Air is a lot of money to spent avoiding 680g of extra weight and the difference between that and a regular MacBook could probably be spent better elsewhere. Obviously if, on reading this, you realise that your MacBook Air is unsuitable for your university backpack please get in touch with the Scots Law Student MacBook Air Re-homing project because I haven’t got one. You will most likely find the extra weight pretty unnoticeable, especially when you add a single textbook or bottle of water (always an idea to have in your bag) and neutralise that hard bought weight saving.

Security

The security tips are a good move – if you have a couple of thousand. pounds (potentially) worth of computer equipment in a desirable and inherently portable product it is necessary to consider the risk that someone might take it.

This is particularly important for students living in dorms and halls because losing a computer is both a loss of corporeal movable property but also a significant loss of information, work and time.

Think Geek sells, for a lot of money, a wall mounted laptop safe which lets you bolt the laptop, secure inside a metal case, to the firmament of the building itself. I have no doubt this would be an pretty effective anti theft measure.

For people less worried about the threat of theft a cable lock is probably all you’ll need. These bike chain like devices attach to the rectangular slot on most laptops and then loop around a sturdy piece of furniture. This will protect you from people up to the point of lifting furniture / cutting the chain. If these methods both fail you could follow the example of an American law student who simply fought off his robber with a warcry of “not my case outlines!”

I think their encryption tips – encrypted disc images in particular – are worth noting but personally don’t use it myself. I don’t feel I have all that much in the way of files that need protection, I have an encrypted password database and that does me instead.

Insurance

If your laptop is still stolen the best option is to make sure your computer has been insured – you may lose your computer but you report it as stolen (as it may well be), and then replace it on, ideally, your parent’s home contents insurance and you offer to pay the excess. I wouldn’t be a law student if I didn’t point the need to check that your belongings are indeed protected under the policy while you are away at university.

Backup

If your computer is stolen you’ll probably lose a lot of your work. I keep a lot of notebooks, files and boxes of notes but I still have a considerable amount of work on my computer that I would desperately not want to lose. This differs from trying to keep possession of your computer, but is just as important.

Backup doesn’t need to be difficult. Mac Observer points its readers to the Time Machine feature on recent versions this provides versioning backup for all of your files with very little configuration. All that needs is a suitable Mac and a big external hard drive. Apple offer their own Time Machine wireless wireless hubs which are obviously wireless and convenient but any external hard drive will work and with Misco.co.uk offering a 1 terrabyte one for £67.8 – or under 7p a gigabyte (I have used just about 2 GB in my entire university career) so they are becoming very reasonably priced.

Backups don’t need ts be particularly fancy, just as as long as they are regular. Copying your home directory (Mac/Linux) or My Documents folder (Windows) onto a portable hard drive, assuming it’s done regularly, can be just as effective as buying a professional, automated product to do it for you.

A good backup protects your data from accidents that destroy your computer like battery fires etc and even robbery assuming if it isn’t taken along with the computer.

These tips apply to the lowliest netbook to the shiniest boutique gaming laptop, from the sveltest ultraportable to the chunkiest mediacentre. Get a good bag so you can carry it healthily. Get a security setup, make sure losing it isn’t irretrievable and be able to continue with your studies without, it even temporarily. This is particularly important around assessment time.