Monday, February 13, 2017

Border Security: When Security And Secrecy Legislation Collide

Strange how paranoia can link up with reality now and then. - Philip K. Dick

Sloppy language leads to sloppy thought, and sloppy thought to sloppy legislation. - Dick Cavett

The #1206 “fiction” series continues …

“Look, I simply cannot give up my phone for you”, Joe Salimi exclaimed in frustration, his heart rate increasing quickly.

“Sir, if you do not turn over your laptop and your mobile device, I cannot allow you to enter the country”, the border services agent said firmly but politely.

“I don’t understand this”, Joe said, “My devices have extremely sensitive information on them and I don’t think you have the security classification necessary to look at them.  I’m a Pentagon contractor for bloody sake.”

“My orders are clear, sir”, replied the border services agent calmly, “I have the right to inspect all electronic devices in the possession of people entering the country, I have the right to retain possession of those devices for as long as I see fit and I have the right to deny entry to anyone who does not comply with my request.”

“Well, can I at least call my boss to ask him about it?”, Joe asked.

“No, sir”, replied the border services agent, “No calls are permitted in this area and it wouldn’t matter what your boss said anyway as he doesn’t have jurisdiction in this matter.”

Joe shook his head in frustration, sighed and then passed the border services agent his cell phone and laptop.

The border services agent thanked him and passed the devices to a colleague who connected them to a laptop.

An hour later, Joe was welcomed home by the border services agent and allowed to enter the country with his cell phone and laptop.

Three Months Later

A group of angry, desperate men sat around a boardroom table.

At the head of the table, the leader of the room could not contain his anger.

“I don’t give a rat’s behind how it happened”, he expostulated, “We have traced the leak of highly classified information back to Joe’s laptop and I want his ass on a platter.”

“I’ve spoken to Joe repeatedly”, Joe’s manager responded, “And he claims that his devices have never been out of his possession.  We have inspected his devices and have not found any instance of compromise on any of them.  We have rerun his background checks and he is completely clean.  So Joe and frankly, all of us, are at a complete loss as to how information known only to his group could have been obtained by someone else.”

“Just f’ing great”, the leader exploded, “How in the hell am I going to explain this to the President?”

There were shrugs around the table as no one claimed to have an answer.

“There is one other thing”, someone offered from the back of the room, “Well, actually two more things.”

“Oh?”, asked the leader in an exasperated tone, “What now?”

“Well”, the person in the back of the room began, “We believe the information has made it to the Chinese through North Korea, likely originating from Iran.  And …..”

The person paused for a moment before the leader yelled, “And?”

“Well”, the person said hesitatingly, “The press has found out.”

The room exploded in arguments as the reality of their situation crashed down upon them.

Somewhere in the Middle East

In a hot, stuffy room somewhere in the Middle East, three men discussed the events of the day.

“So where are we?”, their leader asked.

“Well”, began the taller of his colleagues, “In an effort to secure the border, American authorities still require people entering the country to turn over their electronic devices for inspection.  Our brothers inside their border security service have been able to glean quite a bit of information as a result, information that commands quite good money on the black market.  Russia, China and North Korea are paying a lot of money from what we have been able to obtain so far. Beyond classified information there is also sensitive business information of interest to business competitors around the world.”

“Very good”, their leader replied.

“Yes and no”, the shorter of the colleagues responded, “There is talk that their legislation will be amended such that people of a certain security level or higher will soon be exempt from this search.”

“Oh great”, the taller of the colleagues responded, “Our sources of information will dry up when this happens.”

“Not so”, replied the shorter man, “Once this happens, our brothers within those higher security ranks will then be able to pass through border services without being checked, which in turn will enable us to get information in and out of the country undetected.  That is is ultimately our hope in the first place.”

“So you see”, replied the leader, “Either way we win. Rather than sit down and build a comprehensive strategy to defeat us, the Americans have proceeded from one knee-jerk response to another, each one creating loopholes for us as a result of a lack of careful consideration on their part regarding the situation at-hand.  Their citizens continue to be burdened as a result and continue to grow more and more agitated with their government, with larger scale unrest an ever increasing possibility.  At the same time, their country bleeds money in an effort to stop us.  We are still winning.”

The other two men nodded silently in agreement.

To be continued.

© 2017 – Harry Tucker – All Rights Reserved

Blog Post Background / Supporting Data

This musing was sparked by a news item over the weekend where a NASA employee with a high security clearance was forced to reveal the contents of his mobile device to a border services agent with a lower security clearance rating.  The story is here - Border Agent Demands NASA Scientist Unlock Phone Before Entering the Country.

While it could be argued that even with a lower security clearance, border service agents are completely secure, they are in fact only human beings and they themselves can be compromised as noted here (using TSA in this example, but the example stands as a warning) - TSA Fails to ID 73 Airport Employees With Links to Terrorism.

Human beings are always the weakest link and no amount of vetting is perfect nor is incessant legislation a solution.

The more layers of security and legislation we layer onto border security, the more complexity and loopholes we create.

In the end, we will spend billions of dollars more on security and the need for ever-diminishing privacy will continue to prevail.  The ideas of perfect security and total freedom / privacy cannot co-exist, after all.  One has to defer to the other at some point – the one that loses is determined by which of the two we deem to be the highest priority.

And when highly classified material is exposed, who do we blame – the person who had it in their possession when it was obtained or the legislators who created the complexity that allowed the compromise to take place?

Securing our national borders is critical.

Securing classified data is equally critical.

And just as security and freedom / privacy dance for priority in a complex dichotomy, so too does securing our borders and our classified data.

And with anything of this complexity, there is always someone out there waiting to exploit the loopholes.

As I said, human beings are always the weakest link.

When legislators understand this, perhaps they will take the time to look more strategically at things and take fewer knee-jerk reactions that technically don’t actually solve anything but which add additional burden on the average law-abiding citizen who has nothing to do with any of this.  Meanwhile, those whose behavior we are trying to predict and prevent still have an opportunity to execute their intention.

The tail is wagging the dog with this problem.

The big question is – what is the alternative?

And does it serve to someone’s advantage to actually NOT solve this problem while promoting the problem as larger than it really is?

After all, in the last ten years, over 280,000 Americans have died through gun violence but guns are not banned.

Over 300,000 Americans have died in the last ten years in motor vehicle accidents but motor vehicles are not banned.

Over 4.5 million Americans have died in the last ten years from smoking-related illness but cigarettes are not banned.

Meanwhile, foreign-born terrorists accounted for 3,024 deaths on American soil from 1975 through 2015. But 2,983 of those deaths came on 9/11 alone, with the remaining 41 deaths resulting from terrorism on US soil in that 40-year period.

All that being said, the latter attracts a lot of time, energy and money to prevent.


I don’t know what the answer is.

Do you?

Series Origin

This series, a departure from my usual musings, is inspired as a result of conversations with former senior advisors to multiple Presidents of the United States, senior officers in the US Military and other interesting folks as well as my own professional background as a Wall St. / Fortune 25 strategy advisor and large-scale technology architect.

While this musing is just “fiction” (note the quotes) and a departure from my musings on technology, strategy, politics and society, as a strategy guy, I do everything for a reason and with a measurable outcome in mind. :-)

This “fictional” musing is a continuation of the #1206 series noted here.

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