A simple airline stub, picked out of a bin near Heathrow, led Steve
Boggan to investigate a shocking breach of security
Wednesday May 3, 2006
This is the story of a piece of paper no bigger than a credit card,
thrown away in a dustbin on the Heathrow Express to Paddington
station. It was nestling among chewing gum wrappers and baggage tags,
cast off by some weary traveller, when I first laid eyes on it just
over a month ago.
The traveller’s name was Mark Broer. I know this because the paper -
actually a flimsy piece of card - was a discarded British Airways
boarding-pass stub, the small section of the pass displaying your name
and seat number. The stub you probably throw away as soon as you leave
It said Broer had flown from Brussels to London on March 15 at 7.10am
on BA flight 389 in seat 03C. It also told me he was a “Gold” standard
passenger and gave me his frequent-flyer number. I picked up the stub,
mindful of a conversation I had had with a computer security expert
two months earlier, and put it in my pocket.
If the expert was right, this stub would enable me to access Broer’s
personal information, including his passport number, date of birth and
nationality. It would provide the building blocks for stealing his
identity, ruining his future travel plans - and even allow me to fake
It would also serve as the perfect tool for demonstrating the chaotic
collection, storage and security of personal information gathered as a
result of America’s near-fanatical desire to collect data on
travellers flying to the US - and raise serious questions about the
sort of problems we can expect when ID cards are introduced in 2008.
To understand why the piece of paper I found on the Heathrow Express
is important, it is necessary to go back not, as you might expect, to
9/11, but to 1996 and the crash of TWA Flight 800 over Long Island
Sound, 12 minutes out of New York, with the loss of 230 lives.
Initially, crash investigators suspected a terrorist bomb might have
brought down the aircraft. This was later ruled out, but already the
Clinton administration had decided it was time to devise a security
system that would weed out potential terrorists before they boarded a
flight. This was called Capps, the Computer Assisted Passenger
It was a prosaic, relatively unambitious idea at first. For example,
in highly simplistic terms, if someone bought a one-way ticket, paid
in cash and checked in no baggage, they would be flagged up as an
individual who had no intention of arriving or of going home. A
After 9/11, the ambitions for such screening grew exponentially and
the newly founded Department of Homeland Security began inviting
computer companies to develop intelligent systems that could “mine”
data on individuals, whizzing round state, private and public
databases to establish what kind of person was buying the ticket.
In 2003, one of the pioneers of the system, speaking anonymously, told
me that the project, by now called Capps II, was being designed to
designate travellers as green, amber or red risks. Green would be an
individual with no criminal record - a US citizen, perhaps, who had a
steady job and a settled home, was a frequent flyer and so on. Amber
would be someone who had not provided enough information to confirm
all of this and who might be stopped at US Immigration and asked to
provide clearer proof of ID. Red would be someone who might be linked
to an ever-growing list of suspected terrorists - or someone whose
name matched such a suspect.
“If you are an American who has volunteered lots of details proving
that you are who you say you are, that you have a stable home, live in
a community, aren’t a criminal, [Capps II] will flag you up as green
and you will be automatically allowed on to your flight,” the pioneer
told me. “The problem is that if the system doesn’t have a lot of
information on you, or you have ordered a halal meal, or have a name
similar to a known terrorist, or even if you are a foreigner, you’ll
most likely be flagged amber and held back to be asked for further
details. If you are European and the US government is short of
information on you - or, as is likely, has incorrect information on
you - you can reckon on delay after delay unless you agree to let them
delve into your private details.
“That is inconvenient enough but, as we tested the system, it became
clear that information was going to be used to build a complete
picture of you from lots of private databases - your credit record,
your travel history, your criminal record, whether you had the
remotest dubious links with anyone at your college who became a
terrorist. I began to feel more and more uncomfortable about it.”
Eventually, he quit the programme.
All of this was on my mind as I sat down with my computer expert, Adam
Laurie, one of the founders of a company called the Bunker Secure
Hosting, to examine Broer’s boarding-pass stub. Laurie is known in
cyber-circles as something of a white knight, a computer wizard who
not only advises companies on how to make their systems secure, but
also cares about civil rights and privacy. He and his brother Ben are
renowned among web designers as the men who developed Apache SSL - the
software that makes most of the world’s web pages secure - and then
gave it away for free.
We logged on to the BA website, bought a ticket in Broer’s name and
then, using the frequent flyer number on his boarding pass stub,
without typing in a password, were given full access to all his
personal details - including his passport number, the date it expired,
his nationality (he is Dutch, living in the UK) and his date of birth.
The system even allowed us to change the information.
Using this information and surfing publicly available databases, we
were able - within 15 minutes - to find out where Broer lived, who
lived there with him, where he worked, which universities he had
attended and even how much his house was worth when he bought it two
years ago. (This was particularly easy given his unusual name, but it
would have been possible even if his name had been John Smith. We now
had his date of birth and passport number, so we would have known
exactly which John Smith.)
Laurie was anything but smug.
“This is terrible,” he said. “It just shows what happens when
governments begin demanding more and more of our personal information
and then entrust it to companies simply not geared up for collecting
or securing it as it gets shared around more and more people. It
doesn’t enhance our security; it undermines it.”
Just over $100m had been spent on Capps II before it was scrapped in
July 2004. Campaigners in the US had objected to it on grounds of
privacy, and airlines such as JetBlue and American faced boycotts when
it emerged that they were involved in trials - handing over passenger
information - with the Department of Homeland Security’s
Transportation Security Administration. Even worse, JetBlue admitted
it had given the private records of 5 million passengers to a
commercial company for analysis - and some of this was posted on the internet.
But the problems did not end with the demise of Capps II. Earlier that
month, after 18 months of acrimonious negotiation, the EU caved in to
American demands that European airlines, too, should hand over
passenger information to the United States Bureau of Customs and
Border Protection, BCBP, before their aircraft would be allowed to
land on US soil. The BCBP wanted up to 60 pieces of information
routinely gathered by booking agencies and stored as a Passenger Name
Record, PNR. This included not only your flight details, name, address
and so on, but also your travel itinerary, where you were staying,
with whom you travelled, whether you booked a hire car in the US,
whether you booked a smoking room in your hotel, even if you ordered a
halal or kosher meal. And the US authorities wanted to keep it all for
At first, the European Commission argued that surrendering such
information would be in breach of European data protection law.
Eventually, however, in the face of huge fines for airlines and
cancelled landing slots, it agreed that 34 items from PNRs could be
handed over and kept by the US for three and a half years.
Capps II was superseded by a new system called Secure Flight in August
2004. Later, in October last year, the BCBP demanded that airlines
travelling to, or through, the US should forward “advance passenger
information”, including passport number and date of birth, before
passengers would be allowed to travel. It called this the advance
passenger information system, or APIS. This is the information that
Laurie and I had accessed through the BA website.
“The problem here is that a commercial organisation is being given the
task of collecting data on behalf of a foreign government, for which
it gets no financial reward, and which offers no business benefit in
return,” says Laurie. “Naturally, in such a case, they will seek to
minimise their costs, which they do by handing the problem off to the
passengers themselves. This has the neat side-effect of also handing
off liability for data errors.
“You can imagine the case where a businessman’s trip gets delayed
because his passport details were incorrectly entered and he was
mistaken for a terrorist. Since BA didn’t enter the data - frequent
flyers are asked to do it themselves - they can’t be held responsible
and can’t be sued for his lost business.”
By the time I found the ticket stub and went to Laurie, he had already
reported his suspicions about a potential security lapse to BA (on
January 20) by email. He received no response, so followed up with a
telephone call asking for the airline’s security officer. He was told
there wasn’t one, so he explained the lapse to an employee. Nothing
was done and he still has not been contacted.
Three months ago, after further objections in the US, but before our
investigation, Secure Flight was suspended after costing the US
taxpayer $144m. At the time, Kip Hawley, transportation security
administrator, said: “While the Secure Flight regulation is being
developed, this is the time to ensure that the Secure Flight security,
operational and privacy foundation is solid.”
The TSA said it would continue its passenger pre-screening programme
in yet another guise after it had been audited and added that it had
plans to introduce more security, privacy and redress for errors -
confirming critics’ suspicions that no such systems were yet in place.
To the consternation of privacy activists in Europe, the TSA also
spelled out plans for its desire for various US government departments
to share information, including yours and mine.
Dr Gus Hosein, a visiting fellow specialising in privacy and terrorism
at the London School of Economics, is concerned about where the whole
project will go next.
“They want to extend the advance passenger information system [APIS]
to include data on where passengers are going and where they are
staying because of concerns over plagues,” he says. “For example, if
bird flu breaks out, they want to know where all the foreign
travellers are. The airlines hate this. It is a security nightmare.
Soon the US will demand biometric information [fingerprints, retina
scans etc] and they will share that around.
“But what the BA lapse shows is that companies cannot be trusted to
gather this information without it getting out to criminals who would
abuse it. The potential for identity theft is huge, but the number of
agencies among which it will be shared is just growing and growing.”
And that is where concern comes in over the UK’s proposed ID cards,
which may one day be needed to travel to the US. According to the Home
Office, the identity cards bill currently going through Parliament
allows for up to 40 pieces of personal information to be held on the
proposed ID card, with digital biometric details of all of your
fingerprints, both your irises and your face, all of which can be
transmitted to electronic readers. The cards will contain a microchip
the size of a grain of sand linked to a tiny embedded antenna that
transmits all the information when contacted by an electronic reader.
This readable system, known as Radio Frequency Identification, or
RFID, has recently been installed in new British passports. The Home
Office says the information can be transmitted across a distance of
only a couple of centimetres because the chips have no power of their
own - they simply bounce back a response to a weak signal sent from
passport readers at immigration points.
However, the suspicion is that the distance over which the signal can
be read relates only to the weakness of the signal sent out by the
readers. What if the readers sent out much stronger signals?
Potentially, then, criminals with powerful readers could suck out your
information as you passed by. The Government denies that this scenario
is viable, but, in January, Dutch security specialists Riscure
successfully read and de-encrypted information from its country’s new
biometric passports from a distance of about 30ft in just two hours.
“The Home Office says British passport information is encrypted, but
it’s a pretty basic form of encryption,” says Hosein. “Everyone
expects the ID cards to be equally insecure. If the government insists
they won’t be cracked, read or copied, they’re kidding themselves and us.”
BA has now closed its security loophole after being contacted by the
Guardian in March, but that particular lapse is beside the point.
Because of the pressure being applied to airlines by the US, breaches
will happen again elsewhere as our personal data whizzes around the
globe, often without our knowledge or consent.
Meanwhile, accountability remains lamentable. Several calls to the US
Transportation Security Administration were not returned.
Perhaps the last word should go to Mark Broer, the man whose boarding
pass stub started off this virtual paper chase. He is aged 41 and is a
successful executive with a pharmaceutical recruitment company. When I
told him what we had done with his boarding pass stub, he was appalled.
“I travel regularly and, because I go to the US, I submitted my
personal information and passport number - it is required if you are a
frequent flyer and want to check yourself in,” he says. “Experienced
travellers today know that they have to give up information for ease
of travel and to fight terrorism. It is an exchange of information in
return for convenience. But as far as I’m concerned, having that
information leaked out to people who could steal my identity wasn’t
part of the deal.”