A Savvy Terrorist with a Quality Fake ID Can Breach Airline Security

By Janice Kephart on April 12, 2012

Since investigative reporter Josh Bernstein filed his story, "License to Terrorize: Failure to safeguard against sophisticated phony IDs leaves opening for bad guys to slip through air security", the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has neither responded to nor acknowledged the report, and refused Bernstein an interview. But as much as TSA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) want to hide from the shocking revelations of Bernstein's investigation — that anyone with a good fake ID can make it through TSA security checkpoints as long as the name on the fake ID matches the name on the boarding pass — ignoring the problem will not make it go away.

In fact, because TSA does not verify identity, airline travel is as unsafe as our border ports of entry would be if we did not verify identity. Why? Because TSA doesn't really check your ID with that little blue light, which would be more useful for entertaining your cat. Further, TSA has no plans to verify that your ID was really issued to you, as long as you have a good fake ID. That means a slick, determined terrorist can slip by with a good fake ID while you are getting stopped when TSA's random physical security decides you are next on the list.

To be honest, this is a piece I've tried to pitch to reporters in the past, but to no avail. And then, out of the blue, I received a call from Bernstein, who had already received excellent Chinese counterfeits for his story and was looking for more information on how the fakes he ordered from an anonymous website relate to airline security. Finally! An investigative reporter who already understood the issue and was actually testing the system like the Government Accountability Office (GAO) would — if only Congress would ask for a report on TSA ID security. Congress has not, which means Bernstein is the only person in the country who has sought to make clear this immense vulnerability in air security.

When Mr. Bernstein called, I admit he received my stump speech: that TSA, along with the rest of government, has conveniently forgotten that the 9/11 hijackers' breach of airline security was not just about box cutters getting through in carry-on luggage and a no-fly list that was not connected to a terror watchlist. 9/11 was equally about the fraudulently acquired driver's licenses and state-issued IDs that the hijackers successfully presented on the morning of 9/11 at airline ticket counters. The hijackers presented IDs to look American and avoid the further questioning that the presentation of a Saudi, Egyptian, or Lebanese passport might warrant.

Granted, TSA has taken extraordinary measures to significantly improve physical security of persons and luggage (which remains controversial), as well as to produce a solid watchlist without relying on the airlines to run it. However, TSA has done absolutely nothing to ensure that a terrorist who presents a good fake ID and eludes the watchlist will be refused access to a jetway.

Bernstein didn't need my stump speech. He had already figured it out on his own. And he produced an excellent video to accompany his report, as well as two sidebar stories in which I discuss Congress' role in fixing the problem, and the technology that could solve the problem.