Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Invoking 9/11, lies, and ignorance.

This one has been stewing for quite a while.  It was triggered by an event that happened while I was on vacation late this summer, but I have held off on writing about it until now.  First, I didn’t want to write about it in the hype-cycle leading up to the anniversary of the September 11 attacks and look like I was riding the hype wave.  Then it was election season, with all the hype and invocation of 9/11 that brings.  Now, maybe I can get this off my chest safely.

I took an Alaskan cruise this summer.  I’m not really a “cruise” kind of guy, but the Inside Passage cruise is as stunningly beautiful as most people say it is.  One day the cruise director was talking about DVD tours of the ship and mentioned that it was the only way to see the bridge or engine room since… that’s right, the tightened security after 9/11.  Because we simply can’t have any more cruise ships flying into skyscrapers.

This is pure BS, and is actually a complete failure to grasp the nature of the threats.  Worse, it misdirects defenses and perceptions away from the real threats in a maritime environment, which are very different from the aviation world.

The “lesson” of 9/11 was that the passengers and crew of airplanes were no longer the only objective; the planes themselves were objectives- so they could be used as weapons.  Applying that “lesson” to cruise ships is stupid and dangerous for several reasons, a few of which follow.

First, there’s the matter of physics.  The navigation space of aircraft are much less restricted than ships (the sky is very large, even if some of the edges are hard), combined with the speeds of modern aircraft, the number of possible targets for an airplane attack are myriad.  Ships could be used for ramming attacks, but it just isn’t that practical- especially when you consider how tricky many approaches are to ports.  There’s a big reason harbor pilots are used to guide ships into port: tides, currents, shifting shoals are all in the way of getting to the berth- or of ramming a target.

Then there is the practicality of maritime safety.  There is none, it is almost exclusively vigilance that defends shipping.  When an airplane leaves the runway, the number of practical threat vectors narrows.  At 36,000 feet I am not worried about a guy with a rocket propelled grenade on the ground, or someone forcing the door open from outside.  When a ship leaves a harbor, it loses the protection of monitoring from on shore and adjacent vessels’ crew, it is alone and approaches to the vessel become easier, not harder.

But those details miss the larger point, the “lesson of 9/11”, the use of vessels as weapons, isn’t just impractical in the maritime environment, it downplays the very real and actively exploited threats to ships.  Piracy is rampant in parts of the world, and not just off the coast of Somalia- and that is much more like the pre-9/11 view of airline threats: hijacking and kidnapping.  It is wrong to make any statements which in any way divert attention from the piracy crisis; it diminishes the significance of both 9/11 and the scourge of piracy.

And for the specific threats posed by tours of the bridge and engine room- I completely agree that the bridge should be off limits at almost all times, but that is common sense and safety.  The bridge is no place for stray people when a ship is underway.  The same could be said for some of the engineering areas.  But when the ship is in port I have a hard time believing tours can’t be given safely.  Even if you do buy the idea of a movie-plot threat, remember that passengers and their luggage go through metal detectors and x-rays, similar to airport security (pre-nudie scanners and freedom fondles).  Defend against the real threats.

That’s it. No InfoSec angle. 

Alright, if you really need an InfoSec angle, I’m sure you can extrapolate something about misidentifying threats, and using that wrong information to create the wrong defenses, thus ignoring or even weakening viable defenses.  But we would never let that happen.  At least we don’t usually deal with dead people over our mistakes.