Better security = reduced efficiency

From Robert X. Cringely’s “Stream On“:

Yet nearly everything we do to combat crime or enhance safety comes at the expense of reduced efficiency. So we build airports to make possible efficient air transportation, then set up metal detectors to slow down the flow of passengers. We build highways to make car travel faster, then set speed limits to make it slower.

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Should states track cars with GPS?

From Glen Johnson’s “Massachusetts may consider a mileage charge” (AP: 17 February 2009):

A tentative plan to overhaul Massachusetts’ transportation system by using GPS chips to charge motorists a quarter-cent for every mile behind the wheel has angered some drivers.

But a “Vehicle Miles Traveled” program like the one the governor may unveil this week has already been tested — with positive results — in Oregon.

Governors in Idaho and Rhode Island, as well as the federal government, also are talking about such programs. And in North Carolina, a panel suggested in December the state start charging motorists a quarter-cent for every mile as a substitute for the gas tax.

“The Big Brother issue was identified during the first meeting of the task force that developed our program,” said Jim Whitty, who oversees innovation projects for the Oregon Department of Transportation. “Everything we did from that point forward, even though we used electronics, was to eliminate those concerns.”

A draft overhaul transport plan prepared for Gov. Deval Patrick says implementing a Vehicle Miles Traveled system to replace the gas tax makes sense. “A user-based system, collected electronically, is a fair way to pay for our transportation needs in the future,” it says.

The idea behind the program is simple: As cars become more fuel efficient or powered by electricity, gas tax revenues decline. Yet the cost of building and maintaining roads and bridges is increasing. A state could cover that gap by charging drivers precisely for the mileage their vehicles put on public roads.

In Oregon, the state paid volunteers who let the transportation department install GPS receivers in 300 vehicles. The device did not transmit a signal — which would allow real-time tracking of a driver’s movements — but instead passively received satellite pings telling the receiver where it was in terms of latitude and longitude coordinates.

The state used those coordinates to determine when the vehicle was driving both within Oregon and outside the state. And it measured the respective distances through a connection with the vehicle’s odometer.

When a driver pulled into a predetermined service station, the pump linked electronically with the receiver, downloaded the number of miles driven in Oregon and then charged the driver a fee based on the distance. The gas tax they would have paid was reduced by the amount of the user fee. Drivers continued to be charged gas tax for miles driven outside Oregon.

Under such systems, one of which is already used in London, drivers are charged more for entering a crowded area during rush hour than off-peak periods.

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Give CLEAR your info, watch CLEAR lose your info

From “Missing SFO Laptop With Sensitive Data Found” (CBS5: 5 August 2008):

The company that runs a fast-pass security prescreening program at San Francisco International Airport said Tuesday that it found a laptop containing the personal information of 33,000 people more than a week after it apparently went missing.

The Transportation Security Administration announced late Monday that it had suspended new enrollments to the program, known as Clear, after the unencrypted computer was reported stolen at SFO.

The laptop was found Tuesday morning in the same company office where it supposedly had gone missing on July 26, said spokeswoman Allison Beer.

“It was not in an obvious location,” said Beer, who said an investigation was under way to determine whether the computer was actually stolen or had just been misplaced.

The laptop contained personal information on applicants to the program, including names, address and birth dates, and in some cases driver’s license, passport or green card numbers, the company said.

The laptop did not contain Social Security numbers, credit card numbers or fingerprint or iris images used to verify identities at the checkpoints, Beer said.

In a statement, the company said the information on the laptop, which was originally reported stolen from its locked office, “is secured by two levels of password protection.” Beer called the fact that the personal information itself was not encrypted “a mistake” that the company would fix.

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US government makes unsafe RFID-laden passports even less safe through business practices

From Bill Gertz’s “Outsourced passports netting govt. profits, risking national security” (The Washington Times: 26 March 2008):

The United States has outsourced the manufacturing of its electronic passports to overseas companies — including one in Thailand that was victimized by Chinese espionage — raising concerns that cost savings are being put ahead of national security, an investigation by The Washington Times has found.

The Government Printing Office’s decision to export the work has proved lucrative, allowing the agency to book more than $100 million in recent profits by charging the State Department more money for blank passports than it actually costs to make them, according to interviews with federal officials and documents obtained by The Times.

The profits have raised questions both inside the agency and in Congress because the law that created GPO as the federal government’s official printer explicitly requires the agency to break even by charging only enough to recover its costs.

Lawmakers said they were alarmed by The Times’ findings and plan to investigate why U.S. companies weren’t used to produce the state-of-the-art passports, one of the crown jewels of American border security.

Officials at GPO, the Homeland Security Department and the State Department played down such concerns, saying they are confident that regular audits and other protections already in place will keep terrorists and foreign spies from stealing or copying the sensitive components to make fake passports.

“Aside from the fact that we have fully vetted and qualified vendors, we also note that the materials are moved via a secure transportation means, including armored vehicles,” GPO spokesman Gary Somerset said.

But GPO Inspector General J. Anthony Ogden, the agency’s internal watchdog, doesn’t share that confidence. He warned in an internal Oct. 12 report that there are “significant deficiencies with the manufacturing of blank passports, security of components, and the internal controls for the process.”

The inspector general’s report said GPO claimed it could not improve its security because of “monetary constraints.” But the inspector general recently told congressional investigators he was unaware that the agency had booked tens of millions of dollars in profits through passport sales that could have been used to improve security, congressional aides told The Times.

GPO is an agency little-known to most Americans, created by Congress almost two centuries ago as a virtual monopoly to print nearly all of the government’s documents … Since 1926, it also has been charged with the job of printing the passports used by Americans to enter and leave the country.

Each new e-passport contains a small computer chip inside the back cover that contains the passport number along with the photo and other personal data of the holder. The data is secured and is transmitted through a tiny wire antenna when it is scanned electronically at border entry points and compared to the actual traveler carrying it.

According to interviews and documents, GPO managers rejected limiting the contracts to U.S.-made computer chip makers and instead sought suppliers from several countries, including Israel, Germany and the Netherlands.

After the computer chips are inserted into the back cover of the passports in Europe, the blank covers are shipped to a factory in Ayutthaya, Thailand, north of Bangkok, to be fitted with a wire Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, antenna. The blank passports eventually are transported to Washington for final binding, according to the documents and interviews.

The stop in Thailand raises its own security concerns. The Southeast Asian country has battled social instability and terror threats. Anti-government groups backed by Islamists, including al Qaeda, have carried out attacks in southern Thailand and the Thai military took over in a coup in September 2006.

The Netherlands-based company that assembles the U.S. e-passport covers in Thailand, Smartrac Technology Ltd., warned in its latest annual report that, in a worst-case scenario, social unrest in Thailand could lead to a halt in production.

Smartrac divulged in an October 2007 court filing in The Hague that China had stolen its patented technology for e-passport chips, raising additional questions about the security of America’s e-passports.

Transport concerns

A 2005 document obtained by The Times states that GPO was using unsecure FedEx courier services to send blank passports to State Department offices until security concerns were raised and forced GPO to use an armored car company. Even then, the agency proposed using a foreign armored car vendor before State Department diplomatic security officials objected.

Questionable profits

The State Department is now charging Americans $100 or more for new e-passports produced by the GPO, depending on how quickly they are needed. That’s up from a cost of around just $60 in 1998.

Internal agency documents obtained by The Times show each blank passport costs GPO an average of just $7.97 to manufacture and that GPO then charges the State Department about $14.80 for each, a margin of more than 85 percent, the documents show.

The accounting allowed GPO to make gross profits of more than $90 million from Oct. 1, 2006, through Sept. 30, 2007, on the production of e-passports. The four subsequent months produced an additional $54 million in gross profits.

The agency set aside more than $40 million of those profits to help build a secure backup passport production facility in the South, still leaving a net profit of about $100 million in the last 16 months.

GPO plans to produce 28 million blank passports this year up from about 9 million five years ago.

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The importance of escalators in shopping

From “A-Z Retail Tricks To Make You Shop“:

Escalators – Multi-level Department stores often use their escalators to encourage you to see more of the store. Travelling either up or down the store you will find you have to walk half way around the level in order to find your next connecting escalator, as opposed to it being the one next to you. This has not happened by accident.

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Imagining a future of warring balloons

From Tom Reiss’s “Imagining the Worst: How a literary genre anticipated the modern world” (The New Yorker [28 November 2005]: 108):

… the first mini-boom in invasion fiction began in the seventeen-eighties, when the French developed the hot-air balloon. Soon, French poems and plays were depicting hot-air-propelled flying armies destined for England, and an American poem from 1784 warned, “At sea let the British their neighbors defy– / The French shall have frigates to traverse the sky. … If the English should venture to sea with their fleet, / A host of balloons in a trice they shall meet.” A German story published in 1810, and set in the twenty-first century, describes human populations living in deep underground shelters, with shops and churches, while balloon warfare between Europeans and invading Asian armies rages in the skies above.

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The airplane graveyard

From Patrick Smith’s “Ask the pilot” (Salon: 4 August 2006):

The wing is shorn off. It lies upside down in the dirt amid a cluster of desert bushes. The flaps and slats are ripped away, and a nest of pipes sprouts from the engine attachment pylon like the flailing innards of some immense dead beast. Several yards to the west, the center fuselage has come to rest inverted, the cabin cracked open like an eggshell. Inside, shattered rows of overhead bins are visible through a savage tangle of cables, wires, ducts and insulation. Seats are flung everywhere, still attached to one another in smashed-up units of two and three. I come to a pair of first-class chairs, crushed beneath the remains of a thousand-pound bulkhead. In the distance, the plane’s tail sits upright in a gesture of mutilated repose, twisted sharply to one side. High on the fin, the blue and white logo remains visible, save for a large vacant portion where the rudder used to be. …

I’m taking in one of the aviation world’s most curious and fascinating places, the “boneyard” at Mojave Airport in California, 70 miles north of Los Angeles.

The Mojave Desert is a barren place, a region of forbidding rocky hills and centuries-old Joshua trees. But it’s also an area with a rich aerospace history. Edwards Air Force Base and the U.S. Navy’s China Lake weapons station are both here, as well as the airport in Palmdale, where the Lockheed L-1011 was built. The Mojave Airport, officially known as the Mojave Airport and Civilian Aerospace Test Center, is the first FAA-licensed “spaceport” in the United States, home to a burgeoning commercial spacecraft industry. It’s a spot for ingenuity and innovation, you could say. But for hundreds of commercial jetliners, it is also the end of the road.

Of several aircraft scrap yards and storage facilities, including others in Arizona, Oklahoma and elsewhere in California, Mojave is arguably the most famous. …

There are upward of 200 planes at Mojave, though the number rises and falls as hulls are destroyed — or returned to service. Not all of the inventory is permanently grounded or slated for destruction. Neither are the planes necessarily old. Aircraft are taken out of service for a host of reasons, and age, strictly speaking, isn’t always one of them. The west side of the airport is where most of the newer examples are parked. MD-80s, Fokker 100s and an assortment of later-model 737s line the sunbaked apron in a state of semiretirement, waiting for potential buyers. They wear the standard uniform of prolonged storage: liveries blotted out, intakes and sensor probes wrapped and covered to protect them from the ravages of climate — and from the thousands of desert jackrabbits that make their homes here. A few of the ships are literally brand new, flown straight to Mojave from the assembly line to await reassignment after a customer changed its plans. …

The scrap value of a carcass is anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000.

“New arrivals, as it were, tend to come in bunches,” explains Mike Potter, one of several Mojave proprietors. …

Before they’re broken up, jets are scavenged for any useful or valuable parts. Control surfaces — ailerons, rudders, slats and elevators — have been carefully removed. Radomes — the nose-cone assemblies that conceal a plane’s radar — are another item noticeable by their absence. And, almost without exception, engines have been carted away for use elsewhere, in whole or in part. Potter has a point about being careful out here, for the boneyard floor is an obstacle course of random, twisted, dangerously sharp detritus. Curiously, I notice hundreds of discarded oxygen masks, their plastic face cups bearing the gnaw marks of jackrabbits. Some of the jets are almost fully skeletonized, and much of what used to rest inside is now scattered across the ground. …

Near the eastern perimeter sits a mostly intact Continental Airlines 747. This is one of Potter’s birds, deposited here in 1999. A hundred-million-dollar plane, ultimately worth about 25 grand for the recyclers. …

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Who made money during the era of railroads

From Paul Graham’s “What the Bubble Got Right” (September 2004):

In fact most of the money to be made from big trends is made indirectly. It was not the railroads themselves that made the most money during the railroad boom, but the companies on either side, like Carnegie’s steelworks, which made the rails, and Standard Oil, which used railroads to get oil to the East Coast, where it could be shipped to Europe.

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Railroads & tolls

From Andrew Odlyzko’s “Pricing and Architecture of the Internet: Historical Perspectives from Telecommunications and Transportation“:

Railroads were the dominant industry of the 19th century. … Early railroad charters, in both England and the U.S., were modeled after canal and turnpike charters, and almost uniformly envisaged that railroad companies would not be carriers themselves. Instead, they were expected to offer their facilities for use by carriers that would carry goods and passengers in their own wagons over the rails. Still, these charters specified tolls that varied greatly depending on the nature of the cargo. … For example, the very first parliamentary act for a railway was enacted in 1801. (Previous railways had been on private property, but in this case, as in subsequent ones, promoters were asking for the right of eminent domain to acquire the necessary land.) Between the endpoints of the railway, “chalk, lime and other manures were charged at the rate of three-pence per ton per mile; coals, corn, potatoes, iron and other metals, fourpence; and all goods not specified, sixpence” (p. 45 of [13]). …

Although some railroads did operate with other companies’ equipment on their rails for decades (and modern ones do so extensively), there was a relatively quick shift in the 1830s and 1840s towards railroads being exclusive carriers. There were technical reasons promot- ing such a shift (safety was jeopardized with multiple operators and primitive technology), but there is evidence that desire for greater control over pricing by railroads was also a major consideration [64]. Once railroads became carriers, they could engage in much more extensive price discrimination than allowed by the toll structure in their charters. And, propelled by the economics of their industry, with high fixed costs, railroads did engage in massive price discrimination, including personal discrimination. The result was massive political movements leading to government regulation [62,65].

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Turnpikes, roads, & tolls

From Andrew Odlyzko’s “Pricing and Architecture of the Internet: Historical Perspectives from Telecommunications and Transportation“:

British turnpikes were a controversial response to a serious problem. Traditionally, the King’s Highway was open to all. The problem was how to keep it in good condition. As commerce grew, the need to maintain roads became acute. At first, in Elizabethan times, laws were enacted compelling all able-bodied commoner males to devote several days a year to labor on the highways. (See [1,66,80] for references for the background information as well as other items below that are not attributed otherwise.) The inequitable distribution of the burden this imposed and the lack of effective control mechanisms by the central government led to many complaints. As a result, in 1663, the first turnpike was authorized. A local group was authorized to create a turnpike trust that would borrow money to improve a section of a road, and then collect tolls from travelers for passage over that section of the road. This venture was set up (as were all subsequent turnpikes) as an ostensibly non-profit trust. (There were opportunities for profits there, for example in payment of above-market fees and other abuses, but those were illicit, and in any case were not the high profits that other, more private, enterprises, such as lighthouses and canals, offered.) The reason for the non-profit nature of turnpikes was presumably to allay concerns about a violation of the ancient principle that the King’s Highway was open to all. Still, this turnpike was very controversial (as were many later ones). Apparently largely for that reason, it took until 1695 before the next turnpike was set up [2].

In the early 18th century, the turnpike movement took off in earnest. Although there were frequent protests (sometimes violent, as in the burning of the toll gates around Bristol in 1727 and 1735), by mid-1830s there were over 20,000 miles of turnpikes in England. …

Tolls were usually doubled on Sundays for ordinary commercial traffic, but were eliminated for travel to or from church. They also “were never levied on foot passengers, and were thus unfelt by the labouring poor” (p. 124 of [80]). There were also options in many cases for a flat fee for annual access. Still, there were countless controversies about the toll, “the collection of which led to endless evasions, inequalities and favouritisms of all kinds, arbitrary exactions, and systematic petty embezzlements” (p. 136 of [80]). …

… road tolls are coming back as a result of growing congestion and improved technology. Unlike telecommunications, where technology is increasing capacity of fiber, coax, and radio transmissions, building new roads is increasingly difficult, and making existing ones carry more traffic can only be done to a limited extent. At the same time, electronic means for monitoring traffic and collecting tolls are improving, and we see central business districts in Norway, Singapore, and London imposing tolls. Most of these systems do raise privacy issues, too, since they are centralized ones with information about users, or at least cars. Still, there is a strong tendency to introduce ever more detailed monitoring of traffic, often with the explicit goal of charging users according to their level of activity (whether by governments or by insurance companies).

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Canals & tolls

From Andrew Odlyzko’s “Pricing and Architecture of the Internet: Historical Perspectives from Telecommunications and Transportation“:

The modern canal era can be said to start with the Duke of Bridgewater’s Canal in England. Originally it was just a means of connecting the Duke’s colliery to Manchester. The parliamentary charter (which enabled him to take over private property, with appropriate compensation) obliged the Duke to carry cargo to Manchester at a maximum charge of 30 pence a ton, and to sell his own coal in Manchester for no more than 80 pence a ton, about half the price that had prevailed before [38,68]. Parliament was determined to obtain substantial benefits for the public from the grant of government powers to the Duke. …

The great financial success of the Duke of Bridgewater’s Canal led to widespread attempts to emulate it. In the early 1790s, there was a canal mania, with a burst of construction that was never to be replicated in Britain. (The U.S. had its canal mania some decades later, following on the great success of the Erie Canal.) The charters of those canals show a general trend towards greater price discrimination. …

Similar toll schedules depending on cargo were also common in the United States. As an example, when parts of the still incomplete Erie Canal were opened in 1820, there was a long list of tolls, concluding with “All articles not enumerated, one cent, per ton, per mile” (Chapter 2 of [81]). The enumerated articles (among those that were measured by the ton) were charged tolls ranging from salt and gypsum at 0.5 cents per ton per mile, to 1 cent for flour, to 2 cents for merchandise, and nothing for fuel to be used in the manufacture of salt (so that it was necessary not only to know the nature of the cargo, but its ultimate use). …

While canal operators were trying to squeeze carriers (who were trying to squeeze merchants, in ways similar to those described below for turnpikes), carriers often attempted to evade tolls. They bribed toll-collectors, misrepresented what the cargo was, or how much there was of it, and in some cases even hid cargo with high toll charges under commodities such as sand for which the fees were low. The countermeasures, just as they are today, and would likely be in the future with electronic communications, were based on both technology and law. Measurements were taken (in many cases there were books available to canal operators, listing canal boats, and the weight of cargo aboard as a function of how deeply in the water they lay), and there were punitive penalties for evasion.

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