Report: TSA site put travelers at risk...and a bit of poetic justice

Scathing congressional report confirms that security flaws in a Transportation Security Administration site put thousands of Americans at risk of identity theft.

UPDATE: See below for TSA's response.

A scathing congressional report released Friday confirms that security flaws in a Transportation Security Administration site put thousands of Americans at risk of identity theft.

The report (PDF) also reveals that a no-bid contract to create the site was awarded to an outside company by a TSA employee who had previously worked for that company. Was this just business as usual at TSA?

TSA: Security ain't its forte CNET

In October 2006, the TSA launched a Web site to help travelers whose names were erroneously listed on airline watch lists. This site had a number of security vulnerabilities: it was not hosted on a government domain; its home page was not encrypted; one of its data submission pages was not encrypted; and its encrypted pages were not properly certified. Furthermore, the site was filled with typos and other errors, causing some to wonder whether TSA's site had been taken over by phishers.

The report notes that TSA's chief information security officer conducted a detailed security accreditation review of the traveler redress site before it went live. He/she did not notice any of the glaring holes that I highlighted in my initial blog post on the subject. The report does not note whether the chief information security officer was ever punished for this failure to detect obvious flaws.

For the four months that the site was up, thousands of people visited it, and 247 travelers submitted highly personal information (including their Social Security number and place of birth) through an insecure, non-SSL encrypted form. TSA's lax security practices resulted in thousands of Americans being put at a direct risk of identity theft.

The site was only taken down after I discovered it in February 2007 and posted something to my blog. Shortly after, Wired and a number of other sites picked up the story, and TSA was shamed into pulling down the site.

In addition to noting the security problems on the site, I also expressed significant skepticism regarding Desyne Web Services, the Virginia-based Web site design firm that was running and operating the site. In my original blog post, I wrote:

"This begs the question: Who are these guys, why don't they know how to use SSL and how were they awarded this sweet contract? Why can't TSA do a simple form submission themselves?"

My initial concern seems to be well founded, as the newly released report reveals. The TSA official in charge of the project awarded the contract--without competition--to one of his former employers, a company owned by one of his high school buddies.

Proving that this is just business as usual for TSA, the report notes that "neither Desyne nor the technical lead on the traveler redress Web site have been sanctioned by TSA for their roles in the deployment of an insecure Web site. TSA continues to pay Desyne to host and maintain two major Web-based information systems. TSA has taken no steps to discipline the technical lead, who still holds a senior program management position at TSA."

UPDATE: When reached for comment, TSA spokesman Christopher White stated that "every issue that the committee brought up has been addressed many months ago. We are not interested in rehashing last year's issues."

When asked whether TSA is concerned with the ethical concerns that surrounded the no-bid sweetheart contract, he stated that there are "no ethical issues (to be) brought up. We hold ourselves to very high ethical standards. It is useless for the American public to rehash this old garbage that doesn't exist today."

He also stated that "many many months ago, when this was a legitimate issue, TSA did notify each person who may have been affected." However, he said, TSA "did not offer to pay for credit monitoring" for those passengers. He stressed that, "we have absolutely no indication that anyone's identity has been misused as a result of this incident."

White could not immediately answer questions related to the complete lack of sanctions for the TSA employee managing the contract and promised to get back to me after looking into the issue.

For those readers who are not aware, the FBI conducted a 2 a.m. raid of my home back in October 2006, after I created a Web site demonstrating the ease with which passengers could create fake boarding passes. After the FBI dropped its investigation, the TSA investigated me for six months and threatened me with tens of thousands of dollars in civil fines. No charges were ever filed.

I discovered the initial security flaws in TSA's redress Web site, and the congressional investigation is a direct result of a blog post that I wrote in February 2007. I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't grinning from ear to ear with the news of this report.

It's poetic justice, if you will, for the unpleasantness that TSA put me through.

Desyne, the firm that created the Web site, could not be immediately reached for comment.
 

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