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The Practical Nomad

Edward Hasbrouck's blog

Published: 2017-03-26T21:57:16-08:00

Last Build Date: 2017-03-24T12:27:21-08:00


Tips for travellers about the "Muslim laptop ban"


The "Muslim laptop ban" goes into effect today: The U.S. government has ordered airlines to prevent passengers from bringing laptop or tablet computers or other electronic devices "larger than a cellphone" (whatever that means) on their person or in carry-on baggage on direct flights between 10 airports in countries with predominantly Muslim populations in the "Middle East" (West Asia) and North Africa and the USA. These items will still be allowed on these flights in checked luggage, where either lithium batteries or explosives pose a greater danger because in-flight fires are harder to detect or put out in the cargo hold than in the passenger compartment. According to a report by Kaveh Waddell in The Atlantic (in which I'm also quoted), "The ban was communicated to the relevant airlines and airports at 3 a.m. Eastern on Tuesday, in the form of an emergency amendment to a security directive. From that point, the airlines and airports will have 96 hours to comply." Many others including airline pilot Patrick Smith ("Ask The Pilot") and experts interviewed by the Guardian (here and here) and the Washington Post have made the point that the Muslim laptop ban uses "security" as a pretext for trade sanctions (no US-based airlines serve any of the airports subjected to the laptop ban, which include the hub airports of airlines with which US-based airlines have been fighting a trade war) and Islamophobic harassment (the affected flights are those on which the largest numbers of citizens of countries that President Trump tried to ban from the US, but which the courts have at least temporarily enjoined him from excluding from the US, are likely to arrive). Aside from making the US government look more bigoted and stupid, it remains to be seen whether the Muslim laptop ban will affect travellers' choices of airlines or force carriers like Turkish Airlines to lower their fares even further to offset the disadvantage (especially for the most profitable business travellers) of not being able to work (or play games) on laptops in flight. But what does the Muslim laptop ban actually mean for travellers? What are the rules? There are no "rules", in any normal sense of that word. Airlines have been given orders by the DHS, in the form of "Security Directives". But those orders are secret. Airlines can, and often do, make things up out of ignorance or to serve their own profits, and blame them on the government. In this case, the orders are probably real, and certainly disliked by the airlines to which they apply (although welcomed by their US-based competitors). But, "The government made us do it," is a great excuse for anything airlines want to do -- especially when it's impossible for passengers to tell if it's true. Is this legal? Nobody knows. It's almost impossible for travellers to challenge the orders given by the government to the airlines. Airlines have standing to challenge these orders in court, but none of them have done so. It's one more example of the craven complicity of airlines in government harassment and infringement of the rights of travellers -- including airline complicity in, and failure to challenge, President Trump's Muslim ban. But how can I tell what I will be allowed to carry on? You can't. Even before the Muslim laptop ban, and regardless of what the government requires, airlines reserve the right to make you check your bags, including whatever you planned to carry on. Their tariff and conditions of carriage, as of the time your buy your ticket, give you a contractual right to have a certain amount of luggage transported to your ticketed destination. But they don't guarantee that any of your luggage will be transported in the passenger cabin, or even on the same plane, just as they don't guarantee that you will be transported on the original schedule or routing. As long as you and your luggage are delivered to your destination without being charged extra, the airline has fulfilled its contractual obligations even if it requires you to check your carry-on sized bag, and sends it on a different flight[...]

Testimony in Alaska on the REAL-ID Act


I'm testifying today (by teleconference) at two hearings in the Alaska State Legislature on state bills related to the Federal REAL-ID Act.

In 2008, the Alaska State Legislature enacted a state law prohibiting any state spending to implement the REAL-ID Act.

Now, in response to Federal threats to interfere with Alaskan residents' freedom of movement if the state government doesn't upload information about all state license and ID-card holders to a national ID database, the state legislature is considering bills to authorize that spending and implementation.

It makes no sense for Alaska to call for repeal of a disliked Federal law of dubious Constitutionality, and simultaneously to authorize state spending to comply with that law, without first getting the courts to rule on whether the (unfunded) mandate for state action or the threatened sanctions against state residents are Constitutional.

Details and links to the proposed legislation and my testimony at Alaska and the REAL-ID Act

Palantir, Peter Thiel, Big Data, and the DHS


[On the sidewalk in front of Palantir founder and Trump supporter Peter Thiel's house at 2920 Broadway in San Francisco.] On Saturday, I joined an ad hoc group of picketers outside the Pacific Heights mansion of Palantir Technologies founder and Trump supporter Peter Thiel (photo gallery from the SF Chronicle, video clip from KGO-TV; more photos from the East Bay Express). San Francisco and Silicon Valley are among the centers of opposition to President Trump and his fascism, especially as it relates to restrictions on movement, border controls, immigration, and asylum. Bay Area technology companies and their better-paid classes of employees like to think of themselves as building a better world that reflects the distinctive values that have attracted dreamers and futurists to this region -- as it attracted me, 35 years ago -- from across the country and around the world. But some of these companies are key developers and providers of "big data" tools for the opposite sort of "Brave New World". As Anna Weiner reported in the New Yorker ("Why Protesters Gathered Outside Peter Thiel's Mansion This Weekend"): David Campos, a former member of the San Francisco board of supervisors, who emigrated from Guatemala, in 1985, stood on the brick stoop and raised a megaphone. "The reason we're here is to call upon the people who are complicit in what Trump is trying to do," he said. Clark echoed the sentiment. "If your company is complicit, it is time to fight that," she said. Trauss, when it was her turn, addressed Thiel, wherever he was. "What happened to being a libertarian?" she asked. "What happened to freedom of movement for labor?" Edward Hasbrouck, a consultant with the Identity Project, a civil-liberties group, took the stand, wearing a furry pink tiger-striped pussyhat. "The banality of evil today is the person sitting in a cubicle in San Francisco, or in Silicon Valley, building the tools of digital fascism that are being used by those in Washington," he said. "We've been hearing back that there are a fair number of people at Palantir who are working really hard at convincing themselves that they're not playing a role -- they're not the ones out on the street putting the cuffs on people. They're not really responsible, even though they're the ones who are building the technology that makes that possible." It's easy to rationalize the creation of technological tools by saying that they can used for good as well as evil. But you can't separate the work of tool-making from the ways those tools are being used. Palantir workers' claims to "neutrality" resemble the claims made in defense of IBM and Polaroid and when they were making and selling "general purpose" computers, cameras, and ID-badge making machines to the South African government in the 1970s. None of this technology and equipment was inherently evil. But in South Africa, it was being used to administer the apartheid system of passbooks and permissions for travel, work, and residence. The same goes for "big data" today. To understand what's wrong with the work being done by Palantir for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, it's necessary to look not just at what tools Palantir is building but at how and by whom they will be used; not just at the data tools but at the datasets to which they are applied, the algorithms they use, and the outcomes they are used to determine.[...]

President Trump, Populist Politics, and the Prospects for Privacy



I was on a panel on Wednesday at the Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection conference in Brussels on the topic of "Populist Politics and the Prospects for Privacy".

Through no fault of the organizers, who were extremely accommodating of my last-minute proposal for this panel after the US elections, we had less time than we had hoped for. There's video of the session, but I was rushed and probably not always clear.


[My pussy hat -- the symbol of the Women's Marches last weekend after Trump's inauguration -- was popular at CPDP. Photo by kind permission of Wendy M. Grossman. Thanks to Suzanne and another Wendy for knitting and giving me the hat!]

By popular request, below the jump is a summary of the main points I tried to make.

(For those interested in more detail, I've posted my notes on issues I would have liked to raise, if we had more time. I've also posted a separate article at on President Trump's executive order repudiating the EU-US agreement on transfers of PNR data from the EU to the US government.)

Unresponsive "comments" from Amadeus


Exactly three weeks after a public demonstration of the insecurity of public Web gateways to computerized reservation systems (CRSs) -- a threat to travellers that I've been writing, speaking and telling the CRS operators about for more than 15 years -- one of those companies has responded to my request for comment, but without answering any of my questions.

Here, in its entirety, is the statement I received late Tuesday from Amadeus (which hosts PNR data for airlines and travel agencies and operates the for viewing PNR data), followed by my comments:

The REAL-ID Act and the TSA proposal to require ID to fly


Much of my work for the last decade as a consultant to the Identity Project ( on travel-related civil-liberties and human rights issues has focused on requirements to obtain government permission and/or show government-issued ID credentials in order to travel by common carrier.

No law in the USA requires you to show ID to fly, as I have explained to state legislators and Washington think tanks.

The TSA tells travellers they have to show government-issued ID to fly, harasses those who decline to do so, and sometimes has them arrested by local police on trumped-up (will that word now have new meaning?) charges.

But people with no ID at all fly every day. "We have a procedure for that," the TSA says whenever its demands for ID are challenged in court.

Now the TSA has proposed -- in a backhanded way calculated to evade public or Congressional debate or judicial oversight -- to impose a new official requirement for all airline passengers either to show government-issued ID or to certify that they live in a state that the DHS deems sufficiently compliant with the REAL-ID Act 2005. This ID requirement would be an additional prerequisite before the TSA will give them "permission" to pass though its checkpoints or board airline flights.

For more on what's wrong with this proposal, see the comments filed this week with the TSA by the Identity Project and this post from the Identity Project blog.

"What can I do to protect my PNR data?"


Since the recent public demonstration of some of the security and privacy vulnerabilities of airline reservations systems that I've been writing and speaking about for more than 15 years, people have been asking me, "What can I do to protect myself against stalking, harassment, surveillance, and fraud when I travel?"

Here are some answers from an interview I gave last week to Lucia Blasco of the BBC World Service:

CRS/GDS companies and travellers' privacy


[In the middle of the presentation by SRLabs at 33C3 on Tuesday, Nemanja Nikodijevic discovered that Amadeus had taken its "" PNR-viewing Web site offline to prevent the vulnerabilities of the site from being demonstrated in real time. Screen capture from CC3C video by permission of SRLabs. Click images for larger versions.] This past Tuesday at the 33C3 conference in Hamburg, Germany, Karsten Nohl and Nemanja Nikodijevic of SRLabs publicly demonstrated that airline reservations systems still have the same fundamental insecurity, in the same ways that I have been writing and speaking about for more than 15 years. Lest there be any doubt, while the the team from SRLabs was inspired to investigate this subject in part by an interview with me on a German IT news site, I had no contact with them and was entirely unaware of their work until they contacted me last week. They worked entirely independently of me, and had no access to any information from me except my published writing and public speeches. When they contacted me last week to let me know that they would be giving a presentation on this topic at 33Cc, their research was already complete. I thought that expert security researchers might have found more vulnerabilities than I had found. Perhaps they did, but haven't yet discussed them publicly. But all of the attacks they demonstrated in their public presentation at 33C3 exploited the lack of real passwords on public Web gateways to Passenger Name Records (PNRs) operated by computerized reservation systems (CRSs/GDSs) for itinerary viewing, and by airlines for online booking, ticketing, check-in, changes, and cancellations. These specific vulnerabilities have been publicly reported and discussed in print for at least 15 years, starting around the time Amadeus began its beta test of In light of some of the statements attributed to Amadeus -- the target of most of the sample exploits demonstrated by SRLabs -- in other news stories this week, it's important for the public and for government officials with authority over privacy and data protection to understand that this was not a demonstration of new vulnerabilities or anything that wasn't already well-known to Sabre, Amadeus, and Travelport (the current owner of both Galileo/Apollo and Worldspan). Amadeus' reported responses have focused on the brute-force attack on PNR record locators, but the real problem, which has long been known, is the use of the record locator as though it were a password and without telling travellers that they need to keep it secret like a password that can't be changed if compromised. In many real-world targetted attack scenarios, the attacker will have other ways than trial and error to obtain a record locator. And real-world attacks are likely to be targetted: There are easier ways for hackers to obtain credit card numbers or money. The motivation for hacking a CRS/GDS or obtaining PNR data is to find out where someone will be, and when, so that the cyber-attacker can stalk their victim, surveil her, harass or attack her physically, rob her home while she is away, kidnap her and/or her children, or kill her. To set the record straight, below is more detail than I would normally go into about the chronology of my reporting on this subject, followed by my recommendations for action and the questions I have asked Amadeus.[...]

"Travel data: fraud with booking codes is too easy"


[Some of the privacy and security threats to PNR data and the CRS network, from my testimony in 2013 as an invited expert witness before the Advisory Committee on Aviation Consumer Protection of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Click image for larger version.] Video, slides, and blog post of presentation by SRLabs at 33C3 (27 December 2016, Hamburg, Germany) Who's watching you while you travel? (details of this vulnerability published on my Web site, 18 April 2002) Flight booking systems lack basic privacy safeguards, researchers say (by Eric Auchard, Reuters, 27 December 2016) Reisedaten: Betrug mit Buchungscodes ist zu einfach (by Patrick Beuth, Zeit, 26 December 2016) Unsicherheit bei Flugbuchungen: "Greift mehr Legacy-Systeme an" (by Hauke Gierow,, 28 December 2016) Une étude alerte sur les failles des réservations de vol (by Alexis Orsini,, 28 December 2016) 33C3: Gravierende Sicherheitslücken bei Reisebuchungssystemen (by Stefan Krempl, Heise Online, 28 December 2016) Amadeus-Sicherheitsproblem: Einladung für Cyber-Vandalen (by Frank Patalong, Der Spiegel, 27 December 2016) Today at the 33rd Chaos Communication Congress (33C3) in Hamburg, Germany, white-hat hackers from Security Research Labs inspired by news reports in Germany about my work will publicly demonstrate their ability to access and alter other people's airline reservations (PNRs) by exploiting vulnerabilities including ones that I wrote about and called to the attention of all of the four major Computerized Reservation Systems in 2002, but that the CRSs have made a deliberate choice not to close because (a) government authorities have not enforced existing data protection laws (in other countries than the USA, which has no such laws) against CRSs, airlines, or travel agencies, and (b) these travel companies put their profits ahead of passengers' privacy and security. There's been some advance coverage in German print (mentioning my work) and television news media. (Zeit, Handelsblatt, Der Spiegel.) But the CRS exploits discussed in these news stories are not the most serious of those that I expect the folks from SRLabs (well-known for their previous public exploits) to demonstrate at 33C3. Watch the livestream here at 21:45 CET in Hamburg, 12:45 p.m. PST in San Francisco. Recorded video will be posted later, but I don't know how soon. I'll add a link once it is available. As I wrote in my book, The Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace, which was published in early 2001 before 9/11, "Privacy is the Achilles heel of Internet travel planning." In that book (page 121), I also wrote about the vulnerability of the public Web gateways operated by CRS companies -- the vulnerability exploited in today's demonstration at 33C3, of which the first was Sabre's If you make reservations through or any other Sabre travel agency, you can view your itinerary at Sabre's "Virtually There" Web site ( by entering your last name and the six-character "record locator"" for your reservations. This is good if you've misplaced your printed itinerary, but at present is dangerously insecure. Anyone who sees your name and record locator on an itinerary (through a window envelope, for example, or over your shoulder in an airport check-in line) can find out your home address, the exact dates you''ll be away, where you are staying, etc. Properly secured, it could be a great feature, and hopefully will have secured it before you read this. If they haven't, don''t make any reservations in Sabre until they do, unless you want every detail of your trip to be public. At the time that this was written and this book went to press in 2000, I was already in active discussions with Sabre about this issu[...]

"This is what 'extreme vetting' means."


I'm quoted at length in a story today in The Verge and on CNBC about the DHS "Analytical Framework for Intelligence" (AFI), a data-mining and profiling system outsourced to a company founded by a member of the Trump transition team and used to "vet" immigrants, foreign visitors, and US citizens, to decide whether or not they are allowed to travel and how they are treated when they travel, on the basis of an aggregated database of government and commercial information:

"When Trump uses the term 'extreme vetting', AFI is the black-box system of profiling algorithms that he's talking about," says Edward Hasbrouck of the Identity Project, a civil liberties initiative that focuses on the rights of travelers. "This is what extreme vetting means."


"Are Government Fines Really Improving Air Travel?"


Are Government Fines Really Improving Air Travel? (by Christoher Elliott, Huffington Post, 5 December 2016):

The Department of Transportation fined airlines $4.5 million in 2016 for infractions ranging from lengthy tarmac delays to failing to compensate passengers for lost luggage, almost double last year's amount and the highest since 2013.

The DOT's Aviation Consumer Protection Division, which is responsible for ensuring that airlines follow federal regulations, issued 23 consent orders -- voluntary agreements worked out between the agency and an airline that generally have the same effect as a court order -- in 2016, up from 15 last year....

But it isn't clear whether these actions are benefitting the passengers they're supposed to protect. Industry watchers say the numbers don't tell the full story....

Industry critics are ... unhappy with the size of the DOT fines, saying they are not a significant deterrent. Airlines collect about $250 billion in revenue each year for travel to, from and within the United States, which means their DOT fines represent about 0.002 percent of their profits....

Consumer advocates say that while they're encouraged by this year's enforcement actions, the DOT has focused on some issues while ignoring others.... More needs to be done to keep them informed, says Charlie Leocha, president of Travelers United, an advocacy group for air travelers. He thinks that the DOT needs to begin posting some of the rules that deal with lost-luggage compensation and denied-boarding statements at airports, so passengers will know their rights.

"It would keep the airlines honest," Leocha says.

But would it make air travel any better? It's hard to tell.

"Given the puny financial settlements, the real test of effectiveness should be whether airlines comply with the promises in these consent agreements," says consumer advocate Edward Hasbrouck. "But there's no evidence of DOT follow-up audits of compliance with these consent decrees, or of enhanced penalties for repeat violations -- even though violating a consent agreement is contempt of court."

Sadly, most of what I said in the first year of the Obama Administration about the need for DOT action to protect consumers is still relevant in the final lame-duck days of President Obama's second term. And with the former owner of a (failed) airline moving into the White House, we can scarcely expect his Administration to sympathize with passengers against airline owners.

Travelers United and other consumer advocates for travellers will need your support more than ever.

Notes from Amsterdam, Brussels, and Istanbul


["Hasbrouck" is a French Huguenot name, presumably of Flemish etymology, meaning "Rabbit Marsh" or, as a Belgian customs man once told me, "Swamp of the Bunnies". It's spelled differently in France, South Africa, the USA, and the Netherlands. One evening on the way back to my hostel from a concert at the Orgelpark, I found myself on "Hasbrouck Street" (photo above) in Amsterdam, which I hadn't known existed.]

Travel for me is always a mix of business and pleasure. Here are some of the travel and other lessons from my latest trip: two and a half weeks in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Istanbul, representing the National Writers Union at international meetings.

Terrorism and travel bargains

[Billboards and banners with nationalist and anti-terrorist slogans -- seen here in Taksim Square, near the site of one of the bombings earlier this year -- are currently ubiquitous throughout Istanbul.]

Within the last year, there have been terrorist bombings in the check-in areas of both the Brussels (Zaventem/National) and Istanbul (Ataturk) airports, in downtown Brussels, and repeatedly in central Istanbul, as well as an unsuccessful attempted military coup in Turkey.

These events have scared off many foreign tourists, forcing down hotel prices and creating bargains for opportunistic visitors in both cities, especially Istanbul.

As with natural disasters or financial crises, it may seem ghoulish to seek out sites of terrorism for our subsequent vacations. But one of the tactics of terrorism is to scare off tourists as a way to inflict economic damage on the government, businesses, and the local population. In the wake of such an attack, local people are often more eager than ever to to show that they welcome visitors (and their spending) and don't share the terrorists' antipathy to foreigners. The welcome mat is out, prices are low, museums and monuments are less crowded, and often the government sponsors special promotions to woo back frightened tourists.

Elected to IFRRO's Board of Directors


I've been elected to the Board of Directors of the International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organizations (IFRRO). For the next three years, I will hold the sole seat on the Board reserved for a representative of journalists, authors, and other writers worldwide.

Although the name sometimes leads to confusion, IFRRO has nothing to do with abortion or reproductive rights. It's the global coordinating and standard-setting body for "reproduction rights organizations" (RROs) -- rights management agencies that license photocopying and other "secondary" uses of published written and printed works.

I was nominated for the IFRRO Board by the National Writers Union (NWU) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 140 countries. The NWU is one of the US affiliates of the IFJ, although the NWU also includes many other types of writers as well as journalists. At the IFRRO annual general meeting in Amsterdam where the IFRRO Board was elected, I represented both the NWU and the IFJ.

Enough with the alphabet soup. What am I doing on the IFRRO Board, and why should writers (or readers) care?

"Generation X': A Brief History of Dropouts from the U. of Chicago"


I'm honored to be among the former U. of C. students from "Generation X" featured in a thoughtful article by Hannah Edgar in the current issue of the student newspaper, the Chicago Maroon, Generation X': A Brief History of Dropouts and Transfer Students at the University of Chicago. (The title of the article is an insider pun on the way the U. of C. refers to alumni like myself as "ex-degree", with an "X" and the year we left the University, in lieu of our degree and year of receiving it.) Congratulations to Hannah Edgar for digging so deeply into this underreported (for reasons some of which she explores in the article) topic, and for including me in this distinguished company along with others including Andrew Patner, my classmate and, much later, one of Ms. Edgar's mentors. And thanks to the U. of C., in all seriousness, for a profoundly valuable educational experience. One of many issues Ms. Edgar and I talked about that didn't make it into the article was to what degree the inability of the U. of C. to deal with its "image problem" was, and perhaps still is, related to homophobia and/or Asperger's Syndrome. When I read a description of the longstanding negative stereotype of a U. of Chicago student quoted from a former President of the U. of C. in a recent history of the College, my reaction was, "Is this a description of a stereotypical faggot? Or of a stereotypical person with Asperger's? Or both?" The answer, of course, is "both". But no matter how obvious that answer is, it's one the U. of C. has yet to confront. Here's the U. of C. student stereotype. You be the judge of what it means: Every high school principal and college counselor knows precisely the kind of student they think we want, and they endeavor conscientiously to urge these students to come to the University of Chicago. The stereotype varies a bit in different parts of the country, but it adds up pretty well into a certain kind of youngster. First of all, he must be odd and not accepted in games and social affairs by the other students. He must be bright, not necessarily in the conventional sense of high I.Q., but in some extravagant and unusual way. He must have read and pondered esoteric things far beyond his years. He draws a sharp breath when reference is made to Aristotle, St. Thomas, John Donne, and James Joyce. He wears glasses, does not dance, deplores sports, and has advanced ideas on labor and the theory of relativity.... The converse of this stereotype is also the case. As one college counselor phrased it to me, "It simply does not occur to any of our normal students to go to the University of Chicago." We have insisted that the purpose of a university is to train the mind, and the inference has been drawn that the rest of the person may go hang so far as we are concerned. We have deplored fun, snorted at anyone who wanted to develop himself physically, and sneered at anyone who conceived of a college education as having any vocational or practical significance.... The stereotype which emerges is thought to be the only person who would be interested in or profit by our system of education." [U. of C. President Lawrence Kimpton, address to the faculty, 1954; quoted by Dean of the College John W. Boyer, Chicago Occasional Papers on Higher Education XXII, 2012, pp. 82-83.] I can't say whether there was any larger a proportion of queers at the U. of Chicago than anywhere else -- I arrived on the Quads as a 17-year-old sexual naïf who was completely oblivious to such matters even though there were already some out gay students in the College. I wouldn't have a concept of bisexuality, much less the sexual self-awareness to be able to recognize it in mysel[...]