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Real, fake airport security gear is readily available

Sunday, February 02, 2003

By Mark Belko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

You don't have to be a U.S. Transportation Security Administration employee to look the part.

Not with the Internet a couple of clicks away.

Log on to eBay, for example, and you will find TSA arm patches for sale -- the same kind worn by TSA employees who scan your luggage and clear you through airport checkpoints. You'll also find a TSA badge ID reel to hold an employee identification card and lapel pins with the TSA insignia.

As the new federal agency settles into its role overseeing security at the nation's airports, such items could be the perfect gift for a collector or for the TSA employee who has everything.

But could their sale also pose a security risk?

That question has been asked, and in some cases answered, at high levels of the federal government.

In 2000, undercover agents working for the U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, used counterfeit law enforcement identifications obtained over the Internet to breach security at the Pentagon, the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, the State Department and 14 other federal agencies and two airports.

At each of the 21 sites, the agents "could have carried in weapons, listening devices, explosives, or chemical or biological agents," a GAO summary said. In one case, they were able to drive a rented van into the courtyard of the Justice Department building. The van was not searched or inspected.

"Counterfeit security badges and credentials are readily available for sale on the Internet and other public sources and could be used by criminals, terrorists and foreign spies to gain access to secure government buildings and airports," the GAO summary stated.

Last week, the GAO reported that its investigators, armed with fake driver's licenses and birth certificates created by using off-the-shelf computer graphic software available to the public, got past U.S. border guards at four locations.

At Pittsburgh International Airport in December, a businessman without the required boarding pass was able to enter the restricted boarding terminal to see off his brother by flashing an old constable's badge he was given as a gift. Michael Kobold, a German national who owns a business in Robinson, was arrested and is now facing a federal charge of lying to a U.S. customs inspector.

Meanwhile, pilots were warned last summer to be on alert after reports of suspected terrorists breaking into hotel rooms and stealing crew uniforms, credentials and passports.

TSA patches and pins aren't the only government-related items you will find on the Internet. You also can buy shirts, pins, patches, belt buckles and hats relating to the U.S. Secret Service, the CIA and FBI. You can purchase CIA certificates of service and a CIA combat knife.

Whether such items could be used to help terrorists or others get into secure locations is a matter of debate.

TSA spokeswoman Heather Rosenker downplayed the possibility, noting that her agency's employees were not identified by the patch on their arm or a lapel pin but by the ID card they carry.

She added that all employees had to go through checkpoint screening themselves before they start their jobs, making it very unlikely that an impostor could bring through weapons or explosives.

And since screeners work in groups at the checkpoint and at machines that look for explosives, it's "unlikely" that an impostor would be able to wave through weapon- or explosive-carrying accomplices without being detected, she said.

That's not to say the TSA isn't concerned about what's being sold over the Internet.

The agency has attorneys monitoring Internet sites to determine if any of the merchandise offered for sale poses a security risk. And in one recent case,, TSA lawyers asked eBay to remove a TSA agent's badge and badge holder being hawked. It did.

Rosenker said she didn't know whether the badge was fake or authentic or who was selling it.

"It's all under investigation," she said. "Clearly, that's something that could jeopardize [security]."

It's not uncommon for eBay to remove an item from its site after receiving a call from a law enforcement or security agency official worried that the merchandise could pose a security risk, said Kevin Pursglove, eBay's senior director of communications. It has removed badges, belt buckles, holsters and ID badges at the request of authorities.

"As a general rule, if the agency itself is concerned, then we remove the item," Pursglove said.

But he added that some law enforcement agencies sold patches or insignias on eBay to raise money for charitable purposes. Older out-of-circulation items typically aren't a problem.

"What they want is the more contemporary items to be removed if they deem them to be a security risk," Pursglove said.

Michael Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation consultant, said people had been trying to fabricate uniforms and IDs "since King Arthur's time."

While fabrications can't be stopped, airports with adequate security in place should be able to easily detect impostors trying to pass themselves off as TSA agents or law enforcement officials.

The problem, he said, is that many airports still aren't adequately secured. He said many still remained "wide open" to infiltration.

"You can buy and manufacture or otherwise jury-rig any kind of uniform and ID," he said. "That can't be stopped. What you have to have is a security system that can identify [a threat] very quickly before it does any damage. I'll be honest with you, we don't have that kind of security system."

Likewise, Offer Einav, former security director for Israel's El Al Airlines, said that while it can be relatively easy to make or obtain false identification and uniforms, a "smart security system" should be able to deter them.

"Basically, as long as you have good security systems, those kinds of materials can be detected," he said.

Einav, who is president of GS-3, a security consulting firm which has done work at Pittsburgh International, said the best systems rely as much on sensing abnormal behavior and body language as they do on technology to spot possible threats. Also such systems routinely alter their patterns to guard against predictability.

He said officials at Pittsburgh International had taken "very innovative steps" to help make the facility more secure in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Rosenker, meanwhile, did see an upside to the proliferation of TSA items on eBay.

"In a very quirky way, to see some TSA things on there, we've arrived," she said.


Mark Belko can be reached at mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.

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