How to make a fake boarding pass.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Oct. 30 2006 3:31 PM

Boarding Pass Failure

Closing an airport security loophole.

The FBI raided the home of Indiana University grad student Christopher Soghoian, who created a Web site that lets users forge their own airline boarding passes. Soghoian said he intended to call attention to an airport security loophole. In a "Hey, Wait a Minute" article published in 2005 and reprinted below, Andy Bowers identified the loophole, created his own fake documents, and proposed a simple fix.

The Homeland Security Department's No-Fly List has always seemed a bit absurd to me. Only the stupidest terrorist would try booking a flight under his own name (or his known aliases) three years after the 9/11 attacks, and one thing I hope we've all learned is that our most dangerous enemies aren't stupid.

Advertisement

But even if you assume the No-Fly List serves an important purpose, the system as it presently operates contains a gaping, dangerous loophole that makes the list nearly useless. It's a loophole so obvious, it occurred to me the first time I held it in my hand. And believe me, if I can figure it out, any terrorist worth his AK-47 realized it a long time ago.

The loophole is "Internet check-in," a convenience most airlines now offer. (It was first used by Alaska Airlines in 1999, but expanded rapidly after 9/11, as air carriers looked for ways to ease wait times for grumpy passengers.)

Here's how Internet check-in works: On the day of your flight, you can now go online, check in as though you were standing at a kiosk in the airport, and—this is the important part—print out your own boarding pass at home. You then bring your boarding pass, which includes a unique barcode, with you to the airport and go straight through the security line (in many cases, you can check bags at the curb).

It's a terrific timesaver, and there's actually nothing inherently wrong with allowing people to print their own traveling documents at home or the office. The problem is what the airlines and the Transportation Security Administrationdo with those documents at the airport. (In the last year, I've used Internet check-in on three different major airlines and at airports both large and small across the country. In every case, I could have exploited the loophole with ease, and in exactly the same way.)

A home-printed boarding pass is generally checked only twice at the airport:

1) Right before you go through security, a security guard checks your boarding pass against your government-issued ID, making sure the names match. This check does not include a scan of the barcode, in part because the same security checkpoints process passengers for multiple airlines with different computer systems. Occasionally a second security guard at the metal detector will double-check the boarding pass, but again, not by scanning it.

2) Once you get to your boarding gate, the barcode on the printed pass is finally scanned just before you enter the Jetway. However, as the boarding agents remind you over and over, you no longer need to show your ID at the gate. (The TSA estimates 80 percent of U.S. airports have done away with ID checks at the boarding gate.)I've noticed that many passengers still have their driver's licenses or passports in hand as they approach, remembering post-9/11 enhanced security. But the agents cheerily tell them to put their IDs away—they're no longer necessary.

Do you see the big flaw? At no point do you have to prove that the person in whose name the ticket was bought is the same person standing at the airport.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 17 2014 11:48 PM Spanking Is Great for Sex Which is why it’s grotesque for parenting.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?