Security, spycraft, beating the system: what fascinates us about the Malaysia Airlines disappearance

In a world where the doors to schools and government buildings and even baseball parks are guarded with metal detectors, where security cameras are recording in routine places, where massive government agencies are storing call metadata and tapping the backbone of the internet, where wireless carriers can pinpoint a cellphone location to within a few feet, and where the CIA can read a license plate from outer space, how in the hell can you lose a 300,000 lb plane with a 200-foot wingspan?

The world is riveted by the unfolding story of the Malaysia Airlines disappearance. Over a week ago, on March 8th, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 – a large Boeing 777-200ER – disappeared from radar and air traffic control screens just as it was about to pass from Malaysian to Vietnamese airspace on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It sounded no distress call; it left no physical evidence. It seemed to have literally vanished into thin air.

The flight’s disappearance flies in the face of our post-9/11 experiences with TSA x-rays, 3-1-1 liquids bags, and remove-your-shoes rules that slow down the process of flying in the name of security. How, with all of that terror prevention policy and procedure, could something like this have happened? Clearly it must be a tragic accident. But an accident should have left evidence, and none has been found. No call of distress, no flash of mid-air explosion, no floating wreckage, no data chatter from multiple communications systems that are designed to monitor airplane location and performance. That runs counter to everything we’ve come to learn – and are still learning – about how almost every electronic and physical move we make is increasingly being monitored or recorded and stored.

There’s a little bit of schadenfreude behind our rapt attention to this story: the system was outfoxed. But that’s immediately mingled with sorrow and fear for all who were on that flight, along with a fascinated horror: over 12 years after 9/11, there are still holes in the air travel security system. Everyone – everyone – wants to solve the puzzle of how they did it. Some want to know so that the holes can be plugged, and some, frankly, want to know because they want to exploit them, whether for terrorism or for spycraft. And by the way, it is “how they did it”, not just “what happened”: from the bits of data that have been pieced together and analyzed, a picture of a sophisticated plan to disappear has begun to emerge.

That sophisticated plan exploited the weakness of sophisticated technology. By systematically dismantling transponders and tracking systems, the Air Traffic Control system, which depends upon the electronic transmission of data, was left blinded. The only tracking technology capable of seeing the plane was an old echolocation-based one – Primary Surveillance Radar, or ground radar – which is almost completely phased out now due to its limited range. Skillful flying by someone with knowledge of the range and the limitations of ground radar allowed the plane to escape detection. Low tech beats high tech.

That’s what’s fascinating about this otherwise horrifying tragedy: understanding the (yes, diabolical, but you have to admit) creative thinking that upended assumptions, that used the knowledge of the system to circumvent it. Now that there has been an official acknowledgment that the plane was “deliberately diverted” (which is apparently our new, sanitized way to describe hijacking) we can continue to watch this gripping story as the ones who also know the system use their creative thinking to try to outfox the ones that outfoxed the system.

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