A 24-year-old computer security student working on his doctorate at Indiana University Bloomington has created a Web site that allows anyone with an Internet connection and a printer to create and print fake boarding passes for Northwest Airlines flights.
The passes look virtually identical to the ones printed from the airline's site, and are intended to get you past security -- but not onto an airplane.
By entering your name and plugging in information about the flight -- flight number, gate, seat number, departing city, destination, departure, and arrival times and class -- the site generates a boarding pass the program's creator says will get you past security checkpoints, even without ID.
Christopher Soghoian, creator of "The Northwest Airlines Boarding Pass Generator," knew he would be opening up a can of worms by writing the program and creating the site, but says it's the only way to show people how deeply flawed airport and airline security are.
"I don't want to help terrorists or help bad guys do bad things on airplanes, but what we have now is what we in the industry call 'security theater.' It's made to make you think you're secure without actually making you secure," Soghoian said. "As a member of the academic research community, I consider this to be a public service."
Soghoian admits that he hasn't actually tried to use one of the boarding passes yet.
"Testing this in reality could land you in Gitmo [Guantanamo Bay, Cuba]," he said, but he added that the point shouldn't be lost that anyone with a little know-how and the will to do it could get past security at almost any airport in the country."
The Transportation Security Administration says that what Soghoian has done is illegal and that using one of these bogus boarding passes would be illegal as well.
But, TSA officials also believe that it would do little to aid anyone looking to do harm to airline passengers.
"While you may be able to get access to the terminal's interior through the security checkpoint," said Ann Davis, a TSA spokeswoman, "TSA assures that every individual introduced to the sterile environment beyond the checkpoint and their accessible property have been thoroughly checked and screened."
With airport security a hot-button issue, and Election Day drawing near, news of the site is generating some heated responses from politicians that include calls for his arrest.
"The Bush administration must immediately act to investigate, apprehend those responsible, shut down the website, and warn airlines and aviation security officials to be on the look-out for fraudsters or terrorists trying to use fake boarding passes in an attempt to cheat their way through security and onto a plane," wrote Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a senior member of the Committee on Homeland Security, in a statement.
"There are enough loopholes at the backdoor of our passenger airplanes from not scanning cargo for bombs; we should not tolerate any new loopholes making it easier for terrorists to get into the front door of a plane," Markey wrote.
Aviation expert John Nance says Soghoian may have shed light on a gap in airport security, but it's not something he should be commended for.
"My knee-jerk reaction to this is extreme concern," he said. "There's a free speech issue of course, but this is under the same legal categorization as screaming fire in a crowded theater."