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Authorities and Stupidity

2007-09-21 15:52:30.838447+00 by Dan Lyke 13 comments

The tasers and cops don't mix thread seems to tie in with two things from today: Boston police overreact, again, this time to an MIT student with a circuit board art project:

Simpson was "extremely lucky she followed the instructions or deadly force would have been used," Pare said. "She's lucky to be in a cell as opposed to the morgue."

I obviously don't know all the details, but I've done almost exactly what she did to stand out at a conference before, and the assumption that "if I don't recognize it it must be a bomb" is exactly counter to the tactics that'd catch any real bomber. I got this link from Sensible Erection, but Boing Boing has further coverage. [Later edit: AP article on SFGate]

I went over to Boing Boing to track down this entry which points to this Wired Blog entry which quotes U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Nocke on tracking the reading material of airline passengers:

"I flatly reject the premise that we care at all about the latest Tom Clancy novel a traveler is reading," Knocke said.

"But the fact does remain that CBP officials are going to be mindful of whether there is anything that suggests there could be possible violations of a law associated with a traveler or items in possession of a traveler as they make an admissibility decision about that traveler," Knocke said. "That is what they are charged by Congress to do."

In both cases, either the likely terrorists are really stupid (no, wait, stoooopid), or the rationalizations are bullshit and we're just seeing more bizarre security theater and out of control assholes with authority complexes, and the end result is these loose cannons with guns running around saying "be a good consumer, read Tom Clancy novels, not anything that'd actually improve your mind, and don't build anything yourself, just buy prepackaged toys from China, otherwise we might have to shoot you for your own protection".

The terrorists have won.

[ related topics: Politics Aviation moron security Current Events Consumerism and advertising Law Enforcement Boston - stupidity and authorities ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-21 17:44:04.006784+00 by: Diane Reese

I know Star. My son knows Star. I know lots of people who know Star. I haven't read the Boing Boing coverage yet, but I have facebook pointers to that as an accurate source of information. She's described as an absent-minded professor type, and I truly believe this could have been something she just never considered the implications of. Here's how I know.

Three summers ago, I was flying home from LAX with my younger son, who had just finished a 3-week CTY course in Electrical Engineering. (CTY = Center for Talented Youth = "smart kid camp"; he was 14 at the time.) The kids had all brought home their final projects, which were tiny little (2" max) robotic vehicles with solar cells attached, which moved in predetermined patterns. The head of the CTY program gave each student a signed letter on university letterhead paper, explaining the course and saying what the projects were, and providing a cellphone number if there was any concern about allowing them to be transported home. My son was very proud of his project; I put it in a baggie in my carry-on, with the letter attached, expecting we'd be quizzed about it.

And were we ever.

Luckily we were at the airport VERY early. We were, as you might expect, pulled aside and detained. I calmly explained what it was and offered the letter; I was not allowed to touch my bag. I offered to throw it away and not take it on the plane, but was told that we did not have that option, it might be hazardous waste. There was much commotion, and two officers arrived with drawn guns. A supervisor guy arrived eventually, put on gloves, read the letter, carefully moved the project pieces around and looked at them and looked at my son and said, "This is an electronics project." And my son said, "Yeah here's the capacitors and here's the something-or-other and it's got this solar cell so when you take it outside it rolls in circles and..." and the guy smiled and stopped him and performed some magic, and we were allowed to continue. They took copies of all my IDs, though, and my address and phone number and I had to sign some statement saying that if it wasn't what I said, they could come after me or something.

I was completely expecting them to investigate and was ready to dispose of it if they had problems with us taking it on the plane. I did not expect the guys with the guns. In retrospect, we probably should have thrown out the project rather than taking it home, but I was sure that, knowing it was harmless, I could handle any conversations about it sanely. I really did not expect it to raise any serious concerns.

Perhaps Star was thinking the same thing. Except she was arrested, and we weren't.

(Walking to our gate, we passed another student from the class. He smiled and told us he'd hidden his project inside a Coke can and they hadn't noticed it. That wasn't terribly reassuring.)

You're right. The terrorists have won.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-21 18:09:37.082789+00 by: Dan Lyke [edit history]

From the news reports I've seen, she wasn't even flying, she was just going to the airport to pick someone up. I've seen one picture that alleges to be of "the device", and it's a standard electronics breadboard.

What this says to me is that the people who should be being trained to look for suspicious packages aren't being trained correctly, because they're broadcasting to the world that if you actually want to get something nefarious through security you just build it into a consumer electronics device, or sneak it through.

And that if you fly with Tom Clancy novels you'll be left alone.

That works counter to actual security.

I gave you Boston folks a free ride last time law enforcement there showed themselves to be complete and utter morons, but if this latest event doesn't result in some high ranking security and police officials publicly tarred, feathered, and run the hell out of town then I've no pity left.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-21 19:56:43.599918+00 by: Dan Lyke

The Boing Boing entry now has pictures of the device in question, I'm sorry, but on the basis of this I want to see some congressional investigations of where the hell federal anti-terror training dollars have been going. The only explanation at this point is that high level Boston officials have been siphoning it off for their weekend homes in the Berkshires, because if, after 6 years of heightened security, this is the best that a police force from a major metropolitan region can do to protect us from terrorism, we are well and truly fucked.

Meanwhile, people are still getting boxcutters on to airplanes, by accident.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-21 20:05:03.202971+00 by: petronius

On the other hand, a few years ago (pre-9/11) my wife and I were flying out of O'Hare and she went ballistic because I was openly reading The Satanic Verses. She was afraid that some son of the prophet would go all jihad on me.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-21 20:54:41.588997+00 by: JT

Just remember, thousands of policemen did absolutely nothing wrong today. The handful of (Boston, again) morons that made it to the news though...

First the Mooninites.

Then blowing up their own "City of Boston" traffic counter

Now arresting a girl for wearable LED's.

I wonder if the city of Boston has ever considered replacing it's entire government?

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-21 21:10:53.437978+00 by: Dan Lyke [edit history]

JT: Agreed. This isn't a matter of individual law enforcement officers. If she'd been stopped, the device had been investigated, and she'd been released, that'd be okay, although I'd still have questions about the training that the various security personnel should have had. I expect that government security people should have enough training to be able to reasonably identify threats.

This is about people higher up, and someone close to the mayor's office either needs to apologize or have his or her career absolutely destroyed.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-21 21:33:58.937245+00 by: Diane Reese

The first thing my son said about it to me today was, "This is Boston bullshit again." I'll be sending a check to her legal defense fund once I have the details.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-22 02:59:00.565114+00 by: Larry Burton

I had a 7in1 screwdriver that I've carried through numerous airports since they began allowing screwdrivers under 7 1/2" in length to be carried in carry on bags. It was about 8" long when assembled. I accidentally left it assembled going through Philadelphia security not long after I started carrying it. The TSA supervisor dismantled it, measured it dismantled and told me I could go on through. No one has said a word about it in the past year. I had to visit Boston a few weeks ago. The 7in1 was disassembled but they found the pieces and assembled them and then measured it. I no longer have that 7in1. I explained to them that I had carried it through numerous airports and even related the incident in Philadelphia to them. That seemed to just make them prouder of themselves that they had located it and taken it from me.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-22 03:23:13.649859+00 by: Diane Reese

Your tax dollars at work. Between protecting us from your disassembled screwdriver, making nursing mothers drink or dump out their breast milk, taking knitting needles away from grandmothers, and training machine guns on a girl outside the airport wearing an LED star, I feel so much safer. Don't you?

I'll bet the TSA folks feel so powerful. Bully for them.

#Comment Re: Terrorists have won made: 2007-09-22 11:30:23.873424+00 by: m

Yes, they won. It happened on 911. When the pundits and heads of local state and federal agencies first started the drum beat "You will have to give up your civil liberties", and we didn't lynch them on the spot.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-24 13:14:41.778942+00 by: other_todd

What interests me is that the commenters on BoingBoing, normally a somewhat above-average lot, seem to be pretty evenly split between "What a travesty, the Boston cops screwed up again" and "We don't think it's reasonable that airport security should be able to know that wasn't an IED; it could even have been; and we want an absolute zero-tolerance policy on anything that looks the least bit suspicious."

I'm a little disappointed in their willingness to buy into the security theatre (no, I'm a lot disappointed), but I don't know if it is reasonable to expect an airport cop to look and say, "Oh, it's just a breadboard with some LEDs and a 9-volt battery."

Anyway, my response to this incident is more or less the same as with the damned Mooninites: 1. Suspect screwed up. Dumb idea, really dumb, for self-preservation reasons if nothing else. 2. Boston law enforcement screwed up worse. Score: nil-all.

At that, I'm willing to be more tolerant toward this case because everything I've been told by my MIT friends implies that the girl just forgot she was wearing the damned thing to the airport, whereas I think the Mooninite boys should have known better than to take money from the network to place those things in the first place.

I think EVERYBODY's "bad idea" detectors could use some work around these parts.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-24 13:34:52.378488+00 by: Dan Lyke [edit history]

Yeah, my impression of this was that she wasn't trying to make a statement, she'd just built a blinky sweatshirt, was wearing it around, and thinking nothing of it.

Which comes down to the quoted State Police Major in essence saying "if you show anyone you're actually smart, we might shoot you".

Not something I want kids hearing.

I think this is really a training issue, the individual security folks just don't really know what a threat is. That scares me.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-24 13:52:30.012842+00 by: JT

I really don't think that the issue is the incidents themselves. The mooninites thing was nothing but a joke. Reading the wikipedia recount of the events is comical at best. The surreal part doesn't come until you realize that the people of Boston are perfectly happy with the fallout. Their police department screw up and overreact. Their police chief and mayor happily followed that plan. They charged two people with a felony, "placing a hoax device", and the public is perfectly happy with that. They sue the broadcasting company for two million dollars, and the public sees no problem with any of these events.

Right after this incident, they find another "suspicous" device... a metal box chained to a parking sign with a rubber hose leading from it into traffic with a silver placard attached which reads "Property of the City of Boston" Amazingly, they don't know what this is. The bomb squad blows this one up in the middle of the street after shutting down traffic for a number of blocks. Not surprisingly, they didn't arrest the City of Boston Public Works employee for "placing a hoax device" as well. Again, Bostonites take this as just being a regular course of events and don't question anything.

Now this poor girl gets wrapped up in a web of Boston idiocy... hopefully this won't fall out of the public view and accepted as "normal" for the Boston government. This isn't just a handful of policemen involved. This is the chief of police, the mayor, the prosecutor, at least one judge to approve all of these charges... and yet it seems half the people commenting on other websites either approve of this behavior or just accept it at face value.

Mind you, I don't think people should grab their pitchforks and torches then storm city hall to overthrow the city government, but I'm sure a number of letters from residents to local, county, state, and federal government showing their displeasure with the way things are routinely handled in Boston, also promising to reflect that displeasure in the next election, would probably be quite effective at this point. And no, I don't mean a petition, they're about as useless as a teapot made of butter, but I mean actual individual letters from people to a handful of public officials.