Friday, September 21, 2007

Boston police arrest MIT student for blinking nametag

Boston authorities have filed another set of bogus "hoax device" charges, against Star Simpson, a 19-year-old MIT student who was wearing a sweatshirt with a homemade electronic nametag stuck to the front of it. The device was made of a breadboard with LEDs and a 9V battery, and Simpson was also holding "a lump of putty" in her hands, as she was waiting at Logan airport for a friend's flight to arrive. She explained that she made the device for career day because she wanted to stand out. She was released on $750 bail and will have to appear in court on October 29 on charges of "possessing a hoax device."

The Boston Globe's article says:

Outside the terminal, Simpson was surrounded by police holding machine guns.

"She was immediately told to stop, to raise her hands, and not make any movement so we could observe all her movements to see if she was trying to trip any type of device," Pare said at a press conference at Logan. "There was obviously a concern that had she not followed the protocol ... we may have used deadly force."

Catch that last part--the police might have killed her for wearing an LED nametag.

AP and Information Week reported the device as a "fake bomb." It doesn't look at all like a fake bomb--if there was intent to do anything of the sort, I suspect it was to show how ridiculous the Boston authorities still are after the Mooninite scare. Would a jury decide that a reasonable person would think it was a bomb?

(Via Bruce Schneier's blog.)

UPDATE (September 21, 2007): I think this case is less absurd than the Mooninite one, where the devices were clearly professionally made to look like light-up cartoon characters. Questioning her was appropriate, but I don't think charging her was unless there is some evidence of intent to commit a hoax that hasn't yet been reported.

Bruce Schneier has previously reported a list of "terrorist dry run" items that TSA issued warnings about, in which each case actually had a valid explanation (though we still haven't seen what the explanation was for the "wire coil wrapped around a possible initiator, an electrical switch, batteries, three tubes and two blocks of cheese").

Odd, unexplained items are deserving of questioning and scrutiny, I think we can all agree.

UPDATE: Boing Boing has more details.


olvlzl said...

Does anyone know what an explosive device attached to a person would look like? Under a sweatshirt? I don't see this the same way. A 19-year-old MIT student should know better than to wear something like that to Logan Airport, one of the airports involved in 9-11. She was lucky she didn't get her foolish head blown off. There are enough real incidents to deal with without stupid stuff like this being indulged. Life isn't just irony and wit.

The Aqua Teen incident in your old post isn't described completely. In most of the cities the silly things were put in store windows and other places like that. In Boston the dolts put them on bridges. On the day they were first called in to police there was actually a fake pipe bomb incident that was also handled.

Until they knew what any of these things were, how were they supposed to know what they were or what they might have been part of? In the discussion of the earlier incident it seemed to me that there was an element of class involved, the largely white collar, college oriented blogosphere snarking about those stupid first responders. Well, until they knew, those could have been anything or part of anything. Would you like to respond to the next copy cat incident not knowing what was behind the litebrite? Would you like it enough to quit your job and become a fireman? Or cop?

Einzige said...

The salient question is: In how many other public places is it going to become acceptable for people with machine guns to threaten to kill us because we are in possession of something "suspicious"? How much paranoia and overreaction is justified?

olvlzl, your apology for the first responders' behavior is not persuasive.

JRCV said...

This otherwise intelligent MIT student is very lucky that the professionalism of the law enforcement officers kept this situation in check. Do you have any idea how these things play out in countries where national security professionals are not so professional? A lot of Americans seem to think these days that law enforcement and national security is a joke; some sort of scare tactic of the Bush administration they loath. Well, regardless of your political opinions, we live in a place that a small but determined group of extremists wants to destroy. They don't care that you are a conservative or a liberal or even tuned out of politics. They care only that you are not a Muslim, and for that you must die. The professionals a Logan International are prepared to meet that threat, and they don't have the luxury to determine if some hooded person with a "device" is holding Play-Doh or something else meant to do harm. Rational people understand this and do not prank airport security for this reason. She is lucky.

Einzige said...

"Kept this situation in check"???

Are you kidding? They precipitated the fucking situation!

It sounds very much like you're hoping for the US to start looking more like the USSR, with checkpoints and internal passports and unreasonable searches and seizures--as long as the officials are "professional" about it.

And that "small but determined group" you're talking about? They want to destroy "us" not because of our religious beliefs, but because we keep fucking around in their countries. Osama has been repeating this for 20 years, now.

Jim Lippard said...

A real bomb could be made to look completely innocuous, if there was no need for major destructive power. Someone could strap sticks of dynamite under a shirt. The security mechanism at airports to detect such explosives is the puffer machine.

A breadboard with LEDs and a 9V battery attached on the outside of a sweatshirt doesn't appear to be a bomb. It would be something to look at and ask about if someone was going through the security line, but not to charge someone with a crime for.

The Mooninite situation was more absurd than this one. The proper response there would have been to check them out, and remove them if they're in violation of signage laws. Bridges and overpasses were locations where the light-up signs of cartoon characters could be seen by large numbers of people, which was the point. They were placed on overpasses in NYC and on a MARTA station in Atlanta--Boston was not the only place where they were put in such high-traffic areas. In NYC, NYPD received no complaints. In Seattle, authorities said they were not suspicious. In L.A., the LAPD said they were clearly not a threat. In Portland, police said there was no cause for an investigation. Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago authorities thought it was irresponsible.

It is absurd to charge someone with a crime for a "fake bomb" for anything that has wires and a battery that isn't recognizable as a common object.

JRCV: What specifically about this device do you think merited a potential shoot-to-kill response? Should TSA respond similarly to anyone with bottles of more than 3 oz of liquid, which TSA says is a dangerous threat?

You write: "A lot of Americans seem to think these days that law enforcement and national security is a joke; some sort of scare tactic of the Bush administration they loath." More accurately, many Americans think that much of what is being done in the name of security against terrorism is security theater--a show of doing something which is ineffectual, pointless, costly, and itself often potentially dangerous to human life, including overreactions to things like this.

olvlzl said...

The issue of first responders is rather important, especially for themselves and their families but also because they will be the ones who have to respond first. In the Aqua Teen incident a lot of people on the blogs couldn't believe that those with the authority to make decisions wouldn't have known about a rather obscure feature of pop culture, though not too many of them would tend to be in the target audience for Aqua Teen.

Assuming that a person who might have a bome would do what made sense wouldn't seem to be a very sensible assumption to make. It could be a rather purposeful terroist or it could be a crack pot with technical knowlege and a tool kit. Again, who knows what a person who attaches a bomb to them is going to do, how they are going to do it and what that looks like. From what I saw on TV, complete with a 9v battery attached, anyone might be forgiven for not having a piece of personal adornement be the first thing that came to mind.

As for the possibility that the police would have shot her. Well, there is the recent history of Logan airport, its closeness to New York City, it's having been used to launch an attack through unconventional means. If the thing wasn't harmless but was a bomb and they didn't threaten her with guns, we might have a different story to theorize about and discuss before going on to other interesting things. I don't like the world we live in any more than you do, but we live in that world and it's not going to go back the way it was any time soon.

MIT students should be expected to have some appreciation for the reality they find when they go to college. Considering what some of them do once they get out, I'd hope they learn that life includes some serious consequences.

Einzige said...

Here's another question that I hope gives you some pause:

The 19 guys who hijacked the 4 planes on 9/11--had the "first responders" been at the airport that day, do you think they'd have spotted them and held them at gunpoint as they were walking into the airport?

We are on a very slippery slope, here. There are all kinds of imaginable scenarios in which draconian measures could be employed to improve our "safety". How much farther are you willing to go?

salasks said...

The authorities acted correctly in this case. From the reports by the authorities and the woman behind the airline counter, she was acting fidgety and non-responsive. The authorities should go after people when they act suspicious, as they did in this case, and not stop people based on what race they are or what language they speak. That being said, if she was a person of color she might very well have been shot.

olvlzl said...

The 19 guys who hijacked the 4 planes on 9/11--had the "first responders" been at the airport that day, do you think they'd have spotted them and held them at gunpoint as they were walking into the airport? einzige

If they'd been wearing odd looking electronic devices carrying a substance that at even a fairly close distance looks remarkably like some forms of plastic explosive and if when asked by an airport staffer what it was they just walked away without answering, yes, I'll bet they would have been confronted by security. Which, unfortunately, would have been rather skimpy back then.

What does it tell you that this MIT student apparently couldn't figure out what the 9-11 suicide crew did, that something like that was bound to get attention from armed authorities? This one isn't at all hard and it isn't a model case for libertarianism.

Einzige said...

Sadly, you completely missed my point, which was that the 19 hijackers weren't wearing odd looking electronic devices. Nor was the shoe-bomber. In fact, they looked utterly inocuous - as, no doubt, the next 19 actual terrorists will, whereever they turn up.

The basic problem is this: No amount of safety measures, short of 1984- or THX1138-level monitoring (and maybe even beyond that) are going to thwart the sufficiently intelligent terrorist. This means - and this is important, olvlzl - all the paranoia and the withering away of our privacy and civil liberties that you seem so all-too willing to let go is for nothing.

The naïveté, or lack thereof, of the MIT student is a red herring. The fact is that her near shooting should not be seen as a sad yet unavoidable consequence of our being made safer. We're not - especially since we seem to have traded the unbelievably remote possibility of ending up on a hijacked aircraft with a much less remote possibility that we'll be shot by our "protectors" because they see something "suspicious."

olvlzl said...

The naïveté, or lack thereof, of the MIT student is a red herring.

Star Simpson could have completely prevented the situation if she had answered the Information officer's question instead of snubbing her. I'd say that's not a red herring, it's the key to understanding the entire incident.

I'd hate you to think that I mistake what is most likely just the kind of attention getting that Simpson's lawyer said was her motive for wearing the thing and carrying what even experts said looks just about exactly like plastic explosives in an airport for an innocent mistake. Since it was intended to get attention, I think she wanted to get attention at Logan Airport by not changing into something a bit more subtle there.

I've looked at Boing-boing, it's amazing that there are so many people so much more interested in their coy and ironic sense of techie cuteness than they are in facing the objectively serious world of adulthood. I'm not sorry to say that adults get to run things because they can tell the difference between seriousness and childishness.

What in the world do you expect at Logan Airport these days? It was from Logan Airport that 9-11 was launched. If you don't accept that there is going to be heightened security there, you are living in a dream world. If you don't think that Simpson's actions warrant police pointing guns at her, you are willfully unrealistic.

Jim Lippard said...

If she really walked away from the information officer without responding to the question of what was on her sweatshirt (as that person and the police report claim), then I think it was right for her to be confronted by police. Her lawyer says that she did respond to the question and said that it was a piece of art.

BTW, I don't think machine guns with silencers are the ideal weaponry for airport security to be carrying around if the desire is to be able to take out a criminal (as opposed to appear to be tough).

olvlzl said...

Jim Lippard, I'd be more inclined to believe the Information officer without more evidence. Why would she have wanted to set off what could have been a major security incident if her question had been answered? On the other hand, I can imagine a distinct motive for Simpson to have remembered giving an answer that was either tacit or unresponsive.

You know that these days any irresponsible and dangerous act can be called "art". Conceptual art has always puzzled me, since so often the conceptual nature of the "art" is no where to be garnered from witnessing the "art" project. Maybe the security people had experienced just that kind of "art" in the past.

Jim Lippard said...

For the purposes of response, it makes sense to give more weight to the information officer's account. For the purposes of criminal prosecution on charges of a "hoax device," they should be treated equally, which means it shouldn't be sufficient for the prosecution to reach the required burden of proof (beyond reasonable doubt).

Einzige said...

For all we know, she could have been preoccupied with her own thoughts and not heard the question. You can't honestly tell me that's never happened to you.

In any case, olvlzl, you're still focused too much on the particulars of this incident, when you should be considering the wider implications, instead.

Aside from that, you haven't answered my questions. If there's a bombing in a mall next week are you going to be clamoring loudly for a federally managed "Mall Security Administration", complete with machine-gun-toting, flack-jacket-wearing officials every 50 feet? Why not in every office building, grocery store, public park, train station, ice skating rink, ball park, and freeway underpass?

JRCV sounds like he'd be for it, as long as they are "professionals". Whatever.

olvlzl said...

Einzige, what I want or don't want in the way of heightened security at Logan Airport, which is what I'm talking about, matters to absolutely no one. I was talking about what was in place there as a matter of fact in response to the experience of September 11th. Surely Star Simpson had heard of that, I'd imagine she arrived in Boston at Logan at least a few times in her college career. It can hardly have been a surprise to her.

For all we know, she could have been preoccupied with her own thoughts and not heard the question. You can't honestly tell me that's never happened to you.

For heaven's sake, is an adult who is attending MIT not expected to have more presence of mind than that? Clearly if not, then she has no business going out in public unsupervised.

I can honestly assure you that something like this has never happened to me, not once. I can also assure you that I'd never do such a stupid thing as Simpson did to begin with.

Cairnarvon said...

//"If she really walked away from the information officer without responding to the question of what was on her sweatshirt (as that person and the police report claim), then I think it was right for her to be confronted by police."//

Why is that? If I'm wearing a LED shirt to the grocery store and the cashier asks me about it and I just don't answer, should I also be arrested at gunpoint?
If she refused to answer airport security or tried to get past a security checkpoint, that's a different matter entirely, but she was just walking around in the public area of the airport to pick up a friend.

It's one thing to take it for granted people have to submit to harassment by armed thugs if they actually want to travel by plane, but expecting it in any random public place is a different matter entirely.

olvlzl said...

cairnarvon, I'd draw the line well before backing up a grocery check-out with armed force. However, that is clearly not what the issue is here.

The slippery slope can go both ways, I say we don't take any chances on anyone getting shot by airport security and have no guns held by any kind of security at all. Wouldn't that fix the problem you're concerned about?

Jim Lippard said...

Cairnarvon wrote: "Why is that? If I'm wearing a LED shirt to the grocery store and the cashier asks me about it and I just don't answer, should I also be arrested at gunpoint?"

No, and I don't think Star Simpson should have been held at gunpoint or arrested--I just think it was reasonable for her to be stopped and asked questions if she was acting suspiciously at the airport.

In fact, I think much of the TSA security screening process (like shoe removal and limits on liquids) should be dropped and replaced with random stops on the basis of behavior.

Jim Lippard said...

"random stops on the basis of behavior" should have said "random stops and stops on the basis of behavior."