MIT, Logan, the Chilling Effect and Emergent Chaos

If you’re not hidden under a rock, you know about the latest bomb scare in Boston. Some MIT kid forgot that Boston cops think anything with an LED on it is a bomb.

mit-fashion.jpg

A lot of people are saying she got what she deserved, or that she’s lucky to be alive. These people probably think that Jean Charles de Menezes should have worn different clothing before getting on the London Metro, and that Andrew Meyer should have never asked a question of John Kerry.

I think this is a tremendously dangerous trend for society, and not just the creative or strange types. Should we give police such broad license to use force that everyone needs to consider, first and foremost, if their actions, their legal actions, might freak out a policeman?

If we do so, there are substantial costs. They’re not visible. A few moments of time every day, considering how the police feel about you. A little less bizarre or riqsue public art. A little less creativity and verve in life, as we all ask “what if a cop shoots me?”


What would have happened to the first people designing and testing cell phones, if homemade electronics with a battery had been cause for concern? How would we test keyless car entry systems, if a police officer had shot people walking up to cars without unlocking them? Even Dave Maynor would be in trouble. Just look at his art:

dave-maynor.jpg

When I was a kid, Radio Shack sold breadboards (like the one the student was wearing.) Tinkering with electronics was a key part of what launched the Homebrew computer club. Tinkering with dangerous chemicals was an important part of the development of modern photography.

Do we want everyone who tinkers, invents, hacks or makes projects to have to worry that cops with submachine guns are going to show up and ask agitated questions? Are those filters good for society?

Here at Emergent Chaos, we’re fans of, well, emergent chaos that happens when those filters go away.

Photos: Lisa Poole, AP, and Dave Maynor, Errata, respectively.

[Update: Chris Soghoian makes the useful point that lots of bombs have no visible wires at all, being hidden inside other things. And while protecting against dumb terrorists is useful, it’s not worth giving up our ability to tinker, build or innovate.]

28 thoughts on “MIT, Logan, the Chilling Effect and Emergent Chaos

  1. I’m one of the ones who don’t think de Menezes should have worn different clothing, and I don’t think Meyer shouldn’t have asked a question. I can tell the difference between innocuous actions and *wearing electronics strapped to your shirt in an airport*. Is it really so hard to understand that most people don’t know how to tell what a circuit board, wires and putty do in order to assess whether they’re a threat?
    No, she shouldn’t have been charged with making a hoax bomb when that clearly wasn’t her intention. But she should have been charged with being CRIMINALLY STUPID. Too many geeks think everyone else in the world should be able to think like them and know what they know, and that gets you in deep shit when you try to rely on it.

  2. Is that an actual picture of the device? When I read that she had play-dough in the device, I was thinking it was designed to look like a bomb. If that’s what it is, then this is really a whole bunch of nothing.
    I wish I still had a pic of the original Closer badge up. It has exposed electronics too. Would prolly set off a firestorm today…

  3. Agree with shrdlu. She wasn’t making an am radio with a crystal, she was wearing what apparently resembled a bomb to many onlookers and law enforcement. Hopefully, the prosecutor will cut her some slack, but lets not confuse this with any free speech issues. It was stupid and thank god it didn’t get her killed.

  4. shrdlu: How many documented terrorist attacks have there been in the US since the anthrax mailings? How often does something look a bit suspicious and scary? These two numbers tell you something about the right kind of response, which isn’t to shoot someone for having possession of something that looks kind of scary to a cop.
    One cost of this kind of crap is what Adam pointed out; it makes the whole society a bit less free. The broader trend toward making any kind of tinkering (rockets, chemicals, computers, electronics) some kind of suspicious activity has the potential to suppress all kinds of innovation, at a cost to us that Osama could never hope to cause.
    Another cost is visible in the attitude toward the police in inner-city neighborhoods. If you primarily see the police as on your side, the people you’re glad to see because they protect you, you have one kind of relationship with them. If you see them as people who might blow you away in a fit of grouchiness (to steal an L Neil Smith line), or arrest you arbitrarily or for dumb reasons, you have a very different relationship with them. We don’t want the average person or the average very smart person seeing the police as the enemy; this leads nowhere good for anyone.

  5. I don’t know how to feel about this. It’s somewhere between your cell phone analogy and joking with an airport security guard about having a gun. The former clearly should be OK; the latter understandably isn’t, for the same reason yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is a bad idea. I haven’t decided where on that spectrum this incident lands, because I don’t have enough details. The initial reports made it sound to me like it was a deliberate attempt to carry something that looked like a bomb, but by now everyone (including the student) is in full spin mode so we’ll probably never know for sure.
    I think where this is headed is that airports will be like border zones — an area where we accept that we’re giving up some of our normal rights in exchange for security. I don’t really like that but I think it’s inevitable.

  6. shrdlu and charles: Being stupid IS NOT A CRIME. (If it were, it would be some of the Boston police who would be serving time right now.) It is cause for someone to stop her and ask questions — not to threaten her with deadly harm or to convict her of anything.
    Did she pose a threat to anyone’s life? No. Did she intend to pose such a threat? No.
    Did the police pose a threat to anyone’s life? Yes. Did they intend to? Yes.

  7. The police didn’t prepare to use deadly force because they thought she was stupid. They did it because they thought she was a threat to others.
    If I walk into a police station with a gun and point it at someone, I’m being stupid. Should the police check to see if it’s loaded before they react?

  8. And what are you all going to say about the people who did not stop a terrorist who walks in a blows themselves up? I can see it now.

    As you can see here, nobody questioned the terrorist as they walked into the common area. Here they clearly walk by the police but they didn’t stop them because of the signs that the terrorists were carrying stating, “There is nothing to see here. These wires are merely art. P.S. BOOM!!”

    Should people be able to express themselves? Yes. Should the police and other people out there have the freedom to question their intent? Yes.
    What did the police actually do here that was unforgivable? They approached somebody to determine if there was a threat. They made other people safe in case it was a threat. When they couldn’t determine certain information they took steps to escalate and identify what was going on. Wow, that sounds like good police work to me.
    If the problem is that they were pointing guns, well, when and how are police suppose to defend themselves? Do you want to tell a father or mother that they cannot take precautions to ensure that they are going to go home at night? If you are going to tell first responders that they are not able to respond as they deem necessary then the good ones are going to leave and we will only have the loose cannons judging these situations. Of course that will give us all more situations to bitch about.
    So, please, give me a break. She knew what she was doing. She knew the response she was going to get. Should she have done it….well, free speech and all. But lets give the people judging these situations a little bit of leeway. If they do something wrong then lets let their managers evaluate them and provide them with additional training.
    Cutaway

  9. Cutaway: “She knew what she was doing?” Evidence, please?
    David: There’s a clear and important difference between pointing a gun at someone, and having a breadboard. Heck, there’s a substantial and important difference between carrying and pointing a gun at someone.

  10. Adam – sure. But there’s also a big difference between having a suspicious-looking collection of wires and Play-Doh on the street, and having a suspicious-looking collection of wires and Play-Doh in an airport. People go into airports knowing the security level there is higher. If someone decides to try to tweak the people in charge at a place like that, they do it knowing they’re going to get a lot of unpleasant attention.

  11. Adam, I also have to ask if the level of sympathy here is higher just because you perceive her as a fellow geek.
    If someone pulled an equally silly stunt in another context — say, loaded their car full of clear plastic bags of flour, tried to cross the Mexican border, and was searched on suspicion of drug possession — would you make the same argument?

  12. I don’t think she was trying to “teak security.” I think she forgot early in the morning, and I’m personally upset that the police are saying “she’s lucky to be alive.”
    As to your question about a geek–maybe. I want to live in a world in which we don’t worry about such questions, and I believe that we can, if we display some backbone against being terrorized.

  13. That photo is the OUTSIDE of her sweatshirt. WHAT KIND OF IDIOT THINKS THAT IS A BOMB? From my reading, it seems the Play-Doh was in her hands.
    What she did was stupid, we all agree. It would have been perfectly acceptable for someone to walk up to her and ask her to examine the device, and perhaps even seize the Play-Doh for inspection while she was being questioned.
    What is NOT acceptable is the kind of overreaction that threatens us all. This is the home of MIT, for crying out loud. They routinely see student projects and experiments, including those of students that are flying home between semesters.
    Do I now need to drive across the country every time my college student has a week off? Are we that paranoid?

    If someone pulled an equally silly stunt in another context — say, loaded their car full of clear plastic bags of flour, tried to cross the Mexican border, and was searched on suspicion of drug possession — would you make the same argument?

    Answer: YES, if they reacted the same way they did in the airport. The problem isn’t that they questioned the student. The problem is that they were threatening and violent about it, and that they were trying to cover it up by arresting her. In the airport situation, you really have to be a major idiot (or TV addict) to think that device was a bomb. Did they also snip the red wire?
    In your hypothetical, it isn’t the search that would be the issue. If they did the whole “get down on the ground” at gunpoint thing, THAT would be the issue, assuming the person didn’t try to run or resist.

  14. W^L+, you sound like one of these armchair quarterbacks who’s never had to do this for a living.
    Pray tell me — if you’re a cop at an airport, at what point do you decide that something IS a bomb? When it blows up? If someone walks in looking suspicious, just how suspicious do they have to look before you’ll actually feel that you and everyone around you are in imminent danger?
    Please tell me exactly what every possible bomb looks like and how you’re going to make sure that you never, ever “overreact,” because only an “idiot” would make a mistake like that. How polite and nonthreatening are you going to be if you think the person you’re talking to is planning to kill you?
    No, you don’t need to drive across the country with your college student. You just need to teach him or her some COMMON SENSE and not strap mysterious-looking electronics to anyone’s chest when you’re going into an airport. Also, don’t carry anything that looks like a gun into a bank. How hard is that to remember?
    Law enforcement is on edge already. You’d be too, if you sincerely believed that you were personally responsible for stopping a bomber. Yes, they’re making mistakes from time to time (just being male and looking Middle Eastern is not a good reason to be arrested or killed), but again, *they don’t know what every possible bomb looks like,* and neither do you. I’d say that something with a circuit board and wires strapped to a shirt are a pretty suspicious-looking combo. If you don’t understand this, or you don’t care because it’s not your job to care, then please do us all a favor and stay out of public places when the urge strikes you to be “artistic.”

  15. Shrdlu,
    The issue isn’t when you decide it’s a bomb, the issue is how you frame the issue to the public. The words “lucky to be alive.” The belief that even if it was a bomb, shooting her would be preferable to trying to talk her out of it.
    And most importantly, don’t attempt to speak for me when you say “please do us all a favor.”

  16. The police and other personnel that have been hired to protect the public have been trained how to handle a situation. Their training involves methods of response that are designed to protect the public as well as themselves.
    Certainly we have seen many instances of police violence but in the age of public hype that seem to be then norm when they are actually remote instances that are easily sensationalized by the media. Yes, I want them sensationalized, because it is what gets the managers to analyze and change policies, train better, and remove uncontrollable persons when necessary.
    As to “lucky to be alive,” what is truly wrong with that statement? If the responders had felt threatened or that other lives were at risk then they have the obligation to use deadly force. That is why they are there. Trust me, you want them there. So, yes, she is alive because she had the presence of mind to respond correctly. Which gets me back to “she knew what she was doing.” I also came to that conclusion because she is a frickin’ MIT student and the professor that were talked to by the press did not give any indication that there may be a problem. Here is were you ask whether I or the professors are a psychologist.
    Which brings up a good point. Do we expect first responders to be psychologists? Can a psychologist make a diagnosis in a few seconds as the the intent of any individual in question? Maybe we should clone that guy from CSI and put one of him with every police officer.
    Go forth and do good things,
    Cutaway

  17. Came here as a reference from another discussion list I’m on (answering: who the heck is this?)

    One thing to add to this discussion, since this *was* an MIT student in a basic electronics class:
    Hmm . . . saw the images . . . breadboard wired to battery with putty-like substance in close proximity (wearer’s hand)? Flaming human iconography underneath?
    Couple this with the likelihood that airport security has been told to be vigilant for civilians probing their defenses (check the summer issue of 2600, “Fun at the Airport”, which I guarantee security peeps have read/been informed, and I would bet money that she also read . . .), and you have a recipe for very bad things to happen.
    Yah, darwin award honorable mention sho’ nuff.

  18. The action by this MIT student is clearly worthy of mention at the Darwin awards. In any society, it is clear that local and state police are more often hired for their ability to follow rules tnan their ability to be creative thinkers. It is also clear that when there is a percieved threat, the police must process these rules rather rapidly. Those who are from the “creative thinker” population which usually includes MIT students need to guage the potential reactions of the other parts of society.
    In the US, wearing electronics in an airport is significantly different from wearing electronics elsewhere. There are parts of the world which do not differentiate depending on the location.
    In this case, I do not fault the police for their actions. I do fault them for failing to hit the target. Maybe they did it purposely?

  19. The action by this MIT student is clearly worthy of mention at the Darwin awards. In any society, it is clear that local and state police are more often hired for their ability to follow rules tnan their ability to be creative thinkers. It is also clear that when there is a percieved threat, the police must process these rules rather rapidly. Those who are from the “creative thinker” population which usually includes MIT students need to guage the potential reactions of the other parts of society. In the US, wearing electronics in an airport is significantly different from wearing electronics elsewhere. There are parts of the world which do not differentiate depending on the location. In this case, I do not fault the police for their actions. I do fault them for failing to hit the target. Maybe they did it purposely?

  20. It surprises me how many of you are willing to accept being shot by police for failing to anticipate their understandings.

  21. @Adam: Well, she wasn’t shot, so the police ultimately made the right decision.
    Look, airport bombings happen. They aren’t even a new phenomenon. For this reason, airports are high-security areas, and have been for decades. Like any other high-security area, you’re expected to follow certain rules while you’re there, or you’re going to have a bad day. These rules are generally pretty easy to suss out, even for people who aren’t smart enough to be MIT students.

  22. David,
    How many airport bombings have we had in the US in the last five years?
    When you’re dealing with a very rare threat and any kind of false positive rate, you have to be *really* careful, or your reaction will do more harm than the threat. We clearly want to take the possibility of a bomb seriously. But we’d also better take the overwhelming likelihood of false positives seriously, or we’ll end up killing more people who carried something scary-looking than we ever would have lost to bombs.

  23. @shrdlu,
    Any clerk at your local QuickieMart has dealt with at least as many potentially threatening situations as your average cop. Because they aren’t armed, it is even more important for them to judge correctly or it is their lives that they lose. The fact that so many survive tells you that it is possible without a lot of training or decision-making skills to learn to make the right choice quickly.
    I agree with you that what she did was stupid. In fact, I would suggest that they get her some counseling.
    Being near a smallish college campus, I have seen breadboards and wires and putty-like substances in the hands of young adults in public places on multiple occasions. It was actually fairly common before 9/11. What I have not seen is police overreact that way. I have been present when a student was warned to take his toys and go home. The officer did not freak out, nor did he approach with his weapon drawn.
    Remember when you were young? If you grew up in the 1950s to 1970s, you were allowed to experiment and make mistakes while you were young, in the hope that you would learn and go on. Perhaps you shot a bunch of bottle rockets at your high school or went streaking across your college campus. Now, if you did any of those things, you’d be locked up.
    Now that you know I’ve seen this before, let me reiterate, so you’ll get it: WHAT KIND OF IDIOT THINKS THAT IS A BOMB?

  24. Logan again: No shots fired.
    State Police arrested a man checking into a flight at Logan International Airport this weekend when he allegedly told security personnel he was in Al Qaeda and was “here to blow things up,” an airport spokesman said today.
    Asfaw Ermiyas, 27, was in Terminal C Saturday night to board an AirTran flight when a security official noticed a sticker from Dubai on his bag, according to Phil Orlandella, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates the airport. Following protocols, the security worker asked Ermiyas if he had been to Dubai, which is a part of the United Arab Emirates, Orlandella said.
    “No,” Ermiyas said, according to Orlandella. “I’m Al Qaeda. I’m with them. I’m here to blow things up.”
    Ermiyas, a taxi driver from Washington D.C., was arrested and charged with making a bomb threat. He is scheduled to be arraigned today in East Boston District Court. Investigators did not find a bomb.
    “This airport is not going to tolerate this type of behavior,” Orlandella said. “This type of action is completely dumb.”

  25. Logan Again: No shooting
    Seems like the Police learned a lesson. There are some things that just aren’t funny to the police. Wonder why?
    “Man arrested at Logan after claiming to be in Al Qaeda
    By David Abel, Globe Staff
    A 27-year-old man from Ethiopia was arraigned today at East Boston District Court on a charge that he made a false threat to “blow things up” at Logan International Airport.
    Ermiyaf A. Asfaw, a taxi driver who lives in Washington, D.C., walked up to an AirTran check-in counter Saturday night and was asked by an agent why he had stickers on his luggage from Dubai. Asfaw responded that he had been there.
    The agent asked, “Were you there on business or pleasure?”
    According to prosecutors, Asfaw responded: “No. I’m Al Qaeda. I’m with them, and I’m here to blow things up.”
    The agent responded that his statement was not funny and was against the law. Asfaw laughed, prosecutors said, and walked away from the counter. The ticket agent alerted a supervisor, who notified State Police.
    Troopers sent a K-9 unit to check the bags but found no explosives. Police searched Terminal C but could not find Asfaw.
    About 30 minutes later, a trooper called the cellphone listed on Asfaw’s airline reservation. He was flying back to Washington, D.C. The trooper arranged to meet Asfaw and arrested him on charges of making a bomb threat.
    In court this morning, Asfaw pleaded not guilty and shook his head as the prosecutor read the charges against him.
    A public defender said he was in Boston to see his girlfriend. Judge Paul Mahoney ordered him held on $1,500 bail. Asfaw is scheduled to return to court Oct. 19.
    Phil Orlandella, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates the airport, chided Asfaw for his comments.
    “This airport is not going to tolerate this type of behavior,” Orlandella said. “This type of action is completely dumb.”
    Posted by the Boston Globe City & Region Desk at 12:17 PM ”

  26. Look out, Logan: Software is soft wear
    By Linda K. Wertheimer, Globe Staff |
    October 8, 2007
    CAMBRIDGE – Orange lights dance across the maroon silk blouse MIT professor Rosalind Picard dubs her “party shirt.” The power source for this eye-popping fashion statement: a circuit board, wires, and a 9-volt battery, all concealed in an inside back pocket.
    The blouse, also equipped with a microphone, is wearable computer research, part of a growing field that will draw more than 100 researchers from around the world to Boston this week for an annual conference. The researchers will show how their latest designs help people communicate and, in some cases, deal with serious medical issues.
    But at this year’s conference, they also will confront a side issue – whether to wear their designs at Logan International Airport.
    The three-day conference opens Thursday at the Hyatt Harborside Hotel near the airport just weeks after Star Simpson, an MIT student, was arrested at the airport while sporting a glowing design made of a circuit board, wires, and a battery. Simpson, who has worked with Picard and other researchers in MIT’s Media Laboratory, said her item was a piece of art – with lights that formed a star – that she made for a career fair. Authorities thought it resembled a bomb.
    Picard is warning conference participants to refrain from wearing their creations at Logan. “A lot of us that have worked in this area for 10 years, we don’t think twice about wearing electronics in public,” said Picard, who last wore her light-up shirt at a circuits-and-systems conference in May. “It’s very scary now to think about how what we wear could get us in trouble.”
    Conference participants include a researcher who creates LED bracelets and tank tops and another who uses an eye apparatus that doubles as a minicomputer.
    Simpson’s arrest and the upcoming conference highlight the emerging field of wearable computing, which began about a decade ago as researchers began devising ways to take people’s computers off their desktops and embed them on their bodies. All of the designs, whether they are clothing or portable devices that attach to body parts, have computerlike functions. Think of the Bluetooth wireless device that communicates with your cellphone, researchers say.
    At the 11th annual International Symposium on Wearable Computers, Picard will present her research on a wearable camera designed to help people with autism discern their own and others’ emotions by monitoring their expressions. Three MIT doctoral students will discuss electronic badges that track an employee’s movements, emotions, and cellphone chatter.
    Thad Starner, a founding member of the conference while an MIT doctoral student and the chairman of this year’s event, said he has worn his computer every day for 15 years. Part of it sits in a hip pack and part in an eyepiece that attaches to his glasses and extends in front of his eye.
    Page 2 of 2 –When he reaches the security gate at airports, Starner said, he takes off his gear and gets ready to explain that his devices are a part of scientific research.
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    Sign up for: Globe Headlines e-mail | Breaking News Alerts “The thing is, you [put on] the nerd show” for the security workers, said Starner, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
    But given the incident with Simpson, he will speak with airport security before the conference about guidelines for participants.
    Major Scott Pare, the State Police troop commander at Logan, said his main advice would be to use common sense with electronic devices.
    “They can wear them, but wear them at the school. Wear them at their business. Wear them at their place of play,” Pare said. “But when they’re traveling at the airport, they have to think of their fellow passengers. Why put your fellow passengers into fear?”
    Simpson, 19, who went to the airport to pick up a friend, was wearing the glowing design on her sweatshirt when she asked a question at the information booth. The woman at the booth called police, who surrounded Simpson outside the airport terminal.
    From a distance, Pare said, Simpson’s badge looked like it had components common to a suicide bomb.
    Simpson was charged with possessing a hoax device. Thomas E. Dwyer Jr., Simpson’s attorney, said he believes that authorities lack sufficient evidence to convict Simpson because they will have to prove that she intended to cause anxiety or unrest. Simpson, whose next court date is Oct. 29, did not intend to cause fear, he said.
    Still, he echoed Pare’s advice to the conventioneers not to wear their devices at the airport.
    “Anyone traveling through an airport in America with innocent electronic devices runs the risk of an arrest, because concerns of terror will always outweigh art,” Dwyer said.
    Leah Buechley, a University of Colorado doctoral student who will bring her flashing bracelets and tank tops to the conference, said she has worn her items through airports in the past – but will not do so at Logan.
    Her goal is to make unobtrusive electronic clothing, she said. She has created kits to teach youths how to design shirts that sense motion and communicate that to their cellphones.
    Ironically, Simpson would have scored points with MIT’s Media Lab on career day with her inventive name tag, Picard said.
    “One of my routine interview questions is, ‘Would you be willing to wear electronics?’ ” she said.
    Page 2 of 2 –When he reaches the security gate at airports, Starner said, he takes off his gear and gets ready to explain that his devices are a part of scientific research.
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    Sign up for: Globe Headlines e-mail | Breaking News Alerts “The thing is, you [put on] the nerd show” for the security workers, said Starner, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
    But given the incident with Simpson, he will speak with airport security before the conference about guidelines for participants.
    Major Scott Pare, the State Police troop commander at Logan, said his main advice would be to use common sense with electronic devices.
    “They can wear them, but wear them at the school. Wear them at their business. Wear them at their place of play,” Pare said. “But when they’re traveling at the airport, they have to think of their fellow passengers. Why put your fellow passengers into fear?”
    Simpson, 19, who went to the airport to pick up a friend, was wearing the glowing design on her sweatshirt when she asked a question at the information booth. The woman at the booth called police, who surrounded Simpson outside the airport terminal.
    From a distance, Pare said, Simpson’s badge looked like it had components common to a suicide bomb.
    Simpson was charged with possessing a hoax device. Thomas E. Dwyer Jr., Simpson’s attorney, said he believes that authorities lack sufficient evidence to convict Simpson because they will have to prove that she intended to cause anxiety or unrest. Simpson, whose next court date is Oct. 29, did not intend to cause fear, he said.
    Still, he echoed Pare’s advice to the conventioneers not to wear their devices at the airport.
    “Anyone traveling through an airport in America with innocent electronic devices runs the risk of an arrest, because concerns of terror will always outweigh art,” Dwyer said.
    Leah Buechley, a University of Colorado doctoral student who will bring her flashing bracelets and tank tops to the conference, said she has worn her items through airports in the past – but will not do so at Logan.
    Her goal is to make unobtrusive electronic clothing, she said. She has created kits to teach youths how to design shirts that sense motion and communicate that to their cellphones.
    Ironically, Simpson would have scored points with MIT’s Media Lab on career day with her inventive name tag, Picard said.
    “One of my routine interview questions is, ‘Would you be willing to wear electronics?’ ” she said.
    Wertheimer can be reached at wertheimer@globe.com.
    © Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.

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