Ridiculing the Ridiculous: Terrorist Tweets

A group of soldiers with the US Army’s 304th Military Intelligence Battalion have managed to top previous military research on terrorist use of World of Warcraft.

Realizing that mentioning the word “terrorist” can allow researchers to acquire funding to play the popular MMOG, they turned attention to the popular, if architecturally unscalable micro-blogging system, Twitter.

Surpassing the threat-analysis skill of super-spy Chad Feldheimer from the recent documentary “Burn After Reading,” they mention not only the threat of “socialists,” “communists,” and “anarchists,” in using Twitter to “communicate with each other and to send messages to broader audiences,” but the wider and more up-to-date threats from “religious communities,” “atheists,” “political enthusiasts,” “human rights groups,” “vegetarians,” and last but not least, “hacktivists.” They notably left out delinquent teenagers, so one presumes they don’t use systems like Twitter.

The Military Intelligence group also discovered that people can use GPS in phones like the Nokia 6210 and Nokia Maps to know where they are. This could let terrorists who want to illegally cross a border know where that border is, or to know that a certain large triangular stone thing is the Pyramid of Cheops (category: Attraction).

The report’s cutting edge thinking also discusses how terrorists could use voice-changing software such as AV Voice Changer Diamond to make prank phone calls and effectively hide under an abaya.

The full report, marked “For Official Use Only,” can be found here. It also redacts with a dark gray splash of ink the email address of sarah.e.womer@ugov.gov, from whom you can get a copy of the report if you do not have access to INTELINK, Cryptome, or the Federation of American Scientists.

I think the report speaks for itself. I just can’t make this stuff up, apart from the bit about hiding under an abaya.

Death Penalty Protestors are Terrorists

The Washington Post reports upon the further cheapening of the word “terrorism” in, “Md. Police Put Activists’ Names On Terror Lists.”

The fifty-three people with “no evidence whatsoever of any involvement in violent crime” who were put on a list of terrorists include anti-death-penanty protestors.

It’s really hard to keep from laughing about this. Are we going to see next, Terrorism With Intent to Kill, so as to differentiate it from Terrorism With Intent to Stop Killing? Whatever your feelings about the death penalty, this ain’t terrorism, guys.

The Post reports a number of things Police Superintendent Thomas Hutchins said that he’ll be ashamed of once the meds kick in.

After “stunned” state senators called him to task about the spying, Hutchins said:

I doubt anyone who has used that term has ever met a spy … What John Walker did is spying.

Please don’t make me paste in dictionary definitions, Mr Hutchins. Quoting the dictionary is the last refuge of two-bit pedants and I’m at least a sixty-four-bit pedant. The Maryland committee you embarrassed yourself in front of has in fact seen a spy. If you need help, I recommend a mirror.

Hutchins also said that some of the names might have been shared with the NSA as well. Might have. That’s “might” meaning “definitely,” I presume. If you’re going to spy on peaceful protestors, but them on terrorist lists, and share that with the intelligence agencies, have the courage to say so.

Here’s a final quote from the Post:

Two senators noted that they had been arrested years ago for civil disobedience. Sen. Jennie Forehand (D-Montgomery) asked Sheridan, “Do you have any legislators on your list?” The answer was no.

That’s how we know they knew it was wrong.

Laptops and border crossings

The New York Times has in an editorial, “The Government and Your Laptop” a plea for Congress to pass a law to ensure that laptops (along with phones, etc.) are not seized at borders without reasonable suspicion.

The have the interesting statistic that in a survey by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, 7 of 100 respondents reported a laptop or other electronic device seized. Of course, this indicates a problem with metrics. It almost certainly does not mean a 7% seizure rate, as I’ve seen this inflated to. These seizures are such an outrageous thing that the people who have been subjected to them are properly and justifiably outraged. They’re not going to toss the survey in the trash.

I’m not sure how much I like the idea that Congress should pass a law to ensure that the fourth amendment is met. Part of me grits my teeth, as I think it should happen on its own. But if the courts aren’t going to agree, that probably has to happen.

Who Watches the Watchlists?

The idea of “watchlists” has proliferated as part of the War on Terror. There are now more than 63 of them:

As part of its regular “risk management” service, which provides screening, tracing, and identity and background checks on potential clients or trading partners, MicroBilt will now offer a “watch list” service that checks these individuals against 63 different lists from 35 sources, including OFAC, the FBI, and Interpol, Bradley says. (“Companies May Be Held Liable for Deals With Terrorists, ID Thieves“, DarkReading)

I say more than 63 because some unknown number are secret. The poor souls who find themselves on these lists have, in essence, no recourse. Convincing 35 or more agencies that their presumption of your guilt is incorrect might, in theory, be possible. In reality, the agency has no reason to do anything but drag its feet: there are no penalties to them for declaring you guilty. In contrast, a failure to put your name on the list risks them not having prevented you from your future thoughtcrime.

But there’s hope. And it’s not in MicroBilt’s stock price (MicroBilt is a subsidiary of First Advantage). Rather, it’s in the courage of a judge, who ruled that any American who has been routinely detained because they are on a watch list knows that they are on a list, and thus the government’s ‘State Secrets’ privilege isn’t applicable:

since the government admits it has stopped the six men and two women more than 35 times, federal Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier of the United States Northern Illinois District Court dismissed that argument. Instead he found that the government “failed to establish that, under all the circumstances of this case, disclosure of that information would create a reasonable danger of jeopardizing national security.” (“ Court: Government Must Reveal Watch-List Status to Constantly Detained Americans,” Wired’s excellent 27B-6 Mk IIa blog)

Reality imitates the Onion

I’m somewhat sure this is a real AP story, “Al-Qaida No. 2 says 9/11 theory propagated by Iran.” The Onion scooped them, with “9/11 Conspiracy Theories ‘Ridiculous,’ Al Qaeda Says.”

Unfortunately, no progress on the “fake tape” issue:

The authenticity of the two-hour audio recording posted on an Islamic Web site could not be independently confirmed. But the voice sounded like past audiotapes from the terror leader, and the posting where it was found bore the logo of Al-Sahab, al-Qaida’s official media arm.

(Via Orin Kerr at Volokh.)

People Not Being Terrorized

Recently, a group of passengers on the London Underground performed the dance from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in front of an unsuspecting audience. Shockingly, no one panicked. You can see one passenger move out of the way, but people otherwise just sat there and watched.

When the performance was done, the fellow-passengers applauded. Security was not called. No one was arrested nor harangued. In short — nothing happened. The Sun wrote a bemused article, Thrillseekers hi-Jackson train. Transport for London kept a stiff upper lip and said:

There are clearly occasions, like this, when everyone enjoys being entertained by some talented people.

There are other occasions where inconsiderate behaviour can spoil a journey for other passengers. Our message is simply that a little consideration to your fellow passengers can make a real difference to everyone.

I suppose that means to stay in tune, make sure you hit your marks, and try not to hit the passengers. Or else.

Well done. It should go without saying that Transport for London passengers have been terrorized. It is a tribute to the very notions of civilization and society that guerrilla theatre, properly done, is safe again. Other cities could do well to learn from London’s example as well as remember Calvin’s immortal words.

This stock is da bomb!

So while researching the stock tout scam noted in another post, I came across a blog which discussed a similar mechanism, but one using text messages. An obvious variant, but the part I absolutely adored was when they linked to this August 31, 2007 article from MaineToday.com (emphases added to save your time):

An abbreviated text message on a state mail-delivery truck driver’s official unlisted cell phone had police scrambling for several hours this morning.
Maine Capitol Security Chief Russell Gauvin said the driver received a text message that read “Stcks poised to explode, ticker FDKE, Fred.”
Gauvin said the driver brought the phone to his Capitol Security office in the state’s Cross Office Building just west of the Statehouse.
Gauvin alerted the state Computer Crimes Task Force, which determined after several hours and a subpoena to U.S. Cellular that the message was an advertising message referring to stock trading, not an explosive.
Gauvin said he seized the phone from the driver and kept it for investigation, but he said when the driver returned to his office at the Muskie Federal Building, postal officials there decided to isolate the truck and have it searched with the assistance of an Augusta Police Department bomb-sniffing dog and State Police.
A portion of the Muskie building’s parking was closed off as a precaution until the search was completed.

What is it with New England and this stuff? I thought they were all stoic realists up there. If the guy’s phone had an LED, they’d have probably called in NASA to shoot it into the sun.

Bayesian battlefield

According to court papers referenced in this VOA report, U.S. sniper teams in Iraq are using an interesting tactic:

[A] so-called baiting program developed at the Pentagon by the Asymmetrical Warfare Group….the baiting was described as putting items, including plastic explosives, ammunition and detonation cords on the battlefield then killing suspected insurgents who picked up the objects.

These claims are being made by men accused of murder, so bear that in mind. If true, however, this technique would seem very likely to suffer from a large number of false positives. Assuming the process was designed by someone intelligent, that either means they do not care about false positives, or that (contrary to my prior belief as asserted above) the likelihood of a curious true bad guy happening by is so large that the false positive rate is tolerably low.
Scary either way, I’d say.

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.


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:


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.]

Steganography in the News


In Australia, Jeffrey Ismail has been convicted of “using a carriage service to menace, harass or offend” meaning using his mobile to coördinate reprisal attacks against a rival gang.

Despite registering his phone under the name “John Gotti” and being careful enough to tell his “clerics” to “bring ‘ankshays’ and ‘atbays'” police recorded his calls and managed to decode the message. Recognizing it as Pig Latin, and careful explaining the lexical analysis required, police extracted a confession and obtained a conviction this week.

Photo courtesy of shutterberry.

A Small Breath of Sanity in Airline Regs


The New York Times reports, “U.S. Will Allow Most Types of Lighters on Planes

Federal aviation authorities have decided to stop enforcing a two-year-old rule against taking cigarette lighters on airplanes, concluding that it was a waste of time to search for them before passengers boarded.

The ban was imposed at the insistence of Congress after a passenger, Richard Reed, tried to ignite a bomb in his shoe in 2001 on a flight from Paris to Miami.

Lawmakers said that if Mr. Reid had used a lighter, instead of matches, he might have been able to ignite the bomb, but Kip Hawley, assistant secretary for the Transportation Security Administration, said in an interview on Thursday that the ban had done little to improve aviation security because small batteries could be used to set off a bomb.

Matches have never been prohibited on flights.

“Taking lighters away is security theater,” Mr. Hawley said. “It trivializes the security process.”

The policy change, which is to go into effect on Aug. 4, applies to disposable butane lighters, like Bics, and refillable lighters, like Zippos. Torch lighters, which have thin, hotter flames, will continue to be banned.

Security officers have been collecting some 22,000 lighters a day nationwide, slowing down lines at check points. Even so, many smokers had found ways to sneak lighters through checkpoints, often by placing more than one in a carry-on bag. Disposing of the seized lighters has cost about $4 million a year.

By lifting the ban, Mr. Hawley said, security officers could spend more time looking for bombs or bomb parts. “The No. 1 threat for us is someone trying to bring bomb components through the security check point,” he said. “We don’t want anything that distracts concentration from searching for that.”

Three cheers for them learning! I can only hope that the stupid liquids ban will fall next. We know that we’ve trained people to be efficient at finding water bottles over finding bombs, even when they’re in the same bag.

Failure of Imagination


USA Today tells us, “Sci-fi writers join war on terror,” in which, “the Homeland Security Department [sic] is tapping into the wild imaginations of a group of self-described “deviant” thinkers….”

There are many available cheap shots as well as fish to shoot in that barrel. I’m going to take a cheap shot at one not in the barrel. The writers brought in are: Jerry Pournelle, Arlan Andrews, Greg Bear, Larry Niven and Sage Walker.

Do you notice anyone missing who should be there? How about Tom Clancy, who wrote a novel in which a Boeing 747 is used as a cruise missile to take out the US Capitol and much of the government?

I can almost excuse the DHS, after all, they’re the ones who admit to not having enough imagination. But look at this:

During a coffee break at the conference, Walker, Bear and Andrews started talking about the government’s bomb-sniffing dogs. Within minutes, they had conjured up a doggie brain-scanning skullcap that could tell agents what kind of explosive material a dog had picked up.

Oh, wow! Brain-scanning dogs. (Incidentally, this shows how ignorant they are of how sniffer dogs work. They’re playing “find the ball” by smell. They don’t know explosives from treats.) Why did none of the writers ask each other in a coffee break, “Hey, why isn’t a guy who actually predicted this sort of thing here?”

Probably because, “for this group, Walker says, there’s no such thing as an ‘unthinkable scenario.'”

Sometimes with imagination, less is more.

Billions for Fashion Police, but Not One Cent for Tribute Bands!


Woo hoo! I feel so much safer! The TSA reports, “Transportation Security Officers SPOT Passenger in Fake Military Uniform at Florida Airport.” Picture at right is my foofification of the picture on the TSA site.

Our brave protectors write:

A TSA behavior detection team at a Florida airport helped catch a passenger allegedly impersonating a member of the military on May 10 as he went through the security checkpoint.

The passenger, who was en route to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, exhibited suspicious behavior that caught the attention of officers. In addition, he was in a military uniform but had long hair, which is not consistent with military regulations, and had conflicting rank insignias on the uniform.

When officers asked for his military identification, the passenger said he had none. He was then questioned about the irregularities of his uniform. The passenger first claimed that the uniform was his brother’s, and later, that it was his nephew’s.

TSA contacted law enforcement partners at the airport who interviewed the passenger. The passenger was arrested on a state charge of impersonating a U.S. soldier.

Behavior detection officers are trained to focus on behavior and not physical characteristics as part of TSA’s Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program.

I have questions:

  • What exactly constitutes “impersonating” a soldier? If it were me, and I saw a guy with long hair and “conflicting rank insignias,” I would presume that it’s a fashion statement, not “impersonation.”
  • Did he try to use military status to get a discount at Starbucks, or a freebie into the Admiral’s Club, or was he just called out? It appears the latter.
  • Did he have boots and everything, or was it just shirt and pants? Were they the black ones that should go with green camo, or did he wear the desert tan?
  • Was he carrying more than 100ml of liquids outside of a one-quart baggie?

Based solely on the information above, it does not appear that he actually impersonated a soldier. It appears that he was walking around with irregular bits of regalia, and someone called him on it, and he got nervous. Many people get nervous when confronted with authorities like police or TSA, and actually, the better a person you are, the more likely it is that you’ll say “brother” when you meant “brother’s kid.”

I got this courtesy of Bruce, who advocates procedures like “SPOT” which look for “hinky” behavior.

I agree with Bruce, that it’s better to look for hinky than rip apart every laptop bag, but the TSA needs to look at this as a failure, even if this guy was actually guilty of a crime worthy of punishment stronger than an afternoon with Carson Kressley. This ain’t what we’re paying you for.

Let me finish with an anecdote. Like many people in this industry, I have clothing with NSA logos on it, or embroidery that says, “National Security Agency.” The NSA sells them in the gift shop of the National Cryptologic Museum as part of their widows-and-orphans fund.

A few Defcons ago, I was wearing such a shirt as I checked out of my hotel. The doorman pointed at the logo as he was getting me a cab and asked, “Do you work for them?”

I met his gaze, smiled and replied, “If I did, I wouldn’t be able to answer that question, would I?”

I locked my eyes to his as he went compute-bound for a good three seconds, which is a long time when someone’s not flinching. He finally nodded sharply, said, “Right,” and pulled my cab over.

Here are some essay questions:

  1. I consider it ipso-facto not impersonating a soldier, if you’re obviously irregular. The TSA obviously disagrees. If you refuse to confirm nor deny that you work for the NSA, is that impersonating a spy? If so, does being a smartass mitigate the crime, or is it worse — “Aggravated Denial” or “Equivocation with Intent to Confuse” or something else like that? Can we tack on a charge of using steganography? Discuss. Extra credit will be awarded for high towers of compounded paradox.
  2. If wearing contradictory insignia is impersonation, especially with long hair, how many pieces of a uniform does it take to make it impersonation? Can you make it no longer impersonation if you wear a uniform and other things, too? For example, if you had a “uniform” and a Ramones leather jacket over it, does that make it better or worse? What about a Groucho mask? What if you’re just a customer and wear an “Army Mom” t-shirt and it’s your step-kid?
  3. Does this only apply to the US armed forces? What about The Coalition of the Willing? NATO? National Guard? State Militias? Colbert Nation?
  4. Would the TSA benefit by some training in Brattleboro, VT? Would Brattleboro?