If You See Anything, Say Something? Math on a Plane

Remember September 2016 2015? That was the month that [Ahmed Mohamed] brought a modified clock to school and was accused of being a terrorist. The event divided people with some feeling like it was ignorance on the part of the school, some felt the school had to be cautious, some felt it was racial profiling, and others thought it was a deliberate provocation from his possibly politically active parents. In the end, [Ahmed] moved to Qatar.

Regardless of the truth behind the affair, this month we’ve seen something that is probably even less ambiguous. The Washington Post reports that a woman told an Air Wisconsin crew that she was too ill to fly. In reality, she was sitting next to a suspicious man and her illness was a ruse to report him to the crew.

Authorities questioned the man. What was his suspicious activity? Was he assembling a bomb? Carrying a weapon? Murmuring plans for destruction into a cell phone? No, he was writing math equations. University of Pennsylvania economics professor [Guido Menzio] was on his way to deliver a speech and was reviewing some differential equations related to his work.

[Menzio] says he was treated well, and the flight was only delayed two hours (which sounds better in a blog post then it does when you are flying). However, this–to me–highlights a very troubling indicator of the general public’s level of education about… well… everything. It is all too easy to imagine any Hackaday reader looking at a schematic or a hex dump or source code could have the same experience.

Some media has tried to tie the event to [Menzio’s] appearance (he’s Italian) but I was frankly surprised that someone would be afraid of an equation. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but a math equation won’t (by itself) down an aircraft. I’ve heard speculation that the woman might have thought the equations were Arabic. First of all, what? And secondly, what if it were? If a person is writing in Arabic on an airplane, that shouldn’t be cause for alarm.

It sounds like the airline (which is owned by American Airlines) and officials acted pretty reasonably if you took the threat as credible. The real problem is that the woman–and apparently, the pilot–either didn’t recognize the writing as equations or somehow feared equations?

Regardless of your personal feelings about the clock incident, you could at least make the argument that the school had a duty to act with caution. If they missed a real bomb, they would be highly criticized for not taking a threat seriously. However, it is hard to imagine how symbols on a piece of paper could be dangerous.

While the mainstream media will continue to focus on what this means for passenger safety and racial profiling, I see it as a barometer of the general public’s perception of science, math, and technology as dark arts.

Remote Sensing Bombs Could Stem Terrorism

If you understand technology, there were a lot of things hard to explain on Star Trek. Transporters, doors that were smart enough to open unless you hit them during a fight, and the universal translator all defy easy explanation. But one of the hardest things to explain were Mr. Spock’s sensors. From the ship or with a tricorder, Spock could sense at a distance just about anything from chemical compositions, to energy, and even the presence of life (which, today, at least, is difficult to determine even what that means).

Remote sensing would have a very distinct use in today’s world: finding terrorist bombs earlier. A recent article published on New Scientist by [Debora MacKenzie] points out that stopping attacks like the recent one in Brussels is difficult without increasing congestion. For example, putting checkpoints at doors instead of inside transit stations is common in Asia, but causes lines and delays.

detecThe United States has used ion mobility spectrometry (IMS) to detect explosive traces on swabs (using machines like the one on the left). However in the early 2000’s they experimented with a version of the device that used puffs of air to determine if people had explosives while they passed by the machine. By 2010, officials decided the machines broke down too often and stopped using them.

Remote Sensing in Practice

According to an expert at Rand Corporation, remote sensing is likely to employ imaging or sniffers. However, imaging solutions are easy to fool since a bomb can take the shape of an ordinary object. Sniffers, including biological sniffers (known as dogs), are harder to fool. The problem is that deploying thousands of dogs to cover the world’s airports is difficult.

Continue reading “Remote Sensing Bombs Could Stem Terrorism”

Yahoo! employee accused of involvement with terrorists

[Mohammed Mansoor Asghar Peerbhoy], a software engineer at Yahoo!’s Indian facility, has been accused of involvement with one of India’s most-wanted terrorist organizations, the Islamic Mujahideen. According to investigators, [Peerbhoy] wrote and sent emails just before and after terrorist attacks in Delhi, Ahmedabad in Gujarat, and Jaipur in Rajasthan. [Peerbhoy] makes an unlikely suspect; he visited the U.S. on several occasions for work without suspicion, but authorities claim that he was a “mastermind” who hacked into wireless internet sites to send hostile emails. The local community and his family have rallied around [Peerbhoy], calling the arrest an attempt to “defame the Muslim community”. There are also claims that his arrest, and other similar arrests, were made to soothe political pressures and not based on any factual evidence.

[photo: josemurilo]

British hacker to be extradited to U.S.

British computer hacker [Gary McKinnon] lost his final appeal to block his extradition to the U.S. He stands accused of hacking into almost 100 U.S. military and NASA computers from his girlfriend’s aunt’s house in London over a four year period by the U.S. government. If convicted of the crimes in a U.S. court, he could face up to 70 years imprisonment. [Gary McKinnon] freely admitted to hacking into the computers, but claimed that he did it out of curiosity, not out of malice or any terroristic aims. He was looking for information on UFOs. The U.S. government claimed that in addition to hacking into the computers, he also stole 950 passwords and erased important files. [McKinnon’s] next move will be to appeal to the European Court, and if unsuccessful, he will have no other option but to stand trial in the U.S. court system.