Editorial: Fear Of The Unusual

As an engineer and as a writer for Hack a Day, I am used to seeing hardware in all kinds of states; from looking professionally done, to artfully constructed, to downright hackish. Unfortunately in today’s society of manufactured goods, most people just don’t have any experience with homemade electronics. Furthermore, because of a frenzied fear of terrorists, bombs, and IEDs, people who aren’t familiar with hacked or personally constructed hardware often assume the worst.

These assumptions can be inconvenient for some of us, when we have to explain that, “Yes, I made this myself. No, it isn’t dangerous”. The real tragedy is when fears like this are imposed onto children and students who have an interest in building something of their own. Recently there was a story about a middle school student from San Diego who built a motion detector into a bottle. He attended a technically-oriented school, and decided that he would bring in his project to show his friends. After a teacher spotted this “Suspicious looking bottle with wires coming out of it”, the device was confiscated, a bomb squad was called out, and the school was evacuated. After using a robot to X-ray and examine the bottle thoroughly the bomb squad finally declared the project safe. Instead of listening to the student from start, thousands of dollars were wasted bringing out the bomb squad and an entire day of school was interrupted because the administrators gave in to fear of something they didn’t know about. The worst part of all of this is that while the student wasn’t formally punished, the school district recommended that he should undergo counseling to correct his behavior.

This isn’t an isolated incident either. Back in 2007 an engineer who had built one of Adafruit’s MintyBoost kits was stopped in airport security because the kit “Looked like an IED”. In that case the engineer in question stood his ground, calmly explained what it was he had, and why it wasn’t dangerous. Luckily, the police that were called in were of a more rational mind, and after proving that the kit performed as promised (lighting up a USB LED lamp), told the TSA to let him go, kit and all. While this does bring up questions towards the arbitrary rules used in TSA screening, that is not the point of this story. Airline troubles have even extended to our friends over at MakerBot, who had their luggage searched on the way to CES. The important message to get across is how important it is for makers, hackers, circuit benders, and anyone else who creates or modifies something to share their projects with friends, family, and the internet.

Until people start to realize that not all electronics come from a store, stories like these will keep happening. Education is the only effective tool against fear, and without people like our readers sharing their creations and taking time to talk to people about what the hardware hacking scene is, the general population can’t be expected to know any better. This responsibility to educate is even more important for people like parents, teachers, and organizations such as the TSA and the police because of the influential nature of who they are.

I want to thank anyone who has shared their projects with us, and urge all of you to continue. Our mission here at Hack a Day is to share the amazing projects that are out there, and to help spread the word and interest of hardware and software creation and modification. This mission extends both to experts as well as people who have never seen anything like this before. The knowledge you all share with us helps us spread the word of hacking to as many people as we can get to listen.

I can’t wait to see what else you all have in store for us.


93 thoughts on “Editorial: Fear Of The Unusual

  1. It’s quite comical actually, approaching a McCarthy-esque feel at times. In the little traveling I’ve done, I’ve had dielectric grease confiscated, precision pots searched and swabbed, and a simple multimeter always triggers a “sir, can you step around here please”.
    A service engineer I work with refuses to travel by air anymore, he will literally drive across the country in order to bring his own tools. It’s a little scary that the TSA doesn’t have the skill to differentiate between an “IED” and a multimeter…..

  2. The main issue here is that the school cannot assume that a student is telling the truth or that the device is safe. The risk is just too high. While it would be easy for most of the people who read this site to build something dangerous into the case of boombox or even an old school gameboy, those items don’t look suspicious. If on the other hand a student brought in a tangle of wires in a home made case and it actually was something dangerous, the teacher and anyone else who saw the device would be in hot water for not saying something. We can’t expect all teachers or law enforcement personnel to be able to figure out a circuit just by looking at it. They might be able to tell it isn’t a bomb easily enough, but what about a taser?

    The problem is that we are enthusiasts of a weird hobby. We do things that stand out and that is exactly what security protocols are there to pick up on. It isn’t a foolproof system, there will be false positives and missed positives. Just be glad that our hobby is still legal to do in our own homes unlike lock picking which is illegal most places.

    I’d be all for trying to get the word out to people on homebrew electronics. The main issue seems to be a sense that everything needs to be produced by a company or it isn’t safe. This goes for everything from food to electronics to home repair.

  3. I had this exact thing happen with a science project kept in a black box from Radioshack. The bus driver tried to take it from me, and he asked me if it was a bomb. I opened it up and showed that it was harmless. I don’t see why authorities just cant let you stand in an open area, and turn on the device to show that it is not a bomb.

  4. I can’t understand how they’d put the kid through counselling. Because he’s doing his homework?

    Maybe he just needs to work on getting a more polished final product. ;)

  5. I am an International Product Manager for a Medical Device company and travel globally. I have a minty boost and other DIY things in my laptop carry on. Because I am a middle aged white dude, I usually have no issues with security. Interestingly, I have a DIY LED light that has UV leds and RGB LED’s that are turned on an off via three different toggle switches. The one time I was questioned about it I explaned that it was used to calibrate a surgical camera (pure BS) and they let me through. I love Hack a Day and (don’t kick me) Arduino’s

    Peace out,

  6. More Maker Faires required me thinks.

    I totally agree with this article.

    To be honest, most of the people like us started out at school thinking about disruptive hacking and all that rubbish but that was just to satisfy an interest. Most incidents that happen in schools etc are just becuase the person does not know and wants to learn. Too much electronics in schools is about sticking a resistor in a hole and nothing useful that could actually be helpful in later life.


  7. Further to Spazed’s Arguement:

    I guess this has something to say about the concept of good design. There are bombs that don’t look like bombs, and science projects that do look like bombs. Maybe in this day and age, if a project is going to be in the public eye, it’s necessary to add intelligent design to minimize the possibility of panic. That being said, It may not even be possible to design a project that can’t be misconstrued. Remember the Mooninites?

  8. “I don’t see why authorities just cant let you stand in an open area, and turn on the device to show that it is not a bomb.”

    Cos then if it is a bomb then everyone dies! I think people would rather take it off you than let you ‘turn it on’.

    I can see how that would go:
    “Is that a bomb?”
    “No. Let me turn it on and I’ll show you!”

    haha yeah.


  9. @spazed
    Good point, the teachers were right to suspect something, however its important to realise that there was a time when that mentality simply didn’t exist.
    You must remember, prior to that important date back in ’01 nobody would have suspected the worse and all these costly stop and searches would never have happened.
    It is quite insane to think that a set of dangling wires and circuit boards in plain sight are suspected when the real dangers exist in the ones that are not in sight at all.
    Until the time comes when scaremongering can settle down a bit (not helped by this insane underwear bomber) then this sort of thing should simply be accepted by all of us in the hardware hacking community. I am surprised, however, at how even a multimeter can be suspected!
    I do wonder, however, how much of our work would be overlooked by security types if they were professionally ‘finished’ in professional boxes, as opposed to bottles!

  10. I don’t agree with this. Perhaps it is because flying is something many people in the US rely on more than here in the UK…but if some fucknut walks onto a plain with a plastic bottle with wires hanging out, I want him checked (I know that this took place in a school – but the poor kid probably had a ‘foreign’ complexion and the teacher was an ignorant racist prick).

    Put your hacks into baggage and stop complaining…

  11. @Spazed

    We deserve the future we’re building for ourselves.

    Where the rational human being sees a rope, the horse sees a snake and shies. As the average intelligence drops, expect people with tech interests to be regarded as being magic users who need to be burned at the stake.

  12. “Where the rational human being sees a rope, the horse sees a snake and shies. As the average intelligence drops, expect people with tech interests to be regarded as being magic users who need to be burned at the stake.”

    I hope i’m not around then…

  13. What most ‘sheeple’ who think electronics are always neatly packaged into shiny objects that are purchasable in stores are blissfully ingnorant/unaware of that it’s the tinkerers and hackers that come up with the ideas/concepts/products that the ‘sheeple’ buy in droves and make everyone’s lives ‘richer’.

    Showing a ‘sheeple’ something relatively simple you designed & built on breadboard/stripboard/fullblown PCB, they have the same reaction to showing them computer stuff – an instant “ahh it’s too complicated” reaction as their brain automatically puts up a barrier and believes it’s too complicated because it’s new/different/unusual. Most people aren’t naturally curious or taught to be curious.

  14. It’s not that the questioned it.. it’s that they went to the nth degree and STILL suggested MENTAL counseling for the kid.

    Surely checking with the teacher who assigned the homework would have cleared it up in a few minutes.

  15. @Mowcius

    Love that last comment, tech enthusiasts should be burned at the stake. I do believe the average IQ is dropping, and its disheartening to hear about all these stops. I could’ve used my physics project to kill someone, but I wasn’t stopped, but if I walked in with a bottle of that artistic, colord sand, I’d get stopped for trafficking chemicals.

  16. This actually happened to me also. When I left for college in the fall of ’09, I put all of my projects in my checked bags. Nothing unique or unusual in my carry on bags. But they still called me up in the terminal and patted me down and searched my bags again. The confiscated some minor stuff, and thought that my home-made stirling engine was a motion sensing device. They let me keep that luckily. After the incident, I realize how stupid that sort of reaction is. Sure it is reasonable to try to protect everyone, but I feel they are wasting their resources on stuff that isn’t the threat because of poor screening techniques. They didn’t bother checking for explosive material, they went straight for the mechanisms/circuitry.

  17. @Patrick,

    If you could get this article printed in the NYT, or any other major news outlet I would be much obliged, but I am very proud to have hackaday as my soapbox to stand on.

  18. I totally know what you’re talking about. I flew return from London to Cape Town with a box of electronics stash (gyro breakouts, GPS, caps, etc). I wanted to take it onboard the aeroplane with me as hand luggage, because stuff from Sparkfun is expensive and there are sticky fingers in SA terminals.

    So, I took my electronics stash out during check-in to see whether they were cool with me bringing it on board. The lady at the desk nearly lost her mind. She thought I wanted to assemble a bomb or something. After patiently explaining to her what I was up to, she reluctantly let me stow it in my check-in luggage. She claimed that “I might use the components as a sharp weapon”.

    Seriously, how the hell do you stab somebody with resistor legs? That’s just plain impossible!

    Thankfully, all my stuff survived the return trip :)

  19. @spazed,

    No, you have it wrong. The risk is tiny; almost infinitesimal. The issue is not the _risk_ it is the _cost_ associated with failure. Institutions and individuals react like this to protect themselves from retribution.

    They do not need to do this. Teachers have not “right” to be suspicious and neither does anyone else. They have a responsibility to act rationally and prudently and not give in to media hysterics.

  20. Very nice article! And so true…
    I’m the opinion that we’re living in a frightening world, not because of terrorists, nazis, hooligangs, global warming etc. No. The world is frightening in the way that more and more people are stopping to use their mind.

    They have no interest in exploring or to find out more than that what the government, schools, media etc are serving them on a golden tablet. They don’t build their own opinion, most people nowadays are just adopting what are preparing for them.

    Even I can tell that, and I just live for 19 years now.


  21. I’ve traveled with my full microcontroller hacking kit (arduino, EZRF2500, some of my own hardware, USB JTAG, lots of wires & loose parts) but the most I have had to do is take a few inquisitive looks from the TSA people on the rare occasion they open it up. Honestly, I expect to get more grief from the 18000mA-h LiPo battery I travel with.

    I think it is just very inconsistent, which may be a problem in of itself come to think of it, but I never would have expected the story of the gatorade bottle motion detector to come out of a technology magnet school.

    +1 to bill’s comment. A lot of this kind of stuff could be avoided if people would think rationally and not presume guilt. I am sure there are plenty of things the school administrators could have done to handle the situation differently that don’t involve calling the bomb squad.

  22. The story about the kid in San Diego spawned a long conversation about terrorism earlier today, the general consensus? Crap like this is proof that the terrorists are winning.

    Think about it. Terrorism, REAL terrorism, is psychological. It’s an attempt to destroy our way of life from the inside out.

    They do something to scare the ever-loving shit out of us (For example, 9/11) and and then they just periodically push our buttons to see how we’ll turn on our fellow man.

    That asshole with the bomb in his underwear? Think about that for a second. Does that strike you as a serious thing? The shoe-bomber proved that you’d probably be found out before you managed to set it off. Maybe the guy is just an idiot, but what if all this stuff is more thought-out and organized than that?

    What if someone wanted to see what it’d take to have TSA strip search all passengers for the next six months?

    Because really, if someone doesn’t care whether they live or die and seriously want to blow up something or kill someone, about the only thing that can stop them is sheer luck.

    And yeah, as a quirky and eccentric individual with hobbies like these, it really goddamn worries me.

  23. All you have to remember is that resession is the mother of all creation…..
    The new generation is somewhat lacking in new ideas, maybe because of the rotbox or perhaps the surreal games that publisize the fiction of total fiction thus de-voiding them of ideas ….

    Its like the old debate is linux better ?

    ~its not as shiny as vimDowz…. (ZzzZzz)

    But not to forget that “some” linux distributions are better because they are not as Shiny ….

    ~free the people, and the people will need to be educated !

  24. @bill: Rational and prudent response in schools died when they all went for zero-tolerance policies. They take any judgement out of the hands of the teachers and even the faculty. They are required to act exactly as in the manual with no leeway for a proportional response.

    @Bako: Right on the money. Every time some crackpot does something stupid on a plane, more regulations get stacked on top of the existing ones. That’s how government policy evolves. Any time there’s a screwup, they add another procedure. You end up with layer after layer of crap, and no one remembers exactly why they do it. As long as we keep to that model, a determined force can keep doing stupid crap until we can’t even move within our own country.

  25. @Bakamoichigei
    I also find it odd that the shoe and underwear guy used the same stuff and it failed, and then I was thinking about that the cops sometimes put out contaminated stuff to catch people, so perhaps someone infiltrated the yemen scene and is making half-assed ‘bombs’ on purpose, or perhaps they deliberately give them chemicals that seem the real thing but have the right amount of additives to make them ineffective.

    But your idea is possible too, perhaps my theory relies too much on actual effectiveness of people working for the government to be realistic.

  26. Airport security can be problematic, I agree… but I thought I’d share a good story:

    I was flying into the US with homemade electronics for a conference I was speaking at, having put them in my checked luggage. It was a medium sized steel box with wires hanging out, no less!

    Of course I was “randomly” selected to be searched and asked questions… but the security guard and I turned out to have a common interest in antique mechanical watches, we ended up talking about that instead. In the end, he never did search my bag or ask me any questions.

  27. I think the media and ‘sheeple’ in general when they hear the word “hacker” immediately think of nasty people using computers to break into NASA/military/bank systems etc. – they’ve all seen WarGames (1983), Hackers (1995), Swordfish (2001), Leverage & a slew of other films & tv shows over the decades with people using computers to break into systems for nefarious purposes and that’s what they associate the word “hacker” with.

    I really like the word/term “re-purpose” because it embodies the meaning of the word “hack”, at least to us who are reading this site on a regular basis.
    It’s really quite satisfying when you fix/enhance something (usually electronic for me) so that it works better or does more for your needs. Even simple things like recently I noticed an LED my headtorch stopped working so I replaced all 8 with ones that give off a better beamspread and now I like it a lot more.

  28. Whenever I fly, I either send my electronics ahead on usps, or put it in checked luggage, wrapped carefully in underwear (try smearing a chocolate bar on a pair for greater effect). I always manage to get the “Your luggage has been checked by the TSA” pamphlet when I pick up my bag, but my components are never touched =]

  29. I purchased an LED lamp setup from an electronics store online, I blew mine up when i hooked it up to a bad power supply, however months after the fact, and a couple of days after this incident http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2006/05/19/1643159.htm i got a call from the police, asking if i still had the kit, and if i had modified it in any way.

    It appears that someone had fitted it to a housing with a rechargeable battery, for use while reading on the toilet, and had forgotten to pick it up one day… the bomb squad terminated it via robot powered 12 gauge.

    I was interested that they were able to track me down, i guess my purchases aren’t private.

  30. They aren’t as afraid of the physical items as they are of what they actually mean;

    If you make things as opposed to just quietly consume, it means you well, THINK and stuff.

    That equals scary and dangerous to normal people.

  31. All software should be open source and there should be no restrictions on the radio spectrum or zoning consideration on any form of electronic device.

    The IT industry would become a hobby institution and people would be walking around with birth defects and physical deformations if not dead from microwaves and radiation or electrocution.

    Dare to be radical!

  32. It is about the expense… and people are afraid of not connecting the dots. Even now look how much of a howl there has been that some people or some person did not know (oh isn’t it obvious!) that this man from Yemen was dangerous… why all the evidence was there!

    As for education, we have two paths which have created our horns of the dilemma. First, has been overspecialization. Yes, many who frequent this forum are aware of the differences between components, what is or is not dangerous, but someone else, equally as intelligent in another field would still show concern, disinterest, or even fear. Second, the general marginalization of inventing, and reliance therefor on mass commercialization and the marketing to lowest common denominator.

  33. Personally, I’ve found that talking about electronics usually makes people go away.

    My advice: Wear a beer logo hat. It doesn’t have to be Bud or PBR. It can be microbrew. Whatever, nothing says “I ain’t Mohammad” like a hat with a beer logo on it. I have a Sam Adams hat that not only covers your eyes a bit from the non-working security cameras, but is like an express pass of ‘mericanism too. I like beer and not being hassled, so why not mix the two?

  34. The culture of fear we have any more is a complete joke.
    Those who perpetuate the fear mongering have handed victory to the terrorists.
    I have no fear of terrorists what I fear is people giving up their and my liberty over imagined and exaggerated threats and the job of protecting us from such threats being handed to power hungry morons.

    So want’s next I’ll need a 27B-6 to work on my HVAC?
    BTW that is a reference the the movie Brazil which the US sometimes appears to have been transformed into.

  35. During times of boundless optimism, cultures value tinkerers, inventors, eclectic artists, and out-of-the-box thinkers, and tend to see them as shaping the cultures future.

    Conversely, during times like this where the culture is one of pervasive fear, those same type of people are always viewed as the biggest threat. There is a reason the intellectuals are always purged first.

  36. Honestly, in today’s environment, you don’t even need wires protruding from the box. An empty cardboard box is enough to shut down an airport; it happened here, in Detroit, sometime early last year.

    An empty cardboard box, sitting in the terminal, led to it being shut down for most of an afternoon.

  37. I can not help myself …

    I guess all this is (even if it becomes more and more an issue in some other countries as well) a US problem…

    Herewith I invited all US-Hackers… come good old Europe, Canada, Brazil, Russia or move to Asia. Here students which come up with own ideas and skills will be not punished. And you still can build your own stuff without been added on some damn black list…

    If you have a family consider to leave US as long as you can and give your kids the chance to grow up with real freedom…

    Sorry don’t want to offend any US citizen but if I read this kind of things I just feel that what is going there s very very wrong.

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