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. @Spazed
    Lockpicking isn’t illegal, actually :)
    The only thing that will get you into (more) trouble is being caught with lockpicks while committing a crime.

    Wow, “sheeple”? Are you a 12 year old anarchist? LOL
    grow up and stop pigeonholing people

  2. the San Diego incident is nothing. my high school got shut down because of a box of cupcakes in a stairwell. just goes to show what a little fear and a direct line to the bomb squad can do.

  3. So I guess if you bring a webserver on a business card, or a hackable badge through airport security you are a terrorist. What would be even better is if someone gave you thier hacked business card, and then you couldn’t get on your flight. I guess not a good way to promote your company. (Same with the Boston scare)lol

  4. I went to high-school in the late 70’s in Australia where our science teachers actually encouraged us to learn and experiment. We did quite a few dangerous things that in today’s risk-averse environment would not be allowed. Our annual science fairs had their share of boxes with wires sticking out and no-one called the bomb squad.

    I think there are a couple of problems. One is that people in authority want to minimise their exposure to risk. Second is a lack of thinking and an expectation that kids (or adults for that matter) are not intelligent enough to handle potentially dangerous activities.

    In my younger days, hobbies like electronics, chemistry and model aircraft/ rocketry were commonplace. All potentially dangerous. All allowed.

    Now I can’t fire rockets or fly model aircraft unless I’m a member of an approved club in an approved park during approved times with approved insurance otherwise the park rangers fine me. I can’t buy a chemistry set with real chemicals to teach my children basic chemistry. If I try to buy chemicals (or even a simple syringe) at the chemist I am either a suspected terrorist or drug maker or user and am usually refused. If I carry home-made electronics on a plane, I get pulled aside at security.

    I can’t even get fireworks anymore because the government thinks I am not smart enough to use them safely.

    The answer seems to be to just sit at home, turn on the computer (or telly) and do as I’m told.

  5. @ Haku, Bakamoichigei: Great comments.

    @ Kooka: It’s true, especially the fireworks thing. The laws are getting tighter every year, here 2009’s new year totally sucked when it comes to fireworks.

    And yea everybody is basically staring at the TV and believing all the brainwash. Those who do not, are considered weirdos and have to be carefully watched by not only the government, but even by their own family and friends. Human rights are abused more and more for this (false) sense of security.

    I like to believe the TSRh motto:
    “If freedom is outlawed, only outlaws will have freedom.”

  6. @Haku
    Really though, stop using the term “sheeple.”
    It makes you look like a pretentious tool, detracts from your (essentially valid) argument, and alienates the very people you’re trying to reach.

    That term is firmly in the domain of ignorant bloviating teenagers and is usually followed by some variant of “ANARCHY RULZ”

  7. @Kooka, @Th3_uN1Qu3

    I guess it’s time to adopt the strategies of phreakers and software cracking groups :)
    Go underground, post in private forums, don’t talk about your hobby to strangers.

    Maybe one day “citizen engineers” will be accepted by society. Until then, develop your skills and stay safe!

  8. Oh, I forgot to mention one other thing. I should have added at the end that here in Australia, even the Internet will soon be censored by the government. I can only visit sites not on the government’s (secret) blacklist.

  9. Yes this is very common, and I personally don’t take offense. Being Russian, and traveling all over the world I’ve had incidents where my carry-on luggage was swabbed. Of course bing a citizen of U.S.A helps but it’s perfectly expected actually, what threw them off was a roll of leaded solder. I can see why a TSA officer would want to search my laptop case because it has a large cylindrical object that they couldn’t scan through lol. But I never felt “singled out” for my race or otherwise. As a matter a fact the officer was very interested in the junk I was carrying around, and as I was packing it back up we made small talk about some prototype wireless devices etc I had in my bag. Actually I just read an interesting article about security in Israel. They employ a interview technique. An officer walks up the line and simply talks to you about your plans, making small talk. But of course they are trained to sniff out fakes. I’m sure it’s very effective. I have no problem chatting with authority. In my personal opinion, the only people that this bothers are ones that have something to hide. In another incident I was carrying a bunch of prototypes that look like small boxes connected together. Again looking at a scan, I’m sure it looked very suspicious. I saw a note when I opened my bag that it was inspected. Everything was actually in it’s place, so they took it out and put it right back exactly the way I put it in, with my cloths wrapped around it for protection. They ware very careful not to damage it. So personally I would been more worried if they’d have just let me go with 3 laptops and crap load of electronics and a roll of solid solder. I’m sure in future they will probably have me take one of those body scans. And unless I’m wearing leaded underwear I really have nothing to worry about. I’ve never been mistreated or felt accused. They are simply doing their jobs, the way it should be done….

    just my $0.02


  10. I can’t get through security without my camera bag getting a cavity search. Now I do pack every pocket and subpocket with some electronic device that the cameras may need to my trip, and they’re all store bought, but we are being a little overcautious, don’t you think?

    My wife thinks that the only appropriate wear at the airport in the near future will be skin tight spandex. She’s likely right, since it’s against the law to use finely honed skills to single out people of interest. To make everyone feel all warm and cozy, we need to make everyone else who has no ill intent feel like a criminal with every pass through a terminal.

    The San Diego thing, maybe the kid should clear bringing in a project like that with a teacher, who is familiar with their interests and can vouch for them. If you saw some of the crazy stuff I built in High School for stagecraft use, you might have called it a bomb…but I thought that a phone ringing system for the stage was kind of innovative. Better yet, they still use it 25 years later.

  11. I work in the ATC area as an engineer, and I was told once by a guy working on the X-Ray scans that you can get a gun passed through them, if you know what you are doing. Another interesting situation was looking at a security guy doing a thorough inspection on a air traffic controller, probably one of the few persons that CAN bring down a large number of aircrafts at the same time.
    So, airport security as we see it is joke, or rather a show put up to make people feel safer. Airport safety is what [Roman] said: in Israel, security officials are interviewing passengers. THAT works and everybody knows it, but it is to expensive and less of a show…

    A few years ago, when the shoe incident happened, and we all had to take out our shoes in the airports, I said that the next incident would be exploding underwear, so that everybody gets striped searched… I got that one right.

  12. Editorials like this are totally irresponsible! Any hackaday-loving terrorist will now know to disguise their IEDs as normal everyday items, probably even now without a single red wire than can be cut to disarm it.

  13. @Spazed: Don’t mean to pick on you but you were the first to bring up the argument — as said, the risk of a child bringing a bomb into a school is tiny. It’s happened once that I’ve heard about and school shooting rampages on the order of ten times. Compared to the violence doled out in and around schools (consider inner-city school systems here) and the risk of alienating technology /in technology-oriented schools/ I think the cost of these overreactions far outweighs the cost in lives that you think these one-in-ten-million chances bring about. For example, it would probably save more lives to outlaw driving your own child to school in lie of putting him on the school bus. (School buses get in very few accidents compared to non-professional drivers with less-visually striking vehicles.)

  14. WOW I was JUST thinking about this, this morning actually. People have gotta lighten up and realize that each person wants to express themselves differently. I say, that Hackers are simply the modern day impressionists. Sure to the untrained eye it may appear sloppy,but to someone who takes the time and learns about the efforts it took to create that peice, then the product can be appreciated as a whole.

    I was actually thinking about this too on my trip to Japan. I would not be able to bring any kind of hacked device or modified equipment on board a plane simply because of the suspiciousness of it.WTF!?

  15. And just think that fuckhead at Ft. Hood was still being promoted through the ranks. HOW STUPID IS THE US GOVERNMENT NOW DAYS!?

    On another note: “Asumption is the mother of all fuck-ups.” I’m shure some people remember that line from Under Siege 2. – Just another movie promoting the common misconception of what a hacker is.

    At the very least there is still professors in college that teach you to tinker. My Electrical Engineering professor for example.

    Why cannot people be taught from a young age that messing with stuff and modifying consumer hardware is ok? How come the sciences are not being emphasized in schools?

    I’ll tell ya why. People -are- stupid. Administrators want to have projects and assignments that are easily graded. *cough* lazy *cough*

  16. I’m of the opinion that the root of the problem is three-fold: lack of education, semantics, and current events.

    The lack of education can be adequately summed up by Arthur C Clark’s 3rd law of prediction: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. While the tech developed, modified, and implemented within our community may not be “advanced” per say (not to say that some projects are not), their is a perception that we should not be able to achieve these feats, especially when we are perceived as individuals. This is a generalization and an opinion, but I would think that the bulk of projects we have all seen were collaborative works, enabled by the advances we have made in communications. This issue is further exacerbated by a perception of difficulty, as Haku pointed out: “…they have the same reaction to showing them computer stuff – an instant “ahh it’s too complicated” reaction…” I’m of the opinion that the way to solve this problem is through teaching the general populace that what we do is science, not magic. Large entertainment installations are a good step in this direction as they engage the public in a friendly and non-threatening way.

    Semantics is another issue pointed out by Haku: The term “Hacker” has become a smear word (much the same as “terrorist” and “extremist”). However, unlike other smear words, the negative implication of hacker has been influenced by the media (movies, T.V. shows, fiction). It is not a matter of truth vs. lies so much as perception vs. reality. Bomb makers are hackers & makers the same as us, but they use their talents to nefarious ends. And we all know how much the media loves tragedy and sensationalism, so it would seem to logically follow that the only hackers those outside the community are exposed to are the ones with ill intent in mind. While I realize it is not fair, we must either change the perception of the term or change what we call ourselves. I predict that if we do nothing to change how we are viewed, calling ourselves hackers will bring attention in a negative way.

    Lastly, there is the trend in current events. Those who remember the Columbine incident know that there were several statements put forth by the media implying that the shooters got their inspiration for the type of attack by the movie “The Matrix”. While that may or may not have been the case, that is what was perceived and ultimately perpetuated. Given that most adolescents are given to imitation, there were copycat incidents and attempts. With the recent media coverage of bombings, it makes the general populace give pause when they encounter an “electronic looking device” that they do not understand. We can work toward changing this with education as well, but it is mostly out of our hands.

  17. Jim Oberstar on the lessons (not) learned from Lockerbie (1988) …

    “One particular bulletin described a bomb disguised as a Toshiba radio — much like the cassette radio that was believed to have actually destroyed the aircraft. Yet, despite this warning, Pan Am officials took no action.”

    Many of the folks on HaD have the ability to build such a device, and more to the point, make it look like something else, something harmless.

    What worries me isn’t so much that people with homebrew gizmos get too much security attention; it’s the fact that they are looking for the Hollywood image of a “bomb” with the switch and flashing LED “red wire, blue wire” running gag, and by implication wouldn’t recognize a *real* bomb if they saw one!

    This “security” is simply a sham, a sop, a PR exercise.

    *Real* security is human, awake, and unobtrusive.

    The nasty fact is that it is fairly easy to bring down an airliner if you are on it and suicidal, and we have been saved by the underpants bomber being a total idiot – but he’s had almost as much effect anyway. After 9/11 caused such disaster, armed with only box-cutters, the only really safe way to carry passengers is as cargo in cryo-stasis.

    So far about the only people who have actually *prevented* a terrorist disaster have been security “hackers”, other passengers who jumped on the offenders.

  18. Very good article. I agree with most of the comments, especially with the fact that “terrorism” is the act of creating fear in your opponent. So in that front, they have won, based on the fact that most people are in fear. Lucky for me, I don’t fly very often, I prefer to drive. As for publishing this article, it really should be on the front page of every newspaper.

  19. @Dielectric

    It is very true that zero tolerance policies and similar shenanigans are to blame for the problem. However, there is nothing stopping us from changing that. Sites like this show that the world is what you make of it. We need to make something better.

  20. Security won’t even let me carry a Zippo with no fluid in it on a plane. However, they allow me to carry a bic, or refillable disposable lighter. Why is there even a distinction here? Whats to prevent me from filling either with something dangerous, or just stashing a ceramic knife on me somewhere? I would never do any of these things, but I severely doubt a terrorist with real intent would disguise a bomb as a metal box with wires protruding out of it, nor would they ask you prior to boarding a plane if it is ok to take a Zippo aboard while showing it to you for examination. The approach that’s being taken by airport security is entirely backwards.

  21. I am just surprised at the amount of people that view electronics as akin to witchcraft, and the hackmonkeys that believe window decoration and splash screens are hacking.

    I don’t understand why kids can’t be taught electricity from an early age in the schools. Computer skills are now almost required, why not a basic understanding of electricity? (My lab partner in my ASE transmission repair class refused to remove a starter until I disconnected both battery cables, not just the negative cable.)

    And I know a guy who just recently lost an eye to a car battery explosion (~2 weeks ago). Makes me double-think what I am doing around batteries, that is for sure.

  22. The “underwear bomber” was a set-up. This is incredibly obvious if you look at the details surrounding the event and the “terrorist” himself.

    He was given bogus explosives on purpose so that:
    a) he wouldn’t go looking for *real* explosives
    b) the US would have justification to meddle in Yemen


  23. @Haku only sheeple use the word sheeple to describe other people they are too ignorant to know anything about. Grow up man, this isn’t the “Letters” department of 2600 lol. You can fix LED lights and they can drive a minivan and raise kids much better than you so you are both good at something. AND FINALLY if sheeple didn’t breed we wouldn’t have the pleasure of meeting you, my friend.

    Sorry but that is such a trollish, dickish word.

  24. @carbuncle, the truth is most people are uneducated in the ways of electronics, they have no real concept of what’s “under the hood” in their computers/tvs/mobile phones/mp3 players etc., they just push buttons and it ‘magically works’. My work involves coming up with electronics solutions, ideas and a lot of soldering of many different types of components, at the moment I am working on a personal project of mine that uses 5 different types of sensor as well as wireless RF & IR communication, and no it’s not an entry for a robot wars competition, it’s something designed for people’s peace of mind and to hopefully save lives.
    So don’t lump me in with the electronics uneducated/unintelligent/uninterested crowd thank you very much.

  25. @spazed: 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.

    Um, this happened at Millennial Tech Middle School. One might expect the staff at a science- and technology-oriented school to understand homemade electronics, or be able to find someone who understands. That’s what makes this story so frustrating.

  26. I was stopped by the TSA because I had an MP3-Player in an altoids can. I calmly explained to them that I was fed up with the way the batteries only lasted an hour, and case-modded it to fit larger ones.
    I guess it looked professional enough, ’cause they let me through. They didn’t even ask about the three modded flashlights I had too.

  27. @nubie…just a quick point here when removing the battery cables….the negative could fall and make contact with the vehicle chassis or body thus making a ground rendering it functional. remove the positive and let it hang worse case scenario you have a ground with no energy no energy = no injury. And one other question for you which way do the electrons flow in that circuit positive to negative or negative to positive? This is a test.

  28. @Haku it hurts when people judge you for something stupid eh…
    I completely understood what you said I just think you completely missed the point of my post. Three years from now you’ll go “Oh, OK”.

  29. I agree with Sean. the most dangerous thing in this world is ignorants, and the way things are becoming, technology being spoon fed to the user *cough* windows *cough* mac *cough*, the more people are going to become ignorant.

  30. People fear what they don’t understand. They can’t understand what they cannot control. They cannot control what they cannot learn. They cannot learn without an open mind.

    Yes, you can quote me on that and I firmly believe it to be true. So many people are so closed-minded that they do not want to learn about the world around them. They are already comfortable with what they know and think that it is safe for them to be in that “bubble.”

    Then something happens that’s outside the scope of their understanding and then it’s time to instill control measures to keep it from happening again. Usually this starts with someone uttering the phrase “We/I/You never thought/think this could happen to us…” Then the authorities step in with a bunch of what-if senarios to prove that they need these controls. Meanwhile, noone thought to ask the experts( and if they did, those experts are already bias in their opinions towards the issue) about wether or not what they are doing is best or their advice on what to do.

    We then end up with a set of control measures that either don’t work or causes more harm than good. All because of instead of increasing our ability to understand, we restrict it to what has been already proven safe.

    As hackers, it is within our power to increase the understand of the world so that others may follow and improve on it. To hell with just breaking the mold, it is our purpose in life to deconstruct it, learn it, rebuild it, improve it and share it.

    I hate ignorance to the point of extreme prejudice, but I cannot let that hate guide my actions. The people are letting their fear guide their actions instead of their minds. So, everyone here should do what they can to help in demystifying the “magic” of science and technology.

    Curiousity didn’t kill the cat, ignorance did.

  31. this totally happened to me! I made a 2 D battery holder for my cd player out of the back of a flashlight. I brought it to school one day and the headphone plug I used in place of the original ac adapter shorted to the metal case and it got very warm. I decided I’d make another one out of a plastic flashlight instead of a metal one next time and I threw the metal cylinder in the garbage. My teacher found the hot, pipe-shaped object and all kinds of panic ensued. they made me draw a diagram of how I made it and go to a cleared out locked away area where it was set on a desk in the middle. I had to go out to it and disassemble it and show that it was really filled with batteries. It is still in the possession of the Apple Valley CA fire department as an example of what a pipe bomb might look like.

  32. It’s only too bad that average intelligence is on the decline: I see it all around me (Hungary), at my university. Even if we’re only talking about computers and software, I find it hard to believe that I can solve problems my roommate can’t, and he’s supposed to be studying said problems of programming.

    But it’s not just that, people are getting caught up in the rat race life has become. Recession or not, global economic crisis notwithstanding, I find it amazing how people become consumers, most of them lacking knowledge to fix even the simplest problems. It’s just easier to buy a new whatever. Granted, many appliances are over the head of an average citizen of whichever country to fix safely, and anti-tampering mechanisms only add to the problem, but people no longer have the will to examine, they lost the time to question, and the interest to ‘poke and prod’, regarding those that retain this curiosity as oddballs.
    Personal example: I build a small LASER just for the fun of it, to see if I can do it, and everyone asks me “Okay, but what is it good for? What can you do with it?” That’s okay, I don’t think many people could answer the question “What can you do with a 300 mW red laser?” right off the bat, present company and the site’s visitors excepted. But what gets me down is the “Why?”, and when I start to explain, I look up halfway through, and see just glassy eyes, no actual understanding. It’s at this point that I say “If you have to ask, you probably wouldn’t understand if I told you anyway.”

    I find there’s an upside to this too, at least for the time being: John Smith views us a superior, in a way. For now, we are needed. We can save them from some expenses. Personal example again: “Why throw away a set of headphones and speakers, just because the speakers’ jack doesn’t match your Discman and the headphones are broken? Gimme those, and five minutes!” Five minutes later, my classmate had a pair of speakers for his Discman. Even if they view us, and our hobbies, as a sort of oddity, they come to us when there’s trouble, because we can help them for a whole lot less then stores can.

    And not only does Average Joe need us, we could assist in so many more areas. I see reports in the news about some rescue robot being developed for n billion dollars, and think “I saw something like this on Hackaday for a few hundred bucks a few weeks/months back. Granted, not as professional as this one, but give the guy ten percent of this budget, and he’ll make something at least as good as this…”

    Here’s a thought: bring back MacGyver! I ask you, how many of you watched his adventures? I did when I was young. Hell, I have the whole series and the movies! Did it do me any good? It sure did: even if some of his solutions work only if some very special conditions are satisfied, and some don’t work at all outside the studio, it did teach me that every problem has a solution, even if a not immediately obvious one. I taught me that junk could be used for cool stuff (even a bipedal-fire-breathing-motorcycle-monster-thing). It even taught me basic science long before I got to those kinds of classes at school.
    That’s what TV-stations should be playing, not mindless reality shows. I’m trying very hard not to sound too much of an extremist, but those really drive up my adrenaline. People were not sheep, they didn’t need to be led. When did most of us lose the initiative? Airport security (and teachers, apparently) don’t need complicated, intrusive and useless control processes, we need to know what to look for, and what to skim over because it’s obvious it’s not harmful; they need to know what answers can be expected to a question (“Son, what was in this pipe?” “Batteries, sir. The jack shorted to the case, and it heated up, so I threw it away.” “Good, be careful not to burn/shock yourself.” – instead of – “Son, why did you make a pipe bomb? And where did you learn it? Are you a terrorist?” “It’s not a bomb sir, it was just a battery case, and the plug shor…” “IT WAS A BOMB!”).

    And now, place your bets: how much for the next post to read tl,dr? :D

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