Improvising electronic devices is not a crime

Supporters of Star Simpson -- the 19-year-old MIT student who inadvertently caused a total freaking flipout at Boston's Logan International Airport last week for wearing a sweatshirt with an attached homemade light-up device -- are selling these t-shirts to help cover her legal fees.

Link, at Instructables.

Authorities in Massachussetts are throwing the "infernal machine" book at her, claiming the shirt was a "hoax device" intended to look like a fake bomb. Simpson denies this charge.

FWIW, I can't fault airport security personnel who spot an unfamiliar electronic device, worry that it might be dangerous, and question accordingly. That's what they're there for. But why do prosecutors still insist on carrying these charges against Simpson, despite clear and abundant evidence she meant no harm?

Over at Politech, Declan McCullagh has a great post up about previous cases of *actual* hoax devices.

There's a big difference in intent with this case, no matter how ill-advised the young Ms. Simpson's fashion choices may have been last Friday morning.

On CNET, Chris Soghoian has a blog post about "TSA's misguided war against 'make'ers, and tinkerers and other electronics geeks," also worth a read.

Soghoian lists some past examples of devices used to blow up planes. At left, the World War II German Exploding Chocolate Bar (image courtesy "M15 History For Schools").

More than 60 years and we've learned nothing? Why are chocolate bars still being sold in airport snack shops around America with such careless disregard? This is an outrage.

Previously on Boing Boing:

  • MIT student arrested for entering Boston airport with "fake bomb"
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    1. Please, people, I’m sick of the blind “the ‘security X’ is an overreaction” movement.

      The PROSECUTION is an overreaction. She did nothing that warrants prosecution, and there is no way to call what she wore a “hoax device”.

      But the reaction to her outfit was not an overreaction, but by-the-book proper policy. Google image search for “suicide vest”. Think that “this is what the security officers are TRAINED to look for”.

      Now remember, they have probably NEVER seen a breadboard in their lives. How is “Down on the ground NOW” not the proper reaction?

      The Star Johnson case should not be taken as an exemplar, compared with stupid things like the homemade iPod charger, but even then, the items they are being TRAINED to look for are things that are tangled-messes of electronics etc.

      Remember, real bombs look remarkably like these things people are complaining about the TSA complaining about:

      And an Iraqi IED kit:

    2. @nicholas, as I state in the post, and have before on Boing Boing:

      [[I can’t fault airport security personnel who spot an unfamiliar electronic device, worry that it might be dangerous, and question accordingly. That’s what they’re there for. But why do prosecutors still insist on carrying these charges against Simpson, despite clear and abundant evidence she meant no harm?]]

    3. before you go into an airport you should be thinking. “will anything i’m carrying get me hassled?”

      a circuitboard strapped to your chest would probably set off alarm bells.

      If i got all the facts in, the girl walked away when questioned by a airport employee, security got a call and went to handle it. I think they handled it fine.

      But yes, as the above poster said, the prosecution is out of line. She should have talked it out with the first person, then the second thing would not have happened. People should not be mad when things get checked out. its when you get told you can’t board an airplane because of your DIY ipod charger that should irk you.

    4. >> At left, the World War II German Exploding Chocolate Bar

      oh please, don’t give them any more ideas… *will leave chocolate bars at home next holiday*

    5. The problem I have is so many of her supports, and so many of the commenters here, view the entire SITUATION as an overreaction, rather than just the prosecution.

      Look at your OWN original posting. Once update 3 came up, it should have been clear that “Down on the ground…” was probably not a police overreaction.

      As for that T-shirt, I would HOPE that the TSA would give a very hard time to anyone who had something like that, or the breadboard pictured, in their carry-on baggage. It may not be a crime, but it would be criminally incompetent if the TSA just happily gave that stuff a free pass.

      And also remember, if this indeed can be called “incredibly stupid” on her part, we as a society prosecute “incredibly stupid” acts all the time. I’m just waiting for the inevitable community service pleabargan.

    6. I think those who said that the prosecution is wrong are correct. I think the police acted almost appropriatly. Personally, I think “Down on the ground” for something like this is wrong. Not for any reason other than if it IS a bomb, how do you know there isn’t a pressure switch or some other device that will set it off when your on the ground?
      “Hands in the air, don’t move” – that would work too.

      And the officers comments AFTER the fact. That was wrong for him to say, it also doesn’t fit the law. Basically he said “If she didn’t do what we said, we would have shot her”. What? No need for an escalation of violence, just for NOT doing what she’s told (bomb or not, this is wrong).

    7. true, I use “Down on the ground” as an example. You would have to look up which is the proper procedure (down on the ground or hands in the air).

      But if a suspect is wearing one of these…,0.jpg

      Or if the officer can reasonably believe the suspect is wearing something like that, if the suspect doesn’t do EXACTLY what the responding officer says, the officer really has no choice but to shoot the suspect in the head.

      So the officer’s statement, although very crude and tactless, really is correct.

    8. I have been flying with home made devices for a while now, and they always let me take everything on the plane. The only thing i have ever had to leave at the gate was a miniature screw drive (that i forgot i had in my bag..).

      They always ask questions thou.. The last trip i made was to London with this as hand luggage:

      And in 2005 i went to NYC with this as hand luggage:

    9. I know people will pin this on “something about Boston”, but as a Bostonian I insist it’s only a matter of time before something similar happens in your neighborhood; Boston is not so unique that these things only happen here, but ever since the mooninite “hoax” anytime something similar happens here it gets hyped ad infinitum, perpetuating this myth of Boston. Indeed, a link in a previous comment here points to a “hoax” in New Haven, and I know of similar cases of the authorities going overboard with unknown devices in Ohio and California, so lay off Boston.

      That said, the problem here is that it’s the very nature of Police and other authorities to over-react. Too many cops think they are on a mission from God to save the world (especially since 9/11), and when the “bomb” they thought they saw turns out to be an error on their part, the bruised ego won’t allow them to back down. Yes, the “hoax device” rule in Massachusetts is ridiculous, and I suspect if Star Simpson fights it in court with a competent lawyer she’ll get off with only a warning (charges were dropped against the two artists in the Mooninite scare earlier this year, as prosecutors could not show “intent to cause a panic”– the bottom line in labeling it a “hoax.”)

    10. also didn’t the call to check her out come from the employee she walked away from?

      if you were called to respond to a person that possibly had a bomb, how would you handle it? You have the information you were given.

      should the people whe hire to keep us safe have to walk up and casually ask if something is a bomb? This kind of thing happens with fake guns, or if they think someone has a gun. They draw their guns and give directions.

      These people don’t have a right to fuck with us, or mace us, but if they’re told to do their jobs they have the right to take precautions so they dont’ get shot or blowed up. I give these guys mad props for simply being able to examine the device and determine it wasn’t a bomb. The boston bomb squad would have just detonated it.

      everything after the event is a farce, but the girl walked away, and the event was called in, and the police handled it. No one had to yell “don’t tase me bro!” no one was beaten, no one was maced.

      Still i fully support DIY, but if you get asked a question in an airport, understand its okay if you’re asked about DIY equipment, explain what needs to be explained graciously.

    11. The “clay” was play-doh that she had gotten the day before as free stuff from the MIT career fair. Also, it wasn’t “near the circuit board” per se, but carried in Star’s hands. There were no wires connected to it (this would certainly imply the presence of a bomb trigger).

      I can understand an airport worker thinking it’s suspicious, but it was definitely not intended to look like plastic explosive.

      While MIT is a little bit of an ivory tower, as I can definitely attest, I don’t think self-centeredness enters into the equation at all. Most people, especially students who do not travel often or follow the news, are frankly surprised at the paranoia and unforgiving nature of airport security.

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    13. Im a bit annoyed at how some people are saying the police / gov overreacted. I don’t like being “accused” but in a high risk area (airport) I rather be looked at or questioned then let that one crazy person through. If I was in a terminal and I saw someone walking around with a breadboard full of wires and a battery I would be concerned.

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    16. If the police say, “I thought that could be a bomb. Thank goodness it was just a misunderstanding!” after realizing it is not a bomb, then… that is “profound irresponsiblity”?

      This is all good fun, but do you really want improvised electronic devices on the plane with you?

      Corporate electronics only, please!

    17. t sms th -Lftsts wld lt sm bn Ldn brd pln wth wrs stckng t f hs jckt.

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    18. Heh, Poweroid, you clearly are not reading.

      The consensus I’ve gathered from the MIT mailing lists (yes, I am an MIT student, sue me) and from this thread in general is the view that while the actions of the airport kiosk worker and subsequently that of the state police in the detaining of Star Simpson were the right thing to do, given the information available to them. If some woman calls the cops saying “I think there’s a bomb on this girl,” then the Staties acted in the best way possible given the situation.

      What has ticked off MIT students and much of the public is the way the State Police, instead of recognizing an LED breadboard and releasing her, arrested Star Simpson, and that the DA charged her with possession of a hoax device.

      That implies intent to cause panic, and carries a maximum sentence of 5 years. Way to try to ruin a young girl’s life just to not look silly when you respond to a harmless “threat.” The DA has a habit of trying to overstate the crime to do just this – and the fact that Star’s bail was only $750 indicates that the judge agreed.

      If you remember the Mooninite scare, for which Boston attracted national ridicule, then you’ll remember that the DA tried to pin malicious intent to cause panic on the advertising firm in question then, too, and failed. They’re trying to do it again.

      This is the point of the campaign, Poweroid, not to tell airport security to ignore suspicious devices. From a distance, who can tell play-doh from SEMTEX? Not many, and causing one person inconvenience on the off chance that we catch someone with plastic explosive is worth it. Most of us would just prefer that a false positive is treated graciously, not turned into a publicity stunt and thrown to the wolves of the anti-intellectual Boston press.

    19. … I like how you omitted the part of my sentence that implied that we were mad at the felony charge, not the police reaction.

    20. FWIW, I too have traveled with odd improvised light devices but I didn’t get much hassle. I live in Los Angeles and ride a bike everywhere. Last year for thanksgiving, I flew out of long beach airport. My improvised blinky light consisting of a circuit board, two AA batteries, six red LEDs and a few other components was left on my backpack as I passed through security. The TSA guy asked what was hanging off my bike, I showed him it’s my blinky light for cycling safety. We proceeded to chat about bikes and the price of gas for a second while he searched my bag (and confiscated my toothpaste) and then sent me on my way.

    21. The thing that bothers me about the discussion above is that no one seems to expect the security people to think at all–they are being completely given a free pass to react semi-violently to anything that isn’t personally familiar to them. I expect this from dogs, but not from human beings. . . and dogs can be trained, so shouldn’t security people, at a minimum, have the IQ of dogs, and be minimally trainable?

      The personality of the student shouldn’t be an issue at all: what’s an issue is hysterical response and fear of the unknown. This situation reminds me a bit of those police training exercises where dummies pop up and police are EXPECTED to be able to judge which one are harmless, and which to shoot at–not just kill everything that moves.

    22. M, That’s a great point! Many of the arguments thus far have boiled down to, “Sure, hobbyists are able to recognize harmless devices, but there’s no way we could expect that of full-time professionals!” Ridonkulous.

    23. I’ve been building improvised electronic devices since before most of you were born. I’m a controls engineer now. I travel frequently with all sorts of electronic devices and tools.

      From what I’ve seen of this particular case it really looks like she intended to cause this type of reaction. From the point of it being hung in plain sight where it wouldn’t be missed to walking away when first asked to talk about it. As someone said earlier, she’s obviously an intelligent person, she got into MIT. But, and it’s a big but, she showed incredible stupidity in this provocative act.

      Face it people we live in a dangerous age. Now one more thing I want you to understand. I am a veteran of the United States Navy. I went to a war zone to protect the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution. But those freedoms must be used responsibly, or those very freedoms will be used to destroy those freedoms. The laws are not perfect when it comes to protecting us from terrorist attacks, especially when we’re paying these people $9.00 an hour to protect us. If you want somebody that can recognize a breadboard project and not overreact you need to pay them more and you better be prepared for a much higher cost of an airline ticket.

      This has been compared to the moonite hoax. I say these two instances can’t be more dissimilar. I loved the moonites. But the placement of the devices was not at an airport. The size and nature of the devices showed that they were almost certainly not meant to cause damage. And only the most paranoid of minds should of been able to see through to the comercial aspect of those devices.

      Last statement; I, being an electronics engineer with specialized training, could take the breadboard device she had, and a small amount of explosives (that could be disguised as play-doh)and create the explosion I wanted. Don’t forget our enemies here are perfectly willing to kill themselves in pursuit of their objectives. You can’t think how would I do this, because I would want to live, they don’t have this objective in mind. Be realistic anyone with a little training could build a detonator out of any electronics device and a fingernail clipper.

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