Interview with guy arrested at airport for wearing an elaborate wristwatch

Matthew says: "Geoff McGann tells his story about the watch, the TSA, and the Alameda County Sheriff's Office. Surprisingly, he blames the ACSO for their actions, not the TSA."

McGann said that he harbors no hard feelings against the TSA, the agency that initially stopped him at the security checkpoint. Instead, McGann said he has a problem with the way the Alameda County Sheriff's Department made him look like a terrorist.

"They treated it as if this incredible travesty was not a big deal to put me and my family through," McGann said. "To make it worse, they fed the press a story that they knew would paint a terrible picture of me so they could justify the false arrest," he said.

"My issue is never, and was never, with the TSA... They were doing their jobs," McGann continued. "My issue is with the Sheriffs Department and painting that picture... It is just irresponsible what they did."

McGann explained that after he was detained at the airport, he was able to show deputies photos of his watch collection on his phone to prove that they were art pieces, not detonators.

"They went and looked at the whole collection on my phone and then they realized I wasn't a threat," said McGann. "They were like, 'maybe we can let you go, but we don't think we can.'"

McGann said that he was arrested on suspicion of possession of materials to make an explosive device despite deputies telling him he wasn't a threat and his watch wasn't a bomb detonator.

McGann Tells His Story of Unusual Watch Arrest at Oakland Airport



  1. I really think his watches should be described as “bombish” rather than “elaborate.”  Reading a text feed I pictured something filigreed.  In the end, this shows TSA flexibility.

  2. It is unfortunate he was arrested but wearing a watch like that is asking for trouble. Not because it looks like a detonator.  But it looks like a comic book version of one, which is sure to set off red warning signs in any TSA agent.  

    1. Yup. I’d assumed it was something artsy, complicated, and confusing to the TSA people, maybe steampunk or such  – but the devices in the picture accompanying the post are instantly recognizeable to anyone as the sort of time-bomb you see in cartoons and in B-movies. It’s the sort of thing any of us would whip up if you dropped us off in a Radio Shack and gave us half-an-hour to concoct a time-bomb prop for strapping to a wrist. Sure, a serious terrorist would likely have a more artfully concealed device – but the TSA just can’t ignore something like this.

      I’m not saying the guy was treated well, and I’m not saying that the TSA makes sense with any particular frequency. Still, frankly, anyone who’d wear that thing through an airport checkpoint is a flaming ass, and any claims they make about their subsequent behavior must be considered suspect. Certainly, I’d question whether someone who’d wear such a thing to the airport gave straight answers in a helpful manner when asked to explain his extraordinary and provocative action.

      A sandwich board with flashing LEDs spelling out B-O-M-B is perfectly harmless (save for any panicked reactions it inspires), and might be legal to wear while boarding an airplane – but anyone wearing such a placard through a bomb-detection checkpoint, or anyone wearing one of these cartoon-time-bomb-prop watches, is just asking for trouble. They are making work for the TSA people, and are probably causing delays for everyone else in line.

    2. I have to disagree.  I have thought about this a bit.  Something about it put me off about the, this looks dangerous argument.  Or this is like shouting fire in a crowded theatre.

      Please, hear me out.

      I have some experience with creating truly dangerous looking artwork.  The mp3 hand grenade I created as an art piece that was featured on boing boing a couple years ago was also featured on the TSA blog several times.  A giant warning to never try to bring that on a plane.

      However, that it’s not allowed to fly is not ENTIRELY true.  Also, not entirely workable as a limitation.

      The reality is with several types of products that professionals in a wide range of fields bring on flights there is always the look of a prototype, or a bomb, or in my grenades case a very specific type of well known munitions.  There is also the need to transport actual fire arms.

      And it’s easy to say “well then ship it.”  But that’s not as easy as it sounds. 

      I have some friends who started a small CNC startup called makerbot.  I actually have one of their latest models printing on my desk as I type this.

      Early on in their exploits they had to move their prototype unit around to show off at conferences and at hackathons.  To show off to investors or potential customers.  But with the extreme cost of the unit, the cost of flying out to demo it, and the need to not fail in those early days.  The risk of shipping a unit was too high.  It could be stolen.  Or more likely damaged.

      The units looked very sketchy.  Lots of DIY engineering.  Exposed wires hand soldered boards.  All the trappings of a home made electronic device.  And rightly that should inspire extra scrutiny from security forces looking to identify possible IEDs.

      So they placed the unit in a pelican case to travel with it. They informed the TSA what it was, how it worked, offered to demonstrate it.  As they grew in fame they could point to news stories about it.  etc etc.

      But that never stopped the device from being at an elevated risk of being a potential IED.  It was never any less scary than one of these watches.

      But, for this company trying to show off a new prototype and having very little budget.  They had no choice.

      An artist can’t reproduce his work easily.  It’s hand made by the artist and that takes time.  Shipping those items is often too much of a risk when there is no one paying the insurance.  Or guaranteeing the item will be at the exhibition on time.

      And as long as people unknown to you can check their fire arms in at the airport, the fire in the crowded theatre argument goes right out the window.

      What remains is the fact that sometimes people carry things on planes that maybe you rather they didn’t.  Because they have to.  For you it might be a scary watch.  For me it’s a crying infant on a red eye.  We have to learn to deal with accepting the differences of others be they engineers, artists, or parents.

      The problem here isn’t the scrutiny.  The problem is a guy was arrested for no reason at all.  And it will continue to happen and no one will be held accountable.  It’s a regular occurrence and it needs to be addressed.  It’s demonstrably impacting our nations capacity to pursue excellence in art, science, and more.

      If you read this far.  Thanks.  If not, I hope you were doing something really awesome instead.

      1. Obama was reelected because we as a country decided that our government should work for everyone, not just the 53% that are lucky enough to have the resources to insulate themselves from the true needs of others.  First world problems are problems in the first world.

  3. Why pay attention to this story? You’d have to have rocks in your head to not expect to be hassled for wearing a contraption like that. It smells of free publicity, all I’m sayin’.

    1. It looks like a movie bomb, the only type that these TSA agents would recognize anyways, the victim blaming over this is rather annoying but i do see that he should have guessed they might take special interest in the watch.
      On the other hand that is all it should have been, he should have been pulled out of line, had his watch thoroughly looked over, and then left to board his plane, that would have been sensible and understandable, it is the arrest and detainment that makes this ridiculous.

      1. That would require a TSA agent of normal intelligence, wouldn’t it? You tilt at windmills therefore! :)

          1.  Har har, those stupid lower class people. So beneath us. They’re so simple that they can’t even read the article at the top of the page that says that it was the police, not the TSA that insisted on detaining this guy.

  4. “suspicion of possession of materials to make an explosive device”
    This really gets me – I fail to see how they justify arresting someone for having a clock.  If you don’t have to have actual explosives to be charged, what’s the cut-off point for that?  A piece of wire?  Would household chemicals like peroxide be considered precursor chemicals for making explosives?
    I’m surprised they didn’t get him for having a “hoax device” since that seems to be the usual fall-back when the suspicious device doesn’t turn out to be suspicious, and certainly isn’t the parts for a bomb.
    At least they’ve declined to press charges after very publicly trying to paint him as a terrorist. So… progress?

    1. my complaint is how do you define “materials to make an explosive device”?  I carry a laptop with me on most flights. If I short out the battery it will go boom! so am I in possession of said material? Overly broad statutes like this are all too frequently used as CYA 

  5.  Come on, dude! You made a watch that looks like a bomb and then tried to board an airplane with it.
    You knew what would happen! Stop acting like you’re some kind of victim here!

    1.  Except, of course, he’s done it before without a problem.

      And he said he understood getting hassled by the TSA – as far as the getting arrested bit, though, despite them admitting they knew it wasn’t a bomb? He IS a victim. This should never, in a reasonable world, by an “expected outcome” of this sort of situation.

      I don’t care if he was “asking for it by dressing like that” – the response remains inappropriate, immoral, and pathetic on the part of law enforcement.

  6. I’m gonna hafta side with Johnny Law on this one.

    It strikes me as stupid that in among all this junk is just a regular watch face. He didn’t make these watches so much as glue a bunch of crap to them. I bet the airport would still have hassled him if he had been dressed in the rest of his Steam-Punk geekery, sans watch… because the airport is not the place for costumes. I’m just saying is all.

  7. Man, what more would you have to add to make these look like a bomb and trigger every first-glance bomb-detection neural network in a TSA agent’s head?  NOTHING.  Except maybe the word DYNAMITE painted in big stenciled block letters along the sides of those AA batteries I saw in a different picture.  Or a soundtrack announcing a bomb-like nature.  “I’m a thirty-second bomb!  I’m a thirty-second bomb!  29 .. 28 …”

    He still shouldn’t’ve been arrested, though.  Just inspected very closely, then sent on his way with best wishes and a funny look.

    1.  Maybe a bomb in a cartoon or a movie.  Real bombs dont have blinking lights, clocks counting down, and they don’t beep….

      1. Sure, but some mentally ill person might well construct a bomb to match what they’ve seen in films and on TV all their life, rather than make one sensibly.

        In any case, a body charged with the detection of terrorists (however uselessly) can hardly ignore a guy who might as well have repeatedly screamed”I’m trying to look like a mad bomber”.

        1. Um a “mentally ill” person might well do just about anything that sets convention on its head and is surely no basis for rational policies. 

          If you need to resort to an argument that a completely crazy person who doesn’t think in way that we can even understand might do x, you’ve already forfeited the argument. 

          1. There’s mentally ill, and there’s mentally ill. In any case, perhaps I phrased it badly – but look at those suckers the FBI periodically deludes into thinking they’re going to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge or some such, and look at the trappings they acquire for themselves, items taken from the movies no less directly than these wristwatches are.

            Look: this fellow decided to traipse through an airport with a big thing on its wrist that screamed to anyone familiar with popular culture “Look! It’s a time bomb!”. The fact that he wanted the thing on his wrist to be recognized as resembling a time bomb (as seen in the movies) doesn’t prove the thing on his wrist wasn’t a time bomb. He could have been making some statement about terror that included an actual act of terror, instead of making some statement about terror that didn’t.

  8. You guys must not have read the article.  He said he doesn’t blame the TSA for stopping him over the watch, but rather the sheriffs office for arresting him and trying to paint him as a terrorist.  For once, the TSA probably did the right thing stopping him, but the sheriff’s office arresting him over it, and then lying to the press to try to paint him as a terrorist, was way out of line.   
    PS:  You know what a real, actual, functioning remote control detonator looks like?   A cell phone.

    1.  Clearly, he would be arrested for attempting to mass murder the whole downtown area with high explosives. I mean, road flares? That’s practically a fusion bomb right there.

  9. Ugh… a man gets falsely arrested by the police, falsely painted as a terrorist by the police, and stuck with a wrenching $150,000 bail.

    And nearly every one of the first comments I see — not only on the story itself, but also in comments by boingboing readers who are supposed to be a more intelligent group — is nothing but people attacking the victim.

    …this is sick. Just sick.

    1. Since he was released, the bail bond was cleared. He probably had to pay $500 to a thousand to the bondsman who put it up, so it wasn’t without some cost.

      However, as a way to demonstrate solidarity with him and do some fundraising, perhaps you could make exact replicas of his watch to sell and give him the proceeds.

      Then publicize it by starting a meme… create a tumblr where purchasers of the watch can post photos of themselves wearing it in airport terminals, on planes, etc. 

      Extra credit for posting photos of yourself wearing it while posing with public figures, on tours of the White House, or while in custody.

      Double points for posting a photo of yourself wearing it in any crowded public place in Israel, Iraq, or Afghanistan.

      1. It’s not like the amount of explosive material that would fit in the watch could kill 42 people. More like, damage the wearer’s wrist and that’s about it.

    2.  Yes, but there are certain things that reasonable people simply do not do–
      Yelling fire in a crowded theater. Farting in elevators. Bringing things that look like a bomb to the airport.

      If you choose to do things like this, then you must accept the inevitable clusterf*ck that results.

      1. Under the spreading chestnut tree
        I sold you and you sold me—

        That’s right. Try not to attract attention.  Don’t provoke Big Brother. If you do it’s your own fault.

  10. The movies “Rollercoaster” and “Juggernaught” define what bombs and detonators appear like to the popular imagination. 
    I know I certainly coveted the toolkit from “Rollercoaster” (those fold-out panels, so damned cool!). 
    Appearances mean little with castable explosives and such-like. 

  11. He wasn’t arrested for carrying a watch-that-looks-like-a-childs-idea-of-a-bomb through the airport. He was stopped by TSA for that, which was arguably a dumb thing for them to do, but okay, fine, they probably need broad discretionary powers to stop and investigate anything that seems unusual.

    But he wasn’t arrested for that.

    He was arrested BY THE POLICE (not the TSA, who have no arrest authority) for “possession of bomb-making materials”, which the Police themselves admitted he did not possess.

    He was ARRESTED for a crime that everyone involved KNEW he did not commit.


  12. The guy is an artist. His current work is bomb-ish watches. One interesting aspect of the artwork is investigating and observing how different people react to the artwork. His work created quite a reaction at various different levels.


    I can’t imagine that it never occurred to him that one possible reaction could be quite negative. In this case getting arrested doesn’t seem to be a very high price to pay to get this much attention for a piece of artwork.

    Seems to me he should stop complaining about any treatment he may have received and start spouting some art school talk about the “epistemological dialectic of a post 9/11 police state” or some such nonsense.

    1. Exactly.  I’m inclined to commend the police for their inspired contribution to this exercise in performance art.

  13. Thanks for that update.  It really does help show that this is a reasonable guy who understands how the initial issue got started, but his (completely understandable) concern is with how things went so wrong afterward.

  14. If you can’t understand the difference between investigation and punishment, then you can’t have rule of law.  This is rule of fear, just as the terrorists intended.

  15. I like how he’s gone through and had a talk with the TSA before – so hey, using the “secret rules, what we don’t like we detain” model, he’s probably okay to clear until he’s not.

    In the UK there’s “wrongful arrest” and I’d be seriously considering suing the overreacting sheriff’s department under that.  You can’t just keep someone once you know there was no threat, just because. 

    1. Yeah. People don’t seem to realise that all that is needed for ordinary wires to explode is for them to be glued to a watch or dipped into more than 100ml of water. Or less than 100ml of water in a larger-than-100ml bottle. Or some shoes that you have been wearing without taking them off since you entered the airport.

  16. Timex Weekenders with a bunch of crap glued to them?  just because you’re an adult, that doesn’t mean your toys have become “art.”

    He shouldn’t have been arrested.  That was dumb.  But it needs to be said:  those watches suck. 

  17. This wasn’t a t-shirt with a picture of a gun, or a 175ml tube of toothpaste, this was a watch designed (badly, oh so badly) to look like an explosive device. Of course he was stopped and of course he was arrested. He was also released when authorities were satisfied that what he had done was merely incredibly stupid and not criminal. That’s all as it should be.

      1. No, he was arrested even though the deputies were reasonably satisfied that it was not intended to be a triggering device. I can’t really blame them for erring on the side of caution.

          1. No, they arrested him because they thought he might have committed a crime, and they released him once they were satisfied he hadn’t.

          2. “But the sheriffs determined Mr. McGann hadn’t broken any laws before they arrested him.”
            That’s his interpretation. I doubt the sheriff’s department would agree. It seems unlikely they would decide he’s definitely innocent, tell him so and then go to the bother of arresting him.

          3. “That’s his interpretation. I doubt the sheriff’s department would agree.”

            Actually, they do agree. Both Mr. McGann and the ACSO said that’s exactly what happened. From the original article:

            “A bomb squad arrived…and determined there were no explosive materials in the watch, Nelson [a spokesman for the ACSO] said.” After that, McGann was arrested.

  18. Sorry, I am going to call it like it see it.  These things are ugly, barely qualify as art, and if he sells any because of his indignant internet-based reaction to a perfectly logical action by the ‘authorities’, Barnum was right.

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