Schneier on Security
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March 1, 2007
Boston Police Blow Up Traffic Counter
Is the Boston police trying to become a national laughing stock?
It's not just the Mooninite blinkies. In 2004, the Boston police harrassed a protester by pretending he might be standing on a bomb.
I'm beginning to think that something is seriously wrong with the police chain of command in Boston.
Boston PD: Putting the "error" in "terror."
Posted on March 1, 2007 at 6:27 AM
• 78 Comments
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Just in Boston? You jest!
Hi there Bruce - Have You noticed it?
Canada: Terror vote fails ....
OTTAWA — Two controversial measures in the federal Anti-Terrorism Act will disappear from the law books after a vote Tuesday night in the House of Commons [...]
So, let's end up with the fear society :-D
My theory is that someone in the Boston Police Bomb Squad simply enjoys blowing up things. That's how he got there in the first place, and now it's heaven for him.
Seriously though... this time it could be harder for them to justify their actions (expenses), since they can only send the bill to the city, which might not be amused.
They are not arresting terrorists daily, weekly or even monthly. No nuclear bombs found, no buildings blown up or flown into. All statistics are pointing negative.
Need to have some positive feedback to justify Federal funds! Grunts on the beat told to look harder, be more suspicious. Those terrorists have got to be out there somewhere!
Oh dear! For the lack of a little common sense and a bit of observation and imagination the police force is made to look like an idiot once again!
This has little to do about the police chain of command but with the selection and training of police in the first place. Maybe selecting more highly educated personnel and paying them more in the first place to attract more intelligent people would help! Then provide them with some sensible training. Mind you, maybe you're right, by the sound of it, the 'more intelligent' has got to pervade the entire chain of command.
Prediction: The next news story from the Boston PD will be about prosecuting the citizen that reported the "suspicious package." "Falsely reporting the location of an explosive device" is a felony in Massachusetts.
Yes, the law was intended to prosecute people who make bomb threats - but "in this post-9/11 world," everyone should know that they must report everything suspicious and simultaneously keep their mouths shut lest they bring suspicion on themselves and cost their city millions of dollars and possible lives lost investigating unwarranted suspicions. Contradiction? There is no contradiction.
Point of order: boingboing only links to our local Faux News station. Nobody else local, and I mean nobody (I was looking specifically for this story) carried it last night, and neither the Globe nor the Herald are carrying it today.
I'm willing to believe the Boston PD want to quash a story like this, but I have a very hard time believing that both the Globe and the Herald, plus four of five local TV news outfits would play along. Something about this story stinks, and I'd like more details from a source more credible than Fox about what that video purported to show.
BTW, I'm still waiting for someone to blow up my bike, with it's "this is not a bomb" sticker on the top tube. I even locked it up outside Boston City Hall the other night, but so far ... bupkis.
>>> I'm still waiting for someone to blow up my bike, with it's "this is not a bomb" sticker on the top tube.
Put a couple of LED's on it.
"Point of order: boingboing only links to our local Faux News station. Nobody else local, and I mean nobody (I was looking specifically for this story) carried it last night, and neither the Globe nor the Herald are carrying it today."
This is a good point. Does anyone have any independent corroboration of the story?
Wires are also needed. All bombs need wires that are different colours. Otherwise you can't defuse them
The problem is Boston. Now the city is after Dr.Peppper for placing a rare coin in the Boston cemetery. Adolph Hitler rulez in Boston.
I'd buy a shirt with the tERROR meme on it, somehow. You need to set up a cafepress site, Bruce ...
This is the local fox coverage. Text is thin, but the video report is reasonably good.
Seems that the device was indeed a traffic counter, but it was privately placed. The city was involved to determine that it was not one of the city's devices.
I wonder why it wasn't in the major news. I'm not much of a conspiracy theorist, so I would doubt cover-up. Maybe they thought it wasn't important enough? Maybe they need a day to edit their story?
Good luck getting better people on the police force. Doing one's service seems to have lost way to making more money. Not that I've done my public service...
With all the stories of bomb squads blowing up harmless objects, I can't help thinking of this quote from "Hot Shots: Part Deux":
Rabinowitz [Demolition expert]: Know what I'm gonna do if we make it? I'm gonna go back to Eagle River and marry my gal, Edith Mae. Gonna get us a nice little place with a white picket fence. You know the kind. Two-car garage. Maybe a fishing boat. And in 15 years, when they're all paid for... I'll set my charges and blow the s*** out of them.
Freedom is a wonderful thing, and I won't argue that we, as citizens, should be able do (reasonably) anything. That notwithstanding, in this day and age of 9/11 "suspicious devices", how friggin difficult is it to contact the police and say "Hey. I put a [blinky light|traffic counter|whatever else with wires and/or lights] at the following location." Not asking their permission, mind you.
On the flip side of things, if the Boston PD has any recently-deployed military guys, I can *sort* of see some of their points. It was DRILLED into us that anything that does not belong, especially with wires, on the side of the road or in a trafficked area should be treated with suspicion. Perhaps if we were privvy to the decision-making process, there'd be a better insight.
Calling it a "private" traffic counting device is a little bit misleading. Such counts are usually conducted in order to comply with a City, County or State requirement - a traffic count may be required before you can get the approval for a building permit if there are traffic or parking issues.
I love how overly paranoid police agencies always describe their actions as "detonating a device" (which would seem to imply that the device had an explosive component) rather than "blowing up a device".
Back in November 1997, during the IEEE ITSC conference in Boston Park Plaza, one of the seminars covered GPS navigation systems. After the seminar we went out to Boston Commons since the presenter (a guy from SRI) wanted to demonstrate the device. He opened his brief case, booted up the laptop, connected the wires to the portable GPS... And the woman police officer materialized behind our backs, ordered to shut it down immediately treating an arrest "since it might be a bomb, and public demonstrations are not allowed".
I suspect that IGG is onto something -- to me, the most plausible explanation is a pile Federal anti-terrorism funding, sitting around in a municipal budget, waiting idly for something to do, and hoping for renewal with the new fiscal year.
The people who write annual reports for the city need expenditure line items, and don't need to include any press clippings with the document they submit. The personnel and material costs of this "anti-terrorism" action will surely be itemized, and used to justify future anti-terror funding.
Fox local news in Boston has a "roving newswoman" morning spot. Wednesday it was on the stock market crash, so they were in the financial district with a camera truck.
They happened to be just down the street, and got a genuine scoop with footage. (Stopped clock right twice a day, and all that)
I agree, the lack of coverage is weird, but there was definitely *something* going on at the corner of Franklin + Devonshire yesterday morning; I walked past about 8:15am and there were two fire trucks parked there with a group of firefighters standing around (no news trucks, though). A co-worker who arrived after I did had heard talk of a suspicious "briefcase chained to a sign."
I also find it odd that they just blew it up with no protection around it. What if it had been filled with C-4 and nails, or worse, something hazardous; i.e, a dirty bomb? Is blowing a suspicious package to smithereens always the best course of action?
IGG writes: They are not arresting terrorists daily, weekly or even monthly. No nuclear bombs found, no buildings blown up or flown into. All statistics are pointing negative.
...which just proves that the policy is working! If they hadn't blown up that traffic counter, why, there'd be a dozen 747s in the Hancock Building already. It would look like a coat-rack with all the airplane parts sticking out.
Does Chief Magoo have any comments?
Is anyone else wondering when the Boston PD tries to improve their image by some sort of "Wag the Dog" scenario, where they plant a real bomb???
I loved the T-Shirt idea so much I made them up and put them on Cafepress.
I won't spam the link on this site, but I've got a link on my pitiful blog.
So for the only bombs I've been made aware of in Boston were brought there by the bomb squad. Maybe Boston needs a bombLESS squad, that accomplishes stuff without blowing anything up.
"To a child with a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail"
Seems like LED means 'Little Explosive Devices' to the Boston PD :-)
@Mark J: Plus they did it with their "quick reaction" van parked right across the street. If it had been a REAL bomb, it would have taken out the bomb squad. (Hmmm..? Nevermind.) They know these things arent bombs, they are just trying to get attention. They are going to get so used to pretending to work with bombs, when a real one comes along they will do one of these .5ass sound-bite things and get themselves (and innocent bystanders) killed.
"Officials were urged to take note of people dressed in bulky jackets in warm weather ... or trailing electrical wires."
What is it with the paranoia about "trailing wires"? If a wire is trailing from something *it's not connected!*
My bet is that Boston PD gets regular updates from On High about "chatter," and those on the beat have been instructed on the basis of that chatter to be on the lookout. Boston is a major city and potentially a good target, but the repeated screwups are indicative of the problems with false positives.
Easter is right around the corner.
Boston police will be working overtime to keep the public safe from the sudden massive influx of egg-shaped "bombs".
Here's the problem...poor selection of police officers. To be a cop, you need 6 months of cop school and MAYBE some college at best. How about a professional, well-trained force of people with education (4 year degree and more), trained to protect well, serve well, and not infringe on others while doing so. I support cops but they have so many inept, arrogant officers who cannot utter the phrase, "I really don't know, let me check with someone who does". Boston, you are looking a bit crazy.
I think they should have blown up the empty milk crate. You can never be too sure... And all those metal boxes on the side of the street with liberal papers in them...
No one seems to get it!
The person was being unpatriotic, not supporting the troops and making a mockery of the military. They could have arrested him for loitering, but a smooth lawer and that stupid 1st Amendment would have had the case thrown out. But, charge him with Patriot Act legalities and he has no such rights.
Why blow up the box? More federal funds? Force the protester to pay huge fines for making trouble? They need the training? All the above?
The Patriot Act gives law enforcement open season on all Americans.
Personally, I believe that the protester is much more partiotic than those who try to subvert our rights and liberties.
Now there's a great way to plant a real bomb! Make a big old cartoon dynamite bomb with a ticking analog alarm clock, put it in a transparent bag at the mall, and then anyone who reports it will be poopoo-ed and told they obviously haven't understood the point of the ad campaign...
I'm thinking it was a good thing I wasn't using my remote shutter release when I was up there last year. The fact that I would be taking pictures with a cable between the camera and my hand... the cops there would have collectively shat themselves.
And the governments think they're fighting terrorism? Helping it is closer to the truth.
Yes, I get it (about the guy protesting and his trailing wires). What I don't have a good answer for is the commonly-held belief that absolute conformity is a requirement in our "post-9/11 world." In particular, when incidents like that one are reported, *most* of the people I know say, "the guy deserved it." It's not necessarily because the guy was protesting - the usual rationale is that *scaring* people - by itself - is sufficient grounds to prosecute, based on the expenditure of public resources needed for the security theatre to reassure the scared people again. The scary behaviour gets compared with actions like falsely reporting a bomb threat or turning in a false fire alarm.
I'm not sure that I *have* a good answer to that. If someone's behaviour, however innocuous, is interpreted in such a way as to cause a panic, hasn't that person actually cost society substantially? As a believer in free speech, I desperately want to counter that argument, but it's difficult.
Without the Boston PD and the TSA, we'd be practicing countertism, not counterterrorism.
I guess it is a good thing the Boston PD was not around in the days of the "Tea Party" otherwise we would still be a colony today... :)
Not only was the bomb squad van just a few yards away, they also have no clue about crowd control, as dozens of civillians are walking all around.
If they were taking this seriously, they would have cordoned off at least a one-block perimeter around the thing.
What you're missing is what's in front of our eyes, but is against our most cherished beliefs: We're a bunch of conformists. Yes, American like to see ourselves as individualist, as freedom loving, but the evidence simply does not support it, outside of a vaguely eclectic fashion sense.
I found hilarious a piece I saw a few years ago about culture conflict between astronauts and cosmonauts working on the space station. The problem was that American space-farers are trained to do everything by process, to follow the book by the letter and never deviate via judgement, at least not without permission. Cosmonauts are trained as well as possible on the ground, and then told to wing it - they're sending their smartest people, so they should make a go at it using their best judgment.
The ex-Soviets were the individualists, the cowboys, and the free-wheeling Americans were the bureaucratic robots! It was a quite sobering, yet humorous, slap in the face to my preconceptions.
So if you want to set off a dirty bomb; get some radioactive material, put it in a box and leave it somewhere in Boston.
This policy of blow up first seems fairly dangerous, lets hope the cops don't continue to make themselves complicit to the Errorism
UNTER, The American command and control system is the difference. Soviet planning wasn't very good, so they had to wing it. If you are going to the moon you need mission control. As for Boston, it sounds like they have emergency planning problems. We have a good emergency ops center in my area, run by the county government. It's all part of a regional network. I'm not sure about Boston, but it sounds like a poor setup. Federal emergency planning is done at the regional level, which can be a problem since there is no regional government. Cities have to think regionally or think outside their own boundaries. You would think that police in Boston would be fed information from the FBI, who has a bigger eye in the sky. Running around like ghostbusters is a waste of time. As for protesting, it's a circus.
The "muddy" water? Yeah, those are powerful psychoactives, the proverbial "Kool-Aid" that the right-wingers are always drinking. It's MKULTRA on a city-wide scale, baby!
Then again, it seems to just be the cops and the politicians, not the citizens. Maybe the Kool-Aid spill is restricted to Beacon Hill?
I just stumbled across something that might explain why Boston police in particular think of bombs so often. Apparently they had a memorable encounter with one in 1991.
"Trenkler was convicted of building and planting a bomb under a car belonging to the father of his co-defendant Thomas Shay on Oct. 28, 1991. The device exploded while bomb squad officers were examining it, killing [Officer] Hurley and injuring his partner, Francis Foley."
"What you don't seem to realize is that private security companies are actually much better controlled than police agencies." - Andrew, Feb. 27, 2007
"Um, actually they're not. They're much less well controlled." - Bruce Schneier
I guess this proves that public police agencies are inherently better than private ones.
Yes, there are technical reasons for the difference. But, there are cultural reasons for those technical differences. The Soviets had such a heavy handed, incompetent bureaucracy exactly because you can't get Russians to follow the rules - Russian culture accepts a level of waywardness (i.e., corruption) that isn't part of our national culture. The NASA command and control structure grew out of our cultural approach to problems; the Russians disorganization grew out of theirs.
I've seen this too many times now to ignore. For example, I worked at an internet boom company at the end of the boom. When the axe fell, it was fairly obvious what was coming; one month the paychecks didn't arrive. Of course, they promised that the paychecks were coming - but any one with an IQ above 80 could see that it wouldn't happen.
What did happen? Well, everyone stayed. They didn't take the opportunity to be home with their families while they looked for work, or at the beach while calling on their cell phones. They stayed in the office - little work got done, but they stayed with little rhyme or reason, as if they couldn't think of anything to do. The office was obviously the worst place to be to work on side jobs, troll the web for job offers, or simply shoot the shit. These were middle class Americans with valuable skills that they could be putting to use - if nothing else, working on open source to pump up their resume. Why would anyone look for jobs in an open space with hundreds of competitors for those same jobs listening in?
What explains our general docility to authority? We can always come up with structural reasons. But the underlying cause is basic psychological orientation.
Yeah, Jim. Just conform already!
Russian culture accepts a level of waywardness (i.e., corruption) or VODKA.
Happy hour is coming.
Hmm Vodka - the water of life!
...take pity on the poor Boston cops -- only 41% of them make $100K per year... and average salaries are only $80K. Senior cops 'retire' with $100K-$200K+ per year from grateful taxpayers.
What kind of private police could one possibly hire for such a pittance ??
@Mark J: "Is blowing a suspicious package to smithereens always the best course of action?"
Not only is this an excellent question, but from the video it didn't look like they even managed to "blow it to smithereens" - it looked more like a tin can being popped around by a firecracker. I think some of the other posters have a point - that would be enough to set off a "real" explosive, for which they obviously did not set up any shielding.
It would also be enough to (movie-plot) break a canister of (insert your favorite Chemical/Biological/Nuclear substance), *without* incinerating it. If your target was emergency personnel in general, and police in particular, this would actually be a way to ensure dispersal among your target population - maybe not in most places, but given the obviously predictable behavior of Boston police...
Let the police help you making a bomb: 1) Put some flammable liquid in a box.
2) Wait at a distance.
Tips: Add some wires if you want. It is advised to not leave your fingerprints however.
Antiterrorism ? Autoterrorism, you mean ? or maybe Autism ?
[This is from memory, so apologies for any errors.]
"... Now let me tell you about the town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where all this was goin' on. They got 3 stop signs, 2 police officers, and 1 police car. But when we arrived at THE SCENE OF THE CRIME, there was 5 police officers and 3 police cars, this bein' the biggest crime they'd had in fifty years--and everyone was tryin' to get into the newspaper story about it. And they was usin' up all kinds of cop equipment they had lyin' around the station. They was takin' tire track prints. They was takin' fingerprints. They was takin' dog smellin' prints. And they took twenty-seven 8x10 color glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one, explainin' what each one was, to be used as evidence against us."
- Arlo Guthrie, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree", describing the Stockbridge, Massachusetts, police investigation into his alleged dumping of a volume of garbage "off of the side of the side road" leading to the dump, which was closed on Sunday ("none of us had ever heard of a dump that was closed on Sunday").
>If someone's behaviour, however innocuous, is interpreted in such a way as to cause a panic, hasn't that person actually cost society substantially? As a believer in free speech, I desperately want to counter that argument, but it's difficult.
The answer is easy: REFUSE TO BE AFRAID.
Or as we say in my neck of the wood, "Stop bein' such a PUSS-ee".
There's a well-known Eleanor Roosevelt quote: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Well no one can make you feel afraid of plain ordinary free speech without your consent, either.
>> "What you don't seem to realize is that private security companies are actually much better controlled than police agencies." - Andrew, Feb. 27, 2007
>> "Um, actually they're not. They're much less well controlled." - Bruce Schneier
> I guess this proves that public police agencies are inherently better than private ones.
> Oh, wait.... (Posted by: Statist Presumption at March 1, 2007 02:38 PM)
In fairness to Bruce, private police usually double-check that it really is a suspicious package, then punt and call the bomb squad.
We may be poorly paid, undertrained, and prone to abuse our limited powers .. . but we aren't STUPID.
i dissent from all this boston bashing.
as i see it, a corporation wanted to attract attention to...something, so it commissioned an edgy, in-your-face marketing campaign to put suspicious-looking boxes in sensitive public areas, so that they would attract attention and alarm some people.
i am anti-corporate. i believe public spaces belong to the public, not to private money, and as a member of the public i'm pretty edgy and in-your-face when it comes to corporate encroachment on the public domain. i salute the bostonians who are refusing to tolerate this, who are extracting money out of the offending corporations, and i'd like to see their attitude spread from sea to shining sea.
Actual question: In movies (granted not the best source of factual information) they are always worried about cutting wires or deactivating timers. Cant they just pull the detonator out of the C4 (for example) and remove the C4 to somewhere else? Then let the detonator go off when it wants to?
The argument is more subtle: to what extent does the fear of others impose an obligation on me? I think we'd all agree that the line is drawn short of inspiring fear with an outright lie (libel, defamation, false alarm) or an outright threat (simple assault, incitement to riot). Generally, a "reasonable man" standard applies in the borderline cases: would a reasonable man held up by a fake gun believe that it was real? (The answer is different when the assailant is an adult in a convenience store at 3 am from what it is when the assailant is an eight-year-old on a playground.) Would a reasonable man believe that a device planted in a public place is a bomb?
When our government and media have been battering us for years to believe that anything out of the ordinary may be a threat, otherwise reasonable people may wee a terrorist under every mattress. How do we a apply a "reasonable man" standard in an unreasonable society? And should we? When nearly everyone is afraid, playing to their fears does impose tremendous social costs in the exaggerated but foreseeable response that will result. Do those costs represent a compelling state interest for the suppression of speech?
"Refuse to be afraid." I don't fear non-conformity. I fear the reaction of my society to non-conformity. In short, we have nothing to fear but fear itself, and I'm deathly afraid of that fear. I'd be even more afraid were I not a grey-haired, suburban white man.
>In fairness to Bruce, private police usually double-check that it really is a suspicious package, then punt and call the bomb squad.
Good thing. No way a private agency could have been under better control than the Boston police have been.
This is getting old.
The infamous day started with two pipe bombs being found, one on the supports of a bridge and other other in a Boston medical center.
The police were put on high alert over the pipe bombs, and were really frustrated by the endless stream of ATHF fanboys calling in the damn ads as "Suspicious devices."
Fortunately, the two bombs turned out to be skilled fakes, but if they had been real, and if there had been more, the ATHF fans calling in the ads would have introduced fatal delays in Police response time.
Does anyone here worry that now the easiest way for someone to plant a bomb would be a NON-suspicious package (vs. using a suspsicious looking package)?
So I guess the real bombs will look like Mailboxes, FedEx packages or even giant chocolate chip cookies....or whatever.
Remember: When you're sufficently paranoid, everything looks suspicious to you.
No if you will all excuse me, I've got to phone the police about my toaster...I heard it whispering to the microwave last night...
@bob: The cliché movie bomb scene is inspired by bombs that have some sort of tamper-detection mechanism, that will set them off early if they detect someone messing with them. E.g., maybe trying to remove the detonator, or even opening the case, will set the bomb off. This makes sense if it's a mad-bomber or terrorist movie plot. Or a war movie with landmines or something.
@another bruce: The ATHF signs weren't even "suspicious" to a normal person. They were just illuminated posters. I could support fining the ad company for littering or possibly even minor vandalism, but "hoax bomb devices" is absurd.
I filed the story with Boing Boing after a sharp-eyed friend in LA stumbled onto it...
and there has been ZERO COVERAGE in any of the local press beyond that.
I compare this with the weeks of absolute front page hysteria in the Boston Globe over the blinky LEDs...
it's really quite concerning - the way things are covered and not covered. If this were about a corrupt bingo parlor or something contained that doesn't affect everyone in the city, i'd care a lot less about coverage or lack thereof...
@Another Kevin, "If someone's behaviour, however innocuous, is interpreted in such a way as to cause a panic, hasn't that person actually cost society substantially? As a believer in free speech, I desperately want to counter that argument, but it's difficult."
So an individual is responsible for how others interpret their behavior?
Does that completely absolve others from any responsibility for misinterpretations?
Well... looks like the boston Police blew up a "suspicious" looking Jamar Trax 3 traffic counter. Never know, I mean honestly there may be some crazed traffic engineer out there that loves to have $1000 traffic counters blown up for the heck of it. Boston cops are nuts, didn't any of them think to check with other city departments before blowing things up? Oh well...
@Another Kevin, "If someone's behaviour, however innocuous, is interpreted in such a way as to cause a panic, hasn't that person actually cost society substantially? As a believer in free speech, I desperately want to counter that argument, but it's difficult."
Furthermore we have to evaluate the cost itself. Is it really that substantial -- compared to
problems like global warming, terrorism (real terrorism with real bombs), etc. In other words,
could it do serious damage leading to huge numbers of deaths and prolonged internal
unrest in the society that might lead to significantly increased violence, if not civil
war? If the answer is no, then this "substantial cost" is not that substantial. I mean, how
many of those incidents happen anyway and how does the damage add up against the
sum-total of far more serious problems? If it is pretty small compared to that stuff then
don't bother with it, things can't be perfect anyway...
This doesn't mean ged rid of security nor does it mean it is OK to make bomb threats, though, it just means it is not something that one must obsess over trying to stop. It's not going to bring about Armageddon.
We need to fix the fundamental corruption with our society -- which is the thing that is truly costing the society the most -- and with that fixed the relatively minor problem of bomb threats won't even happen in the first place since that type of attitude will not exist.
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