Schneier on Security
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June 15, 2007
Second Movie-Plot Threat Contest Winner
On April 1, I announced the Second Annual Movie-Plot Threat Contest:
Your goal: invent a terrorist plot to hijack or blow up an airplane with a commonly carried item as a key component. The component should be so critical to the plot that the TSA will have no choice but to ban the item once the plot is uncovered. I want to see a plot horrific and ridiculous, but just plausible enough to take seriously.
Make the TSA ban wristwatches. Or laptop computers. Or polyester. Or zippers over three inches long. You get the idea.
Your entry will be judged on the common item that the TSA has no choice but to ban, as well as the cleverness of the plot. It has to be realistic; no science fiction, please. And the write-up is critical; last year the best entries were the most entertaining to read.
On June 5, I posted three semi-finalists out of the 334 comments:
Well, we have a winner. I can't divulge the exact formula -- because you'll all hack the system next year -- but it was a combination of my opinion, popular acclaim in blog comments, and the opinion of Tom Grant (the previous year's winner).
I present to you: Butterflies and Beverages, posted by Ron:
It must have been a pretty meadow, Wilkes thought, just a day before. He tried to picture how it looked then: without the long, wide wound in the earth, without the charred and broken fuselage of the jet that gouged it out, before the rolling ground was strewn with papers and cushions and random bits of plastic and fabric and all the things inside the plane that lay like the confetti from a brief, fiery parade.
Yes, a nice little spot, just far enough from the airport's runways to be not too noisy, but close enough to watch the planes going in and out, fortunately just a bit too close to have been developed. When the plane rolled over and angled downward, not even a mile past the end of the runway, at least the only people at risk were the ones on the plane. For them, it was mercifully quick, the impact breaking their necks before the breaking wing tanks ignited in sheets of flame, the charred bodies still in their seats.
He spotted the NTSB guy, standing by the forward half of the fuselage, easy to spot among the FAA and local airport people -- they were always the only suits in the crowd. Heading over, Wilkes saw this one wasn't going to be too hard: when planes came down intact like this, breaking in to just a few pieces on impact, the cause was always easier to find. This one looked to be no exception.
He muttered to the suit, "Wilkes," gesturing at the badge clipped to his shirt. No need to get too friendly, they'd file separate reports anyway. As long as they were remotely on the same page, there wasn't much need to actually talk to the guy. "What's this little gem?" he wondered aloud, looking at the hole in the side of the downed jet.
"Explosion," drawled the NTSB guy; he had that Chuck Yeager slow-play sound, Wilkes thought, like someone who could sound calm describing Armageddon. "Looks like it was from the inside, something just big enough to rip a few square feet out of the side. Enough to throw it on its side"
"And if the plane is low enough, still taking off, with the engines near full thrust, it rolls over and down too fast…" he trailed off, picturing the result.
"Yep, all in a couple of seconds. Too quick for the flight crew to have time to get it back." The NTSB guy shook his head, the id clipped to his suit jacket swaying back and forth with the motion. "Always the best time if you're going to take a bird down: takeoff or landing, guess whoever did this one wanted to get it over with sooner rather than later." He snorted in derision, "Somebody snuck in an explosive, must have been a screener havin' an off day."
"Maybe," said Wilkes, not ready to write it off as just a screener's error. The NTSB guys were always quick to find a bad decision, one human error, and explain the whole thing away. But Wilkes' job was to find the flaws in the systems, the procedures, the way to come up with prophylactic precautions. Maybe there was nothing more than a screener who didn't spot a grenade or a stick of dynamite, something so obvious that there was nothing to do but chalk up a hundred and eighty three dead lives to one madman and one very bad TSA employee.
But maybe not. That's when Wilkes spotted the first two of the butterflies. Bright yellow against the charred black of the burned wreckage, they seemed like the most incongruous things -- and as he thought this, another appeared.
As they took photos and made measurements, more showed up -- by ones and twos, a few flying away, but gradually building up to dozens over the course of the morning. Odd, the NTSB rep agreed, but nothing that tells us anything about the terrorist who brought down that plane.
Wilkes wasn't so sure. Nature was handing out a big fat clue here, he was sure of that. What he wasn't sure of was what in the hell it could possibly mean.
He leaned in close with the camera on his phone, getting some good close images of the colorful insects, emailing back to the office with a request to reach out to an expert. He needed a phone consult, someone who knew the behavior of this particular butterfly, someone who could put him on the right track.
Within minutes, his phone was buzzing, with a conference call already set up with a professor of entymology, and even better one local to the area; a local might know this bug better than an academic from a more prestigious, but distant university.
He was half-listening during the introductions, Wilkes wasn't interested in this guy's particulars, the regional team would have that all available if he needed it later. He just wanted answers.
"Pieridae," the professor offered, "and all males, I'd bet."
"Okay," Wilkes answered, wondering if he this really would tell him anything. "Why are they all over my bomb hole?"
"I can't be sure, but it must be something attracting them. These are commonly called 'sulfur butterflies', could there be sulfur on your wreckage?"
Yeah, Wilkes thought, this is looking like a wild goose chase. "No sulfur, we already did a quick chem test for it. Anything else these little fellas like?"
"Sure, but not something you'd be likely to find in a bomb -- just sodium. They package it up with their sperm and deliver it to the female as an extra little bonus -- sort of the flowers and candy of the butterfly world."
"Okay, that's…wow, the things I learn in this job. Sorry to bother you, sir, I guess it's just…yeah, thanks."
Butterfly sperm -- now this might set a new record for useless trivia learned in a crash investigation. Unbelievable.
The NTSB guy wandered over, seeing Wilkes was off the phone. "Get anything from your expert?" he queried, trying and failing to suppress a grin. Wilkes suspected there would soon be a story going around the NTSB office about the FAA "butterfly guy"; ah well, better to be infamous than anonymous.
"Nah, not much. The little guys like sulfur," Wilkes offered, seeing his counterpart give a cynical chuckle at that, "and sodium. Unless there was a whole lot of salt packed around the perp's explosive, our little yellow friends are just a mystery."
The NTSB rep got a funny look on his face, a faraway look. "Sodium. An explosive that leaves behind sodium. Well, that could be…"
They looked at each other, both heading to the same conclusion, both reluctant to get there. Wilkes said it first: "Sodium metal. Cheap, easy to get, it would have to be: sodium metal."
"And easy," the NTSB rep drawled, "to sneak on the plane. The stuff is soft, but you could fashion it in to any simple things: eyeglass frames, belt buckles, buttons, simple things the screeners would never be lookin' at."
"Wouldn't take much," Wilkes offered, an old college chemistry-class prank coming to mind. "An couple of ounces, that would be enough to blow out the side of a plane, enough for what we're seeing here."
"With the easiest trigger in the world," the NTSB man added, putting words to the picture forming in Wilkes mind. A cup of water would be enough, just drop the sodium metal in to it and the chemical reaction would quickly release hydrogen gas, with enough heat generated as a byproduct of the reaction to ignite the gas. In just a second or two, you'd have an explosion strong enough to knock the side out of a plane.
"Sounds like a problem for you FAA boys," his counterpart teased. "What ya gonna do, ban passengers from carrying more than a few grams of anything made of metal? "
"No," Wilkes shot back, "we can't ban everything that could be made of sodium metal. Or all the other water-reactives," he mused aloud, thinking of all the carbides, anhydrides, and alkali metals that would cover. "Too many ways to hide them, too many types to test for them all. No, it isn't the metals we'll have to ban."
"Naw, you don't mean," the NTSB man stared in disbelief, his eyes growing wide. "You couldn't, I mean, it's the only other way but it's ridiculous."
"No, it's not so ridiculous, it's really the only way. We're going to have to ban water, and anything containing a significant amount of water, from all passenger flights. It's the only way, otherwise we could have planes dropping out of the sky every time someone is served a beverage."
Ron gets signed copies of my books, a $50 Amazon gift certificate contributed by a reader, and -- if I can find one -- an interview with a real-live movie director. (Does anyone know one?) We hope that one of his prizes isn't a visit by the FBI.
EDITED TO ADD (6/27): There's an article on Slate about the contest.
Posted on June 15, 2007 at 6:43 AM
• 58 Comments
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Banning water isn't going to help. Them terrorrerrorrerrorrists are durn made out of the stuff.
If water is banned, what about blood? Is there enough moisture/water in blood to set off the explosion too?
Otherwise, just drink a liter of water before getting onto the flight, and bring it back up when needed.
Thanks a lot. We'll all be sure to thank you every time we have to drain a Big Gulp before that long flight.
Oh, but wait, won't fluid be able to process out during the flight? Well, there's gotta be a solution for that too. I'm thinkin' modified chastity belts....
All passengers must travel in tightly-fitting plastic bags to separate chemicals from their dangerous bodily fluids.
If the TSA would instead invent and develop teleportation to the point where it has a near monopoly there wouldn't be any aircraft to attack.
Anyway wouldn't a better prize be an interview with a director's daughter (Sofia Coppola)?
>>Otherwise, just drink a liter of water before getting onto the flight, and bring it back up when needed.
Bring it back up? What bring it back up? A quick visit to the restroom with a paper cup will produce a fair amount of slightly yellow water.
We're going to have to ban urine.
@steve: Blood will do, but it might draw some unwelcome attention when you extract the amount needed.
BTW, terrorists should be careful when touching there special eyeglass frames. And they should avoid sweating at all costs ;-)
"I can't divulge the exact formula -- because you'll all hack the system next year"
Security through obscurity?
Not plausible. I've seen a half-pound of reagent-quality sodium dropped in a river. The sodium burned violently; the chunk shattered; the expanding gas launched broken bits out of the river, which landed back in the water and kept on burning. Nothing, however, with enough force to make me believe it would cause a full-on explosion.
Further, sodium oxidizes in air; sodium metal fashioned into any innocuous item and exposed to air (as any innocuous metal item I can think of would be) would have reacted away a great deal of its mass in the air between packing and getting on a plane. There's a reason sodium is normally stored in kerosene or some other liquid it won't react with. Dropping oxidized sodium into water is a far less interesting reaction.
You might want to check the comments on the semifinalist page were this was betten to death.
But then again we have been show over and over again that you don't need a fesable plot to get a ban on liquids or set off all sorts of hysteria.
Many of the guys who did the "liquids explosives" plots didn't even have pastports!
It doesn't have to be plausible; it just needs to sound vaguely plausible. We've still got the situation a year on where mothers are being threatened with arrest for bringing a sippy cup for their toddlers onto a plane because of a far less plausible plan.
Congrats Ron! Hat Tips to RSaunders and Anonymous Brit.
As it happens, aluminum is reactive enough to evolve hydrogen gas when placed in water. It doesn't do it normally, because it forms a skin of aluminum oxide, which isn't reactive.
This can be prevented by alloying the aluminum with gallium. Researchers are looking into using this to generate hydrogen gas to power automobiles.
So, although sodium is somewhat hard to transport innocuously (since it's pretty soft you couldn't really make it into anything, although I guess you could hide it inside other metal objects), the gallium/aluminum alloy would work just fine. Make some quarters out of the metal, doesn't have to work in a soda machine, just look good enough to pass through the screener thing in a little basket.
Hawley was a panelist? Do tell...
"Hawley was a panelist? Do tell..."
He was going to be. Sasdly, though, he didn't get me his vote in time.
(I updated the blog post.)
Congratulations Ron! Well done.
It's pretty clear that people will have to be banned. Err, wait...
May I suggest Phil Alden Robinson, the director of Sum of All Fears? Or David R. Ellis from Snakes on a Plane (hey, if there's anything you can't take on board ...) I don't know either of them though, sorry.
I thought about this the first time it was presented:
1. Encase small sodium objects in layer of water soluble substance, like sugar. A thin layer of rock-candy would dissolve in about an hour, yet look like just a shiny varnich on the object.
2. Go to restroom, throw in toilet
I'm surprised that someone didn't just re-package Robert A. Heinlein's Solution Unsatisfactory http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... , a short story written in 1940. The reaction to the plot there had a nastier effect to air travel than merely banning water on airplanes.
Now you're taking the p**s
I know this doesn't have to be plausible, but this is just silly. Sodium is way too soft to make into anything; it would be like making things out of wax. It oxidizes in the air very quickly and that slows its reaction eventually. And finally, it burns and pops in water, it doesn't explode with enough force to damage a plane.
You want reactive with water, go with rubidium or cesium. However, they're so reactive they need to be kept in an argon atmosphere; they'll start to react on contact with air.
Entomology's misspelled, making it closer than acceptable to etymology, the study of word origins rather than bugs -- cute if you do it in purpose, clumsy as an accident.
And anything made of sodium pure enough to be dangerously combustible would start sizzling at first contact with normal moist skin -- requiring a REAL tough terrorist to wear that watch onto the plane.
Actually it would be more effective to just generate panic by simulating a plot -- even an impossible one -- and leaking the details as well as some video or photo evidence to the press. I will like the idea of a terrorist plot that involves some clothes getting dipped into a substance which, when combined with another substance (in which other clothes have been dipped) cause either a release of toxic gas or an explosion.
If this can be made believeable enough -- and there's a good deal of evidence that the only thing required to achieve this is to have so-called "experts" (I'm not an expert, but I play one on TV-type) explain the whole thing with language that's highly scientific and therefore confusing -- one might succeed in causing the TSA to demand that people fly naked, or covered in only TSA-approved plastic tarps.
It's not impossible. Look at all the brouhaha following the so-called "liquid explosives" plot. Can you think of an airline that would let a passenger stay in a locked airplane toilet for the several hours it would take him to actually put his "bomb" together?
> A quick visit to the restroom with a
> paper cup will produce a fair amount
> of slightly yellow water.
What restroom? Since water was banned, the restrooms have been removed to make room for more seats. After all, we couldn't allow people to flush or use a sink!
But I have to say that I'm not a fan of this scenario. The thing is, anything more than a trivial amount of any liquid (including water) is already banned. What does this really change?
Ron-- Congratulations and good writing.
"Oh, but wait, won't fluid be able to process out during the flight? Well, there's gotta be a solution for that too. I'm thinkin' modified chastity belts...."
Frank Herbert's "Dune" has already provided a solution so it will be stillsuits all round! ;-)
Got it! From now on, you have to arrive at the airport 8 hours before flight time. Everyone is forced to take meds which will evacuate their system. One hour before flight time, everyone strips, put on diapers and issued jump suits. No personal items are allowed to be carried on. Half an hour before flight time, everyone gets a shot to knock them out. Everyone is strapped into "stand up seating" (sorry, no first class). The airline can pack more people into a flight. No need for flight attendents or service. Since you won't be allowed luggage, you would only need to worry about where you will wake up.
We could call it Rendition Air. A subsidiary of CIA, Inc.
Good story, Ron!
Stella> Entomology's misspelled, making it closer than acceptable to etymology
Indeed. And while we're noting that, let's consider that, etymologically, "insect" and "entom-" in fact mean the same thing, in Latin and Greek, respectively. It is thus easy to remember how to spell "entomology", as long as one is vaguely cognizant of all the words that use -tom- in the sense of "cut" or "divide".
Also "Wilkes's" is misspelled.
The spelling police have arrived. Perhaps they could be put to use comparing no-fly list names to passenger list names. Let such a task not be entrusted to mere information technology.
There is one small problem with sodium metal. it can be used in the on board toilet facilities in much the same way. drop a cubic gram of sodium metal into the toilet and watch out.
one problem with sodium, it must be kept in an oxidation free containment (such as mineral oil or kerosene) as it tends to oxidize rapidly in the presence of oxygen. Also, sodium cannot be made into "wearbale" onjects without precautions. it will tend to react with mosture in the human skin (causing caustic burns and possibly other injuries).
so, in as much as this scenario seems plausible, it is not. sodium is too unstable to handle by itself and it would be painfully obvious to anyone looking that it would be suspicious just carrying it.
a good demonstration of sodium reactions can be done in a local high school science lab.
Ugh. I *do not* want the airline staff to be responsible for inserting the foley that will whisk away any liquids I might produce during the flight. Guess I'll be walking!
Sodium (or better, potassium) could encased in something completely harmless for the trip, though. A paperweight containing a sodium "scene" with a light oil solution and probably bits of calcium cabonite to make a snowstorm would work quite well.
In case of desire for emergency, break glass.
"In case of desire for emergency, break glass."
Oh well played sir!
My contribution, albeit late or early. Ban pets.
"Please take good care of him" said the little old lady, handing off
her caged midsized dog to the baggage handler. "He looks pretty calm"
he replied. "Yes, the vet gave me a tranquilizer. Well" she said,
laughing at the ambiguity, "he gave me a pill for him. Though my own
physician also gave me something for the flight, too. I get nervous, you
know. I'll be so happy when we land in Florida, it was so hard to
find a place that will accept dogs, especially of his size, but we've
been together for ten years now, and he's my main companion, after my
husband died last year."
"Sorry to hear that, m'am. I'm sure he and you will be fine."
"Oh yes, I think we will. He had a bit of surgery recently, but he's
been picking up after that. I think we both have a few years left on
us" she said, smiling, and waving at Barney.
She boarded the plane, although she walked through the scanner with
her cane, but the TSA folks were friendly enough, it was an obvious
enough mistake. The flight attendants let her board early because of
As the plane rose, the automatic pressurization kicked in, keeping the
cabin (and cargo) areas at a simulated 8000 feet. The old woman was
snoring half an hour after takeoff. The lower pressure was a mild
stress on her system, but she was robust, and the sedative sufficient
for her to snooze. Detroit to Florida was not so long but the "show
up three hours in advance" caveat lengthened the journey, and she was tired.
The dog, also snoring, also did not notice the change in
pressurization, though he did release an involuntary fart. In his
belly, however, a pressure sensor noted the change and began a
countdown. Two kilos of brisant explosive sewn into his abdominal
cavity detonated ten minutes later. The plane's skin and several
hydraulic lines ruptured, and it fell out of the sky.
It took a while for the investigators to understand how a dog could be
so completely decapitated, in fact it was only with Israeli help that
the involuntary suicide pooch was identified. Thereafter only cargo
planes could take companion animals over 15 lbs, and they had to be
Folks with large scars (as seen on the backscatter machines)
had to absorb the (additional) equivalent of a few chest x-rays before
being allowed to board. Visbily pregnant women were required to have
a doctor's note, and those fetuses unlucky enough to be in an
unknowing pregnant woman who also had scars, just had to suck it up.
National Security outweighed a few birth defects, most agreed, and a
compensation fund was set up.
Narcs nab drug-smuggling puppies
DEA: Dogs' bellies were cut open, heroin was placed inside
By Eliott C. McLaughlin
Friday, February 3, 2006; Posted: 10:28 a.m. EST (15:28 GMT)
The DEA says these unlikely drug smugglers were rescued during a 2005
raid at a Colombian farm.
(CNN) -- A two-year investigation into a Colombian heroin ring netted
more than 65 pounds of drugs, resulted in the arrests of more than 20
people and saved the lives of some drug-smuggling Labrador retrievers,
the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said Wednesday.
Ten wayward pups were found during a raid on a Colombian farm in 2005,
and six of them were carrying more than 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) of
liquid heroin in their stomachs, said DEA spokesman Rusty Payne.
"drop a cubic gram of sodium metal into the toilet and watch out"
A cubic gram? What direction is that?
Rich Bryant suggests that the sodium metal could be incorporated into a "snow globe." That wouldn't get you there. Snow globes are already banned from carry-on luggage. (They contain liquid.)
Chest Xrays by the dozen even on a fetus will almost zero detectable birth defect rate. By almost zero You will need a sample size well in the millions to tell the difference from normal birth defects. The effects on those older than a weeks from concenption really don't need to worry.
Thats why we don't keep track of how many xrays you have had (most of the time).
Personlay I would be happer with normal xrays than backscatter xrays. However I have my doubts that either would significantly incress safty. They detect current explosives and other devices. No ones desinged to avoid xray dection. (not as hard as you may think).
Cotton T-shirts -> nitrocotton/nitrocellulose [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitrocellulose]. Show the HNO3+the rest mix with the shirt diped in. With drying after. Then the caboom when detenated.
Whats wrong. Well its hard to get everthing right and Detination would be difficult. Nirtocotton is a slow explosive (relative) used to stabalize nitroglyrine (aka dynamite) and smokeless powders and is not used on its own usally. You won't get much of a bang from a tshirt. The cotton losses its strenght, and you will stink. Every dog within a mile of the airport will know that you are "hinky" without traning.
The chance of really pulling it off is zero, at best 1:1000001. But you need to ban clothing.
Re entomology/etymology: "There's a word bug in your bug word."
@Greg: If I've learned anything from Neon Genesis Evangelion, it's that if something has a 0.0000001 chance of working, it will invariably work.
Well thats why is was 1 chance in a million and *one*. Because 1 in million events happen 4 times out of five.
In case others don't know. This is a Diskworld thing.
Thanks to you folks for your generous praise and even more for the nitpicking. I really had fun coming up with this, and as a closet science nerd I had an especially fun time coming up with the butterfly clue - crossing disciplines is the true measure of a science nerd.
@Revtkatt: Air Canada has just banned pets on commercial flights. They say it's to free up more space for cargo, but we know the real reason ;-)
Nice, now you have to shut off the water in the bathrooms. Remove all that blue water in the toilet too. Boy I can't wait to fly again with people lined up to use a dry toilet. Think camping trip in the woods where they just dig a big hole. The smell ain't that bad in the wood but in a closed system like a plane...
And humans are made up of...... what?
We need to ban all those liquid-filled humans from flying. It's the only way.
Diapers? Hours of evacuation beforehand? Don't be silly. The obvious answer is to sedate everyone for the duration of the trip. Yes, mandatory strip/body cavity searching, and let's hope the x-rays catch anything ingested/sewn into a body cavity. Then into a TSA jumpsuit, line up for the needle, take your seat and ZZZZzzzzz ....
Better still, you fall asleep on a gurney in the waiting area and then handlers/robots stack you in like cordwood.
A solution is to get rid of the target. What are 183 people doing on the same plane anyway.
We need a massive fleet of small 6-8 seat planes that can be flown by a single pilot/security guard/ticket taker/baggage loader/flight attendant who is backed up by redundant radio connections that allow the plane to be flown remotely in high traffic situations and in an emergency.
Labor costs would be comparable to our existing system since the pilot does almost all of the customer service duties. Plane costs would be similar due to the efficiencies of producing tens of thousands of each model instead of hundreds. Airports would be less crowded because thousands of them could be used instead of a hundred or so.
Travelers would be spared hours of travel time due to less security, closer airports, and the elimination of most connections. Schedules would not even exist for popular routes- just show up at the airport, buy a ticket, and off you go.
Terrorists would be much less interested in blowing up a small plane with just a few passengers that will do little damage on the ground. The passengers will certainly notice and react to suspicious activity by one of their number.
When I was in high school I stole several grams of sodium from my high school chem lab and spent the better part of a day figuring out ways to make it blow up. Working with pieces about the size of half a golf ball I learned:
1) If you just put it in water it will spit and pop and probably ignite but that's about it.
2) You need to surround it with water - flushing it down the toilet does the trick nicely, and puts sodium hydroxide all over the ceiling. (The toilet will survive.) If you don't have a toilet handy you need to figure out a way to submerge the sodium, which otherwise floats. I suppose if you were intending to kill yourself in a plane crash you could just jam it to a container using your hand.
3) None of these explosions are substantial enough to blow a hole in anything, though they would certainly create a good deal of chaos in a confined space like an airline cabin. These were well shy of an M-80. (Do they make M-80s any more?)
4) The stuff really does oxidize fast and you would have to make some kind of special (and likely detectable) means for getting it on board the plane in explodable form. Reshaping it wouldn't work at all. The stuff is barely harder to work than play-doh and about as stiff.
I know! Since people are such a large source of water, we'll just have to ban them from flights too.
thx for the suggestions ... we'll keep them in mind.
How about urine? Would it react with that? Might need to make everyone take a potty break before boarding.
Just require an escort for potty breaks - that goes with you into the tiny room.
This story is fine, but would be improved 300% by a small change in my opinion:
"No, it's not so ridiculous, it's really the only way. We're going to have to ban passengers."
Schneier.com is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of BT.