Recognizing "Hinky" vs. Citizen Informants

On the subject of people noticing and reporting suspicious actions, I have been espousing two views that some find contradictory. One, we are all safer if police, guards, security screeners, and the like ignore traditional profiling and instead pay attention to people acting hinky: not right. And two, if we encourage people to contact the authorities every time they see something suspicious, we’re going to waste our time chasing false alarms: foreigners whose customs are different, people who are disliked by someone, and so on.

The key difference is expertise. People trained to be alert for something hinky will do much better than any profiler, but people who have no idea what to look for will do no better than random.

Here’s a story that illustrates this: Last week, a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology was arrested with two illegal assault weapons and 320 rounds of ammunition in his dorm room and car:

The discovery of the weapons was made only by chance. A conference center worker who served in the military was walking past Hackenburg’s dorm room. The door was shut, but the worker heard the all-too-familiar racking sound of a weapon, said the center’s director Bill Gunther.

Notice how expertise made the difference. The “conference center worker” had the right knowledge to recognize the sound and to understand that it was out of place in the environment he heard it. He wasn’t primed to be on the lookout for suspicious people and things; his trained awareness kicked in automatically. He recognized hinky, and he acted on that recognition. A random person simply can’t do that; he won’t recognize hinky when he sees it. He’ll report imams for praying, a neighbor he’s pissed at, or people at random. He’ll see an English professor recycling paper, and report a Middle-Eastern-looking man leaving a box on sidewalk.

We all have some experience with this. Each of us has some expertise in some topic, and will occasionally recognize that something is wrong even though we can’t fully explain what or why. An architect might feel that way about a particular structure; an artist might feel that way about a particular painting. I might look at a cryptographic system and intuitively know something is wrong with it, well before I figure out exactly what. Those are all examples of a subliminal recognition that something is hinky—in our particular domain of expertise.

Good security people have the knowledge, skill, and experience to do that in security situations. It’s the difference between a good security person and an amateur.

This is why behavioral assessment profiling is a good idea, while the Terrorist Information and Prevention System (TIPS) isn’t. This is why training truckers to look out for suspicious things on the highways is a good idea, while a vague list of things to watch out for isn’t. It’s why this Israeli driver recognized a passenger as a suicide bomber, while an American driver probably wouldn’t.

This kind of thing isn’t easy to train. (Much has been written about it, though; Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink discusses this in detail.) You can’t learn it from watching a seven-minute video. But the more we focus on this—the more we stop wasting our airport security resources on screeners who confiscate rocks and snow globes, and instead focus them on well-trained screeners walking through the airport looking for hinky—the more secure we will be.

EDITED TO ADD (4/26): Jim Harper makes an important clarification.

Posted on April 26, 2007 at 5:43 AM72 Comments


Wyle_E April 26, 2007 6:05 AM

“But the more we focus on this — the more we stop wasting our airport security resources on screeners who confiscate rocks and snow globes, and instead focus them on well-trained screeners walking through the airport looking for hinky — the more secure we will be.”

I agree, but it will never fly. Those screeners would have to be inconspicuous to be effective, so we would not be seen to be Doing Something. On my better days, I believe that such a system is, in fact, in place, running beneath all the security theater. That would explain the absurdities that are so widely reported; those are camouflage. Of course, on my worst days I believe that our government is as incompetent as it appears to be at everything other than lining the pockets of the people on the inside and chipping away at the Constitution.

Frank Ch. Eigler April 26, 2007 6:50 AM

One problem is that people don’t have a very good sense of the quality of their own expertise. Anyone might fancy himself a good judge of character, or half a dozen non-technical subjects that can produce intelligence. So, what is the police to advise? “People, stick to topics you received a degree in with your security hunches!” Or just appeal to common sense, and accept the need to filter.

And regarding those “praying imams”, you may toss that one into the “hinky” category if you read a bit more about the story. They did much more than innocent praying.

M April 26, 2007 6:56 AM

Couldn’t it be argued that you have effectively defined things as “hinky” if they are successful and “not hinky” if they are not?

For example, a conference worker hearing a sound is hinky when it leads to successful arrests, but would be non-hinky if nothing had been found – instead it would be a guy misrecognising a sound and the police over-reacting.

Bruce Schneier April 26, 2007 6:58 AM

“Couldn’t it be argued that you have effectively defined things as ‘hinky’ if they are successful and ‘not hinky’ if they are not?”

That’s wrong, though. The difference is subtle, I agree, but it’s real. Gladwell’s book spends a lot of time on it, and the link attached to “behavioral assessment profiling” is useful, too.

Bruce Schneier April 26, 2007 7:01 AM

“And regarding those ‘praying imams’, you may toss that one into the ‘hinky’ category if you read a bit more about the story. They did much more than innocent praying.”

This happened in Minneapolis — where I live — and got considerable local coverage. Near as I was able to tell, what they did was primarily suspicious because they were Muslim.

RC April 26, 2007 7:03 AM

Hearing and recognizing a weapon being racked in a dorm room is specific first-hand information directly pertaining to a criminal offense (illegal possession of weapons). Categorizing this as ‘hinky’ only invites all kinds of unjustifiable complaints and accusations in numerous other cases where there is no first-hand information directly pertaining to a criminal offense.

wiredog April 26, 2007 7:05 AM

Still contradictory. An ROTC cadet sees someone who looks middle-eastern, is carrying a heavy box, and places that box in a public location. The ROTC cadet, being a military officer in training, has more training to recognize threats, such as IEDs, than the average member of the public. The cadet has seen something that, by his training, looks ‘hinky’. He calls the police, who send the bomb squad.

Is this an over-reaction on the part of the cadet?

greg April 26, 2007 7:17 AM


Whats hinky about a heavy box or paper when well thats were you are ment to take heavy boxes of paper? And which part of incomplete training don’t you understand.


I belive there are rules about weapons at these buildings. Therfore the presence of the weapon is hinky, providing you are confidant your “heard” correctly. Which in this case he could be confidant.

The real problem is that the folks shouting wolf do not bear the full cost of false alarms.

Greg April 26, 2007 7:19 AM

Sorry should include this, From the article:

“Both weapons were illegally modified, authorities said, noting it is illegal to possess assault rifles and keep them on campus.”

Moshe Yudkowsky April 26, 2007 7:56 AM

From the news reports, it’s pretty clear that the imans were either being deliberately provocative or testing the system, or perhaps both. It’s a bad example, as is the example of the professor who claims — sans proof — that he was targeted for racial reasons instead of because of his conspicuous and odd behavior.

And you’ll note that random Israeli citizens can tell when there’s suspicious activity, but you don’t mention that for every true report by an Israeli citizen there are dozens of reports which are not true (I’ve seen the Israeli police respond to these). Does that mean that the police should suppress reports? It does not. In Israel, kindergarten students are trained to not touch abandoned toys — since the 1950’s. Do you think they’re accurate reporters?

Surgeons used to have a metric: one quarter of all appendixes removed were supposed to be healthy, otherwise they were taking too many chances. I don’t know what the rate is today.

So I’m afraid that this argument still fails to hold water. You’re arguing for perfection in a world where a false-alarm rate is inevitable, and you ignore the reality of false-alarm rates even in places like Israel. Israel has been at war with terrorists even before its inception; now the US is at war with terrorists, and there is no magic solution to this problem.

Dave Aronson April 26, 2007 8:04 AM

@Wyle_E: Perhaps each set could do something public, just as their replacement comes on shift (which would have to be randomized to avoid revealing the schedule). Pick a person at random, who at least looks like they’re not in a hurry (though again don’t let that criterion be known), and ask them to come along for some questions. For all the public knows, they’re being given cavity searches; no, these “victims” are really being treated to lunch to make up for the hassle. 🙂

Matthew Skala April 26, 2007 8:11 AM

The false-positive rate for terrorist incident reports in the continental United States is more than your surgeons’ 25% false-positive rate for appendectomies. It’s something closer to 99.99%. You’re right that some false positives are a necessary failing of any detection system, but I suggest that at the moment the USA is accepting far, far more than an appropriate rate of false positives.

arl April 26, 2007 8:17 AM

The example seems to contradict the point. A random individual, without training, notices something that by chance is “out of place.” In his local experience, something was outside the norm.

I wonder if the more useful system might be for people to be encouraged to report things that seem strange to them and invest in a system that works well in filtering the noise.

Woo April 26, 2007 8:18 AM

Regarding the imams.. one problem (mostly) among the US citizens seems to be the knowledge of the world outside the States (yes, there IS some more world out there) and their cultures. No doubt it might look strange when a persian/eastern/arabic looking person unrolls his carpet and does his prayer prostrations – but a little knowledge about their culture would tell the watcher that this is simply how they pray every day, and not some obscure ritual which might indicate impending danger. A little more education and interest in the culture of other continents, religions, races would prevent many false alarms.
One might partially blame the government, media and schools, for a lack of information besides fearmongering.. but as long as fear plays into the hands of the gov’t, they are unlikely to change anything.

w.e. coyote April 26, 2007 8:39 AM


I’m always impressed by how well you can cite examples to back up your arguments. Do you use a program to organize your citations, and if so which one(s)?

bzelbob April 26, 2007 8:49 AM

I think that training is important, just as Bruce is saying. Part of this type of training is in logic and reasoning; skills which many people here in the USA seem to lack.

One good way for people to improve their logic and reasoning would be for citizens to start asking questions of their government and see what makes sense versus what doesn’t and start calling people out on lies. Also when it becomes apparent that the media doesn’t give you the info you need to actually make informed decisions, we could boycott the media until they do.

There are many things that we have been told that are “hinky”. Start asking questions and thinking for yourselves. Know that those in positions of power and authority have a vested interest in shaping the way you think. Realize that in the twentieth century, more people have been killed by their own governments than by wars.

Start thinking (and acting) before it’s too late.

Carlo Graziani April 26, 2007 9:14 AM

I can see Admiral Poindexter’s next project now: Hinkypedia.

Crowds have wisdom beyond mere “expertise”, after all…

Roxanne April 26, 2007 9:26 AM

The problem here is that the arrest at Rochester appears to be a false alarm.

The student appears to be guilty only of having firearms he legally owns in his dorm room. If he’d kept them down at the gun club – of which he is a member – there would have been no issue.

I expect the Second Amendment activists to be all over this, and paying his court costs.

The problem here is intent. The student was a member of a gun club, and was cleaning his unloaded gun. The ammunition was down in his car, for use at the aforementioned gun club. They haven’t arrested a guy who was about to go postal and shoot up RIT; they’ve arrested a probable conservative who would have gone hunting with Dick Cheney next fall. They have to find a way to sort out the gun owners who INTEND to commit mayhem from the gun owners who intend to go hunting or join the Marines.

Sam April 26, 2007 9:30 AM

I apologize if this has already been covered, but a brief aside on the derivation of the word “hinky”…

(From “The Fugitive”)

Marshal Biggs: It’s hinky, Sam. I mean, this guy is a college graduate. He became a doctor. I mean, he ain’t gonna go through here with all this security. Hinky.
Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard: Biggs, what does that mean, hinky?
Marshal Biggs: I don’t know. Strange. Weird
Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard: Well, why don’t you say strange or weird? I mean hinky, that has no meaning.
Marshal Biggs: Well, we say hinky.
Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard: I don’t want you guys using words with no meaning.
Marshal Biggs: [Sotto voce] How about ‘bullshit?’ How about ‘bullshit,’ Sam?

Rich April 26, 2007 9:37 AM

@Moshe Yudkowsky

“From the news reports, it’s pretty clear that the imans were either being deliberately provocative or testing the system, or perhaps both.”

And what’s wrong with that? One could say that anyone who has protested is being deliberately provocative. One should not give up something they have the right too, or they’ll lose that right.

I’m sure we all have some behavior that someone else would prefer we change.

Arch Stanton April 26, 2007 9:38 AM

There are two kinds of weapons being racked in a dorm room. Those actually present and those on the telly!

Mike Sherwood April 26, 2007 9:45 AM


It wasn’t a false alarm. It’s illegal to have guns on campus, the guy had guns on campus, so he broke the law. There is no intent that matters in this case from a legal standpoint. He violated the statute and will be prosecuted for that.

If he lived off campus, there wouldn’t have been a problem. It may have been lawful for him to purchase and possess the firearms and ammunition, but not on campus. It’s possible that someone will want to help him fight this to make the point that students are forced to give up some of their rights to live on campus, but I doubt it.

These kinds of laws are made to be selectively enforced. If a police officer thinks someone is up to no good, but can’t prove it, they can prove the possession case. This sounds like a case that could have ended up with a stern “don’t do that again”, but is being represented as something more sinister because that’s what’s on people’s minds right now.

FP April 26, 2007 10:17 AM

This also won’t fly because someone’s ability to recognize hinkiness is not easily measurable. How do you hire and fire good vs. bad security screeners if you can’t tell the difference? Managers for such positions insist that their subordinates are easily replaceable trained monkeys.

Another point to make about the general public is the fallacy of mob intelligence. While a large crowd usually contains some expert on almost every subject, the average expertise tends to be low. That’s why Wikipedia, while excellent in many areas, is not always as reliable as a classic Encyclopedia. Imagine a book on cryptography where everybody could contribute their unbreakable homegrown algorithms, or claim hinkiness about others’.

prakash April 26, 2007 10:34 AM

@Moshe Yudkowsky: “It’s a bad example, as is the example of the professor who claims — sans proof — that he was targeted for racial reasons instead of because of his conspicuous and odd behavior.”

I fail to understand how carrying a cardboard box of papers to a recycling bin in a campus environment constitutes “conspicuous and odd behavior”.

You state that the professor had no proof for his claim of being targeted for racial reasons. But the ROTC person who reported him in had no proof either, except his suspicion based on the appearance of the professor.

Where is the “presumption of innocence until proven guilty”?

C Gomez April 26, 2007 10:53 AM

The only downside, although I have no solution for it, is how would authorities know the particular “conference center worker” really had the required expertise to identify weapons by sound?

Anything short of ignoring civilian tips is empowering the untrained to call in a bad tip. The problem is that each situation is different. This person had the expertise.

Imagine being the dispatcher deciding what to do:

Dispatcher: “How do you know it was a weapon you heard?”

“I served in the military… ”

Dispatcher: “uhhh…”

After all, after properly hanging a United States flag vertically with the blue field in the upper left corner, as is custom and code, I was promptly notified by “ex-” that the flag was upside down and it was wrong.

I knew I was right, from experience, but these people presented their resume, and they were wrong.

It’s no different. How do the authorities know which is right in corner case/close situations. Maybe the fact the ROTC caller was ROTC contributed to his “credibility” in the recycling incident.

FooDooHackedYou April 26, 2007 11:06 AM

So, what if the same guy thought he heard a suspicious gun sound but it was really coming from a video game or a computer sound effect? What then? It just seems that the line is not clear but hopefully the security folks are smart enough to sort it out…

Mike Sherwood April 26, 2007 11:08 AM

FP makes a good point about the replaceable cog management philosophy. There is a conflict between wanting to hire and retain the best people and the goal of reducing the budget by 10-20% every year.

I’ve noticed a tendency of most managers to interview a certain number of people for a position and pick the best (or least bad) from that group. I’ve only ever found one who will interview as many people as it takes to find the type of person they need. It takes quite a bit of experience on the part of the manager to be able to tell the difference between someone who sounds good and someone who can do more than talk the talk.

It’s hard for someone to get into this type of position of being the expert-leader. It requires that the person with the best knowledge of the subject also be the one who is best at playing the games that will get them into a management position. Conversely, a good manager would never let this happen as it would take the most productive person out of the role of being a strong individual contributor.

The end result of all of this is that we have training and certifications, but those rate something other than a person’s ability to do a particular job well.

JD April 26, 2007 11:14 AM

@ Roxanne

“The student appears to be guilty only of having firearms he legally owns in his dorm room.”

The article mentions that he claims to have a permit to purchase firearms in New Jersey. Not sure how that translates to “legally” owning them in a different state.

“If he’d kept them down at the gun club – of which he is a member – there would have been no issue.”

Right. He didn’t. He’s a dumb-ass.

What’s the moral of the story? Don’t be a dumb-ass!

David Dyer-Bennet April 26, 2007 11:15 AM

Betcha that student did not, in fact, have an assault rifle. That’s a rather specific technical term, and it’s quite hard for individuals to legally own one.

Was it in fact illegal, or merely against campus rules, for him to clean his rifle in his room? Anyway it’s a stupid rule. And okay, sure, he was maybe stupid to ignore it, too. The most obvious way to prevent that kerfuffle would be to change the campus rules / state laws, whichever it was, so that the perfectly reasonable thing he did wasn’t illegal.

Matt April 26, 2007 11:17 AM

An RIT all-campus email went out about the gun arrest, in which it was noted that possessing firearms on campus is not only against our school’s policies, but is also a violation of NY state laws. While it didn’t help that this happened right after the Virginia Tech shootings, I don’t think this situation would have ever ended with just a warning.

Mike April 26, 2007 11:25 AM

Ok, hinky this. When I read this article, I felt that something isn’t right anymore in what’s being preached. And I’m wondering if you are aware of it Bruce.

Specifically, are you just being more and more intent on providing an alternative for crazed and wildly ineffective security because you are afraid of being accused of being too soft?

More specifically: security has limits and design goals. When you pass a customs checkpoint, you can no longer go back because you’ve been stamped on your passport, and you are now officially out of the country. Hence, you setup a ‘secure zone’ in the airport from which a person can not leave without ‘dropping out’ of the secure zone one way or another (normally by plane)

Likewise, a bank has a safe lock that opens 15 minutes after the button has been pressed to reduce the escape time of would be burglars. Etc. etc.

Here’s the thing though: we can’t establish security against preventing violence. Where’s the line to be drawn? A good example is Minority Report. What if we could actually predict that someone was going to commit a crime before they even did. Pre-crime that is. Is it ethical anymore?

My point is: preventing violence originating in the civilian population can only be achieved by a total lock down of the fabric of society. With totalitarian control. And even then, only somewhat successfully. Hinky or no hinky, the upper bounds of the security proposed here is and will always be well below the tolerable amount, and so is by design unsuitable.

And for those who say “solutions! propose solutions!”, I say this:
man kind is much more capable of processing violence for what it is than it is thought of in NA. I think of both Brazil and the middle east, but pretty much any war torn area (like Sarajevo), where people learn to deal with death as being possible. This obsession with being afraid of dying to the point of wasting one’s life is ridiculous.
The other solution is prevention. Neither of which are instantaneous. But at least, they are actually viable.

I know they’re not going to solve the state of the world we are in right this instant, but giving the illusion that better security can is a lie.

Skate April 26, 2007 11:30 AM

“Notice how expertise made the difference. The “conference center worker” had the right knowledge to recognize the sound and to understood that it was out of place in the environment he heard it.”

I’m not impressed by this example. Most of us have heard the sound of an auto being racked on TV and in films. The sound the worker heard could have been a sound effect or a video game, but since he was right Bruce reports it as an example of what’s right. The ROTC student was wrong and Bruce reports it as a bad example. Bruce is using the end to justify the assumptions.

Iggy April 26, 2007 11:40 AM

As to the sound: My aunt once drove off an intruder (who was on the other side of her door) by standing by the door and snapping an attachment onto her vaccum cleaner. She had noticed previously that it sounded amazingly like a pump-action shotgun, and apparently the would-be intruder thought so as well.

Mike Sherwood April 26, 2007 11:53 AM


What you hear on TV doesn’t sound the same as in real life. This is where the elusive gut feel part comes in. There are sounds from metal sliding against and slamming into metal that are sharp and distinctive. The recorded noises don’t seem to have that sharpness. I’m sure that someone who knows more than I do about acoustics could do a better job at explaining the characteristics that are lost in the recording/playback process.

If someone says they heard something that sounded like a gun, the dispatcher or police can determine if this call is worth investigating. If nothing comes of it, there’s no story and no one cares. The police don’t strive for excellence and always doing the best thing possible. They take very little information in and determine an appropriate course of action.

Letting the bolt carrier fly into battery on an AR-15 has a distinctive and loud sound. That sound coupled by with something that sounds like the spring on a screen door slamming shut would be strongly indicative of an AR-15. There are plenty of intellectual arguments for and against claiming it’s a particular sound, but none of those matter.

The individual thought he heard something, he reported it, and it turned out he was right. I’ve heard that sound often enough and have known more than a couple of college students who have broken that particular law that I probably would not be inclined to report it. However, given that people are on edge, this individual thought it was better to report it just in case. I can’t fault his decision process, even if I disagree with it.

shanks April 26, 2007 12:00 PM

A bit off topic.

Can people explain the proper, non suspicious way of disposing a box of poetry papers?

As I understand, find a trash bin, dump it in. Or is it different in the USA?

Why would anyone want to dispose the ‘bomb’ in a trash bin? wouldn’t it be better, allegedly to use it for it’s destructive power on objects of value instead of a trash bin.

On the face of it, a man publicly dropped a heavy box of papers near a trash can and one person went ape.


Matt from CT April 26, 2007 12:15 PM

I fail to understand how carrying a
cardboard box of papers to a recycling
bin in a campus environment
constitutes “conspicuous and odd

You state that the professor had no
proof for his claim of being targeted for
racial reasons. But the ROTC person
who reported him in had no proof
either, except his suspicion based on
the appearance of the professor.

Where is the “presumption of innocence
until proven guilty”?


The professor has made it seem that everyone ELSE is guilty of racial discrimination against HIM. Where is the presumption of innocence that somebody may have earnestly believed the actions were hinky? Where in the other article was it stated he talked to the person who called it in? Why does the professor, without talking to them, simply fear walking by the ROTC office?

It’s a classic case of liberals not being able to recognize their own prejudices while they stand on a high point denouncing the prejudices of others.

For those who ask what’s hinky about taking a box out of a car and placing it next to a dumpster…

First is the minor stuff — that it’s probably theft of service since the University is paying to dispose of their garbage; not of any Tom, Dick, or Harry who drives on campus.

It’s going to get attention just for that — we’re not talking someone walking out of a building and placing the box in or by the dumpster. Most of us wouldn’t report that, but it’s likely a campus cop on routine patrol would stop and ask what’s going on.

As to why you place things by dumpsters, that’s pretty clear to people who’ve had awareness level training on bombs — any dumpster I can think of right now has been by a fire exit to a building. A box full of ball bearings will do far more harm then whatever larger shrapnel may be contributed for the dumpster if you placed it inside it. AND THIS TRAINING WELL PRE-DATES 9-11. Placing secondary devices near exits or areas people congregate after fire alarms is a known risk.

Matt from CT April 26, 2007 12:23 PM

(Cut off from last reply)

But the ROTC person who reported him
in had no proof either, except his
suspicion based on the appearance of
the professor.

Did he call in the professor for standing in front of the class?

Oh, wait…let’s see the facts (as reported by the professor…)
— Caller saw someone he didn’t recognize
— Caller saw a car with out-of-state plates
— Caller did not see a University parking sticker
— Caller saw them do something unusual. Most of use don’t drive around with boxes of garbage in our cars waiting to find a dumpster.

Am I going to discount the appearances issue? No. I’d hope you’d get more concerned over a twenty-something Arabic looking person or a Skinhead doing something out of the ordinary then, oh, a 5 year old boy or a 40 year old soccer mom. But appearance is only part of the larger puzzle of what is hinky.

If 40 year old soccer moms start exploding mini-vans around town, we can change that part of the puzzle.

Officer Furhman April 26, 2007 12:24 PM

I think a much better policy would be not to spy on and rat out your fellow citizens. Let the police do their own job. What is this, Soviet Russia? Since when is being an informant considered acceptable?

derf April 26, 2007 12:33 PM

Do you mean “hinky” like learning to fly a plane but being unconcerned about landing said plane? I believe that particular information tidbit was given to the government in advance, and duly ignored.

Do you mean “hinky” like setting up a gigantic government agency to oversee airline security but still managing to fail 90% of test cases where simulated handguns and bombs were smuggled through the system, even when the agents were warned in advance about when they would be tested? So far, the government hasn’t done much about that either.

Realist April 26, 2007 12:38 PM

For a great example of how to spot “hinky”, go watch the movie “Men In Black”. In particular watch the scenes where all the potential recruits are being tested on the weapons range… Will Smith’s character definitely understads “hinky”.

…the line at the end of the scene, where the recruits are about to have their memories erased, says it all as well paraphrased) “Gentlemen, you’re everything we’ve come to expect from years of government training.”

Sam Lowry April 26, 2007 1:05 PM

The assumptions is that most people are educated and willing to learn. Unfortunately, in America, we are training our children and our workers to act like monkeys. Take this test, do these steps, write this TPS report.

Our media propagate the belief that simple steps can solve their weight-loss problem, make a ton of money from the internet, or being happy by watching Oprah. We have radio / TV personality propagating prejudice and false information either for the benefit of generating revenue or spreading government propaganda. We have religious wackos that tells people to have faith, but so they don’t have to learn to reason. Most of our security measures or regulation are results of a series of knee jerk reactions to certain events, the fence across our border with Mexico, TSA, GLBA, SOX, FFIEC, etc. It’s no wonder we are becoming a country of reactive, knee-jerking dumbasses.

America is still a great country, but at the current rate of our moral and educational decline. It is pushing us toward a seriously slippery slope toward the dark ages.

JohnS April 26, 2007 1:11 PM

“The imams engaged in a variety of suspicious behaviors while boarding a US Airways flight, according to the airport police report. Some prayed loudly in the gate area, spoke angrily about the United States and Saddam, switched seats and sat in the 9/11 hijackers’ configuration, and unnecessarily requested seatbelt extenders that could be used as weapons, according to witness reports and US Airways spokeswoman Andrea Rader.

After extensive consultations, the pilot asked authorities to remove the imams for questioning, which they did, releasing them later that day.”

-That- is hinky. It should have been reported, and it was.

Ray April 26, 2007 2:02 PM

The notion is hinky is deeply flawed by confirmation bias.

Bruce writes, “I might look at a cryptographic system and intuitively know something is wrong with it, well before I figure out exactly what. Those are all examples of a subliminal recognition that something is hinky — in our particular domain of expertise.”

Well, maybe. If you start with the “intuitive knowledge” that something is wrong with the cryptographic system, when you find it, you confirm your intuition. What about those cases where you didn’t have any intuition, so you didn’t look as hard? If you think something is wrong, you are going to look harder.

Not Hinky, Just Nervous April 26, 2007 2:09 PM

Bruce, I’m glad you’re writing more about this area, because it’s one of the only recommendations you’ve made which I haven’t yet gotten religion on.

I think it’s probably because I am against profiling (as you are), AND I can’t quite envision TSA employees being trained well enough to differentiate between a truly “hinky” person and a suspicious match for their own prejudices.

Also, I would want to be convinced that training can distinguish between hinky and Woody-Allen-anxious-around-authorities, since I fall in that category. I know people who sweat profusely when anxious, it’s not that uncommon. (Some people actually get surgery for this condition.) One person I know had to have her fingerprints re-scanned by HSA three times for a visa application because of this condition, and she’s no terrorist. This actually caused a two-month delay because they didn’t catch it on the first visit. Doesn’t that appear “hinky”?

Woody April 26, 2007 2:18 PM

@Mike Sherwood

You’re quite right about being able to tell the difference between something that’s recorded, and something live. People will spend fantastic amounts of money to get a sound-system that will sound “live”.

Linkwitz talks a fair bit about the qualities of a system.

A very good system will fool you into thinking it’s actually there, but it’s much harder to do so through doors, or around corners, as the way the sound bounces off the walls is different for speakers vs. a real instrument, person, or device.

I once heard a B&W Nautilus (US$35K/pair) from another room, playing back a trumpet solo with no accompianment. It was a very confusing moment. Having listened to many higher-end speakers, and having played brass instruments myself, it sounded to me exactly as if someone was playing a trumpet in the other room. But it takes that kind of quality (system totalled near US$100K) to produce that “lifelike” of sound, especially off-axis and in another room.

Usually one just hears the sound, and if of higher quality, it catches ones attention, but you quickly discern that it’s not live, but a recording. A telly certainly doesn’t have the production quality, and the rest of the movie/tv sound-track will provide the rest of the context to clue you in that it’s not real.

There’s a very disctinct visceral reaction to something that sounds real vs. something that doesn’t. How often have we heard the neighbors watching a scary movie, and the female lead screams her scream, and we know it’s not real. It’s just not the right kind of sound, our brains are very good at this.

G. Orwell April 26, 2007 3:09 PM


“Where is the “presumption of innocence until proven guilty”?

What a quaint, old-fashioned concept – thanks for the laugh

RIT student April 26, 2007 3:49 PM

I’m a student at RIT, and I haven’t heard anyone mention yet that the student arrested for having guns in his dorm room was living in a building that is far from the main campus. Yes, it’s still technically school property and thus part of the “campus”, but the building he was living in is a former hotel that RIT bought and now uses for dormitory housing as well as the Hotel and Restaurant Management Studies Program. The building is about 5 miles from campus as the crow flies, or about 7 miles if driving. Again, not that it matters much, but the news reports made it sound like he was right there in the midst of the main campus, ready to walk out into a throng of students heading to class, weapons in hand. Not the case at all.

Steve April 26, 2007 3:55 PM

Mr. Schneier,
What facts in the original article about the English professor made it clear to you that it was an English professor recycling paper versus a “Middle-Eastern-looking man leaving a box on sidewalk”?

The writer wrote:”I went out to my car and grabbed a box of old poetry manuscripts from the front seat of my little white Beetle, carried it across the street and put it next to the trashcan outside Wright Hall. The poems were from poetry contests I had been judging and the box was heavy. I had previously left my recycling boxes there and they were always picked up and taken away by the trash department.”

In what way is that the behavior of someone who is recycling? When I want to recycle something, I put it in a recycling bin, not next to a trash can.

I really want to understand your position on this. My sister has high regard for you, and after reading some of your previous posts, I do also. I just don’t agree that this is some heinous act of racial profiling. Yes, racial profiling may have been part of the response, but the actions of the police, based on the facts in the article, not what we now know, do not seem unreasonable to me.

Brett April 26, 2007 4:14 PM

I accept that good security marries technology with human interpretation of the results. I burn the toast and the smoke detector sounds an alarm; it doesn’t call the fire department. I assess the situation, unplug the toaster, toss the toast in the sink, and open the window to clear the smoke.

I agree that training makes a big difference. As does having a security plan and testing it.

Hopefully more of the profiling systems get tested with real-world examples. And don’t let the security providers perform the testing!

Not a dhimmi April 26, 2007 6:04 PM

“After extensive consultations, the pilot asked authorities to remove the imams for questioning, which they did, releasing them later that day.”

What you didn’t mention is that most, maybe even all, of the people reporting the ‘hinky’ actions of the imams are either not direct witnesses or are unidentifiable. That is, there is little verifiable proof of those claims and yes there are other claims that conflict with those “worst case scenario” claims.

Unless a lawsuit forces the airline to do things like release the original seating assignments and do a public test-fit of the seat-belt extender on the ~300lb guy, we are mostly left with our pre-conceptions. The all-men-are-created-equal types will see it as an overreaction and the dhimmi-wannabe types will see it as a publicity stunt or even a “test run.”

Jon Sowden April 26, 2007 8:16 PM

@ Steve:
{ What facts in the original article about the English professor made it clear to you that it was an English professor recycling paper versus a “Middle-Eastern-looking man leaving a box on sidewalk”? }

Um, what is so suspicious about “a Middle-Eastern-looking man leaving a box on sidewalk” that requires reporting it to the police?


BOB!! April 26, 2007 9:15 PM


“The ROTC cadet, being a military officer in training, has more training to recognize threats, such as IEDs, than the average member of the public.”

Unfortunately for your argument, ROTC cadets don’t generally get any training in recognizing IEDs, and pretty much everywhere I’ve lived if you’ve got a box or bag that’s too big to leave in the trash can, it’s common practice to leave it next to the trash can.

@Matt from CT

“– Caller saw someone he didn’t recognize”

Except at the smallest of schools, most of the people you see on any given day will be someone you don’t recognize.

“– Caller saw a car with out-of-state plates”

Also a pretty common item on most college campuses.

“– Caller did not see a University parking sticker”

Depends on the school, but most of the schools I’m familiar with, there are plenty of people not following the rules.

“– Most of use don’t drive around with boxes of garbage in our cars waiting to find a dumpster.”

No, but most of us will use a convenient dumpster to get rid of whatever trash we’ve got in the car – sometimes this trash includes boxes.

Since I wasn’t there to see what the ROTC guy saw and am not familiar with the campus, I can’t say whether or not he was overreacting or not. It’s possible that the situation was such that I would have felt suspicious myself. But I think it’s a lot more likely that the cause of suspicion in this case was ‘throwing away trash while foreign-looking.”

Ralph April 26, 2007 9:40 PM

@ Steve

If we shut down a city block and it turns out there was no bomb – I call that a “false positve”. And I admit I made a mistake.

If you shut down a city block and it turns out there was a bomb – I call that successful detection.

If I shut down a customers network every time there “might be” an “incident” I would be out of work.

If I get a continuing pattern of shutting things down when there are no bombs – I start making changes to my detection system.

Larry Kestenbaum April 26, 2007 9:59 PM

@ Beryllium

JDLR is a fine synonym for “hinky”.

Many years ago, when I worked in a large department store (now long gone), my co-workers and I were advised by the security department to watch for customers who displayed other than “normal shopping behavior”.

JohnS April 26, 2007 10:44 PM

@Not a dhimmi
“dhimmi wannabe”? Who would aspire to inferior status under sharia? I would suggest those who would “see it as a publicity stunt or even a “test run.”” would have quite the opposite “wannabe”.

See also Powerline \
for witness accounts.

delhi_dude April 26, 2007 11:06 PM

TODAY : Police in Delhi [India] caught 3 “Laskar-e-Taiba” militants because they were acting ‘hinky’.

Cache: 3Kg RDX, 3 detonators, 3 hand-granedes, battries.

They were on their way to boarding the Underground Metro. Caught just before the act.

Very important thing is – Delhi police never harasses people like the USA/UK. We dont have a security theater. I cannot remember police ever shooting at “strange people with backpacks” and suchlike.

But police have managed to catch many ‘hinky’ ones. Today was a fresh example, but there are many. I wish these would be reported in the world media better. This ‘hinky’ spotting business is pretty damm important, and simple indian police men seem to do it quite well.

L'Haim April 26, 2007 11:25 PM

Bruce, There’s is a counter example. I grew up in Israel, and we have all been told always to pay attention to things. There are probably hundreds of examples of attacks that would have happened if not for an alert citizen seeing that suspicious bag in the back of the bus, or that suspicious character with this heavy gym bag and strange behavior. About a couple month ago in Eilat someone gave a ride to a suspiciously looking and behaving person. He drove him to a remote area and asked him to leave the car. Then he called police. Unfortunately, the terrorist made it to a bakery before they caught him, but I know of many other occasions where a lay person’s reaction saved the day. It really depends on people getting used to paying attention, and learning (usually the hard way) what’s a real threat, what’s just plane weird.

All the best.

Not a dhimmi April 27, 2007 12:41 AM


One thing to keep in mind when comparing Israel with the US – there have not been hundreds of attacks of any sort, much less random public bombings.

The flipside of always being told to watch out for suspicious bags is that normal people don’t leave bags unattended in ways that would arouse suspicion. It’s no longer normal behaviour, so when someone does leave one around it is by definition out of the ordinary and people should take notice.

That environment does not exist in the US, not just for unattended bags and boxes, but pretty much every thing else that happens under the sun. When millions of regular people behave in a certain way, that behaviour can not feasibly be considered suspicious. The false positive rate would consume so many resources that the true positives would never be caught.

@JohnS – Dhimmi wannabes are people so obsessed with the irrational fear of an islamic pan-global state that their perspective is completely out of whack. They fetishize that fear such that it becomes the central theme of their worldview — without the boogeyman of becoming a dhimmi their personal universe would self-destruct in earthquakes of cognitive dissonance.

mrfred April 27, 2007 5:52 AM

What I find interesting and unfortunate is that in a supposed democracy (US)…the majority of people are very likely not actively “obeying the laws”, but are actually trying not to act suspicious.

And so are the pro type criminals and terrorists. While those acting “hinky” are most likely going to be people with that kind of personality….the nervous type.

So you have a “democracy” that is actually a “police state”…where life decisions revolve around what the local snitch or cop “thinks” you might be doing? Talk about your basic freedoms. 😉

Also interesting and and unfortunate is the the reality that the US is following exactly in Israel’s footsteps…creating a situation in the Mideast eerily identical to Israel’s situation vs the Arab public?

The only response I can have is…how stupid can a country (US) get?

Is this “hinky” behavior?

Can countries go “crazy”?

MediaMangler April 27, 2007 7:04 AM

@Matt from CT

“– Most of use don’t drive around with boxes of garbage in our cars waiting to find a dumpster.”

Actually, I did that today and usually do so once a week. I’m an American living in Germany and have given up trying to figure out the details of German recycling. Rather than risk a citation for putting the wrong type of trash in the wrong receptacle or out on the wrong day, I just bring all my trash onto the US base where I work (still separated properly, of course).

The professor in the case you cited wasn’t dropping trash from his home at some random dumpster. He was disposing of poetry manuscripts at the trashcan directly across the street from his own office on campus.

jayh April 27, 2007 9:52 AM

There was a case recently of a high school girl travelling with a class (how unhinky is that) thrown off a plane in Hawaii for a coughing fit (even though a doctor on the plane assured the captain there was no problem with her flying).

My wife has a condition that periodically results in 5-10 minute coughing fits. Between people worrying that she’s contagious and TSA types assuming she’s creating a diversion…. we simply do not fly.

Matt from CT April 27, 2007 11:55 AM

But I think it’s a lot more likely that the
cause of suspicion in this case
was ‘throwing away trash while foreign-

Isn’t that prejudice on your part as well to make that assumption?

And if you assume a white guy seeing a dark skinned guy is being a racist, why aren’t you a racist for assuming that yourself?

UNTER April 27, 2007 1:20 PM

I’ll say it again – it’s always about CYA. Until people start taking real responsibility, we’re going to continue into this quagmire. Right now, we punish false negatives; we have forgotten that false positives must also be punished. If a guy on the bomb squad doesn’t respond to a bomb, he’ll lose his job. But if thinks a bright-light is a bomb, he stays on without any repercussions.

Both are screw-ups. Both should be punished.

Steve Geist April 27, 2007 1:28 PM

“JDLR is a fine synonym for “hinky””

A term I use a lot is “spidey senses” from Spiderman, as in “My spidey senses are tingling” to say “Something’s wrong here”

X the Unknown April 27, 2007 2:27 PM

I think the idea of being aware of “hinkiness” is basically on the right track, given Bruce’s caveat that relevant expertise matters, and should be taken into account.

The main problem, of course, is ascertaining “relevant experience”… Clearly, however, our (U.S.) society is going in exactly the opposite direction, here. Instead of expecting people in positions of authority to exercise judgment in questionable cases, we are promulgating “Zero-Tolerance” policies. This just makes the impact of the inevitable false-positives that much worse.

In a situation where you will get a high rate of false-positives, discerning evaluation by the responder is crucial. In the student-with-gun example, presumably the police contact inquired: “how do you know it sounded like a gun?” The gentleman responded with details about his military experience, and seemed generally credible-enough to make the situation worth investigating. If it had turned out to be the TV, a Vacuum attachment, or some such, there would have been little or no harm done in checking it out (assuming they didn’t just call out the SWAT team, and kick the door in…which they didn’t). A similar process applies to the “suspicious recycler” – the police should have evaluated the overall credibility of the report, and possibly checked things out. There was certainly no need to go through with an arrest, on the basis of easily-ascertained information (it was just a box of paper).

You’re going to get an extremely high rate of false-positives in the “hinkiness” evaluation business, expecially if you are taking your reports from random citizens. You want calm, reasonably-experienced people evaluating the overall credibility of such reports, before deciding whether or not to initiate any kind of action (including dispatching an officer to check things out). Of course, since you are relying upon their “gut analysis”, you also have to protect them when they get it wrong – which will also happen. If they get it wrong too often, of course, they have proved to be incompetent at that job, and should be fired or re-assigned, as appropriate.

For things like airport security, in particular, Bruce is arguing for having observers with particular skill/experience in the security field, on site – as well, I presume, as some mechanism by which ordinary people can easily-enough report things they find suspicious. We certainly used to have a system very much like this – the Customs Inspectors. They did not (and, as far as I know, still do not) minutely examine every article of baggage and clothing brought into th ‘States. Instead, they mostly rely on their ability to “sense hinkiness”, to determine what merits particular attention. They caught a surprising number of smugglers, this way.

Clearly, the general technique of relying on the “feelings” of Customs Agents doesn’t catch every possible smuggler. Some get through. It was judged that the balance between the effectiveness and deterrence of that technique, versus the much higher cost and inconvenience of full-cavity searching every person entering the country, made the missed smugglers a worthwhile trade-off. I think the same sort of logic probably holds true for catching terrorists. You simply can’t reasonably expect to “catch them all” – some are going to be people who literally didn’t know they were going to snap, until it happens, for example.

Bruce is asking: “What is the most reasonable and cost-effective way to achieve a good balance between detection and deterrence, versus inconvenience and cost (including the cost of lost freedoms)?” He is suggesting that having experienced professionals making informed evaluations is probably a better bet than having lowest-wage hirelings blindly following some “Zero Tolerance Policy” and a checklist.

I agree with him.

Matt from CT May 15, 2008 8:44 PM

Lordy, this thread was stuck in some obsessive compulsive corner of my mind.

Just heard Officer Malloy using “Hinky” on Adam-12, Season 2, Episode 9.

Assuming it’s the Marshal Biggs from the movie and not TV show, I have the earlier reference 😀

Buck B May 21, 2012 7:56 AM

Perhaps I’m showing my lack of intellectual heft or just the passion I had in my youth for watching television shows, but somehow this discussion reminds me of Gladys Kravitz on the television show “Bewitched”. Some of you may remember,Mrs. Kravitz was always seeing evidence of witches although it was impossible for her to prove to Albert her husband that indeed there be witches as whenever he would look at what she said to look at, a normal scene would appear.

I’ll add in a little portion below of Wikipedia’s description of Gladys Kravitz from her Wikipedia page, but somehow she seems to be some sort of recurring American character, although usually our own Gladys Kravitzes never see any witches, they just think they do. Perhaps it makes for good old American entertainment, but if you’re the one accused of being the witch, I suppose it can be quite aggravating to have to deal with the less perceptive Mrs. Kravitzes in our midst.

Early in the show’s run, Alice Pearce’s performance of Kravitz was essentially as a friendly, albeit over-bearing, neighbor, often looking to befriend the Stephenses and in doing so, notices the strange goings-on within the home. Samatha is often quite friendly to her, convincing her that the strange happenings are just her imagination. Additionally, the Stephenses visit their house regularly during this era. Sandra Gould’s performance of the character, on the other hand, is more of an antagonist, often scheming to catch Samantha in an act of witchcraft or to get the Stephenses into some sort of trouble.

Kravitz is extremely nosy, frequently peeking through her curtains at the Stephens’s home. She is convinced that there is something strange going on in their household (and indeed there is, for Samantha Stephens often uses witchcraft that creates unusual events, and the Stephens’s witch-and-warlock relatives come and go from the house), and she would yell “ABNER!”, referring to her husband (George Tobias), although she can never adequately prove her assertions to him.

Kravitz’s nosiness, her frustration at never being able to convince her husband or other neighbors of the odd behavior across the street, and the difficulties she causes the Stephenses are all recurring themes on Bewitched. Samantha Stephens always comes up with a fabricated reason why Gladys Kravitz had seen what she had seen, and Kravitz can never prove to others that there is anything beyond the ordinary happening at the Stephens’s house, which causes her no end of annoyance and causes her to question her own impressions and even sanity. Sometimes, however, when Gladys and her nosiness goes way too far, especially when it involves any city officials or the police, Samantha utters, in anger, that the trouble is “some more of Gladys Kravitz’s handiwork!”

Gladys is one of the few, if not only, mortal characters to see through Samantha and Darrin’s ruse. She clearly knows that there is something strange going on, even if she is not entirely sure of the source of the oddities. In contrast, Darrin’s boss Larry Tate has frequent contact with Samantha and Darrin and never suspects a thing. Gladys is the one mortal who is observant (or nosy) enough to notice the effects of witchcraft at the Stephens’ house, even though no one in the Stephens family ever admits to Gladys that Samantha is a witch.

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