Locked Call Boxes and Banned Geiger Counters

Fire Engineering magazine points out that fire alarms used to be kept locked to prevent false alarms:

Q: Prior to 1870, street corner fire alarm pull boxes were kept locked. Why were they kept locked and how did a person gain access to ‘pull the box?’

A: They were kept locked due to false alarms. Nearby shopkeepers or beat cops carried the keys.

According to Robert Cromie in The Great Chicago Fire (Thomas Nelson: 1994, p. 33), this may have been one reason for the slow response to the fire:

William Lee, the O’Leary’s neighbor, rushed into Goll’s drugstore, and gasped out a request for the key to the alarm box. The new boxes were attached to the walls of stores or other convenient locations. To prevent false alarms and crank calls, the boxes were locked, and the keys given to trustworthy citizens nearby.

What happened when Lee made his request is not clear. Only one fact emerges from the confusion: No alarm was registered from any box in the vicinity of the fire until it was too late to do any good.

Apparently, Lee said that Goll refused to give him the key because he’d already seen a fire engine go past; Goll said he actually did pull the alarm, twice, but if so it must not have worked.

(There’s more about what sounds like a really bad communications failure, but it’s a little too hard for me to read on the Amazon website.)

Here’s more:

But did you know that the fire burned for over half an hour before an alarm was ever sounded? Alarm boxes were actually kept locked in those days, to prevent false alarms!

When the first alarm box was finally opened and the lever pulled, the alarm somehow did not get through. The fire dispatcher was playing a guitar for a couple of girls at the time and he kept on serenely strumming, completely unawares. After the fire had been growing and blazing for nearly an hour a watchman screamed at the dispatcher to sound an alarm, which he did, and the first three engines, two hose wagons, and two hook and ladders were sent out—but in the wrong direction!

At first the dispatcher refused to sound another alarm, hoping to avoid further confusion.

Compare this with a proposed law in New York City that will require people to get a license before they can buy chemical, biological, or radiological attack detectors:

The legislation—which was proposed by the Bloomberg administration and would be the first of its kind in the nation—would empower the police commissioner to decide whether to grant a free five-year permit to individuals and companies seeking to “possess or deploy such detectors.” Common smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors would not be covered by the law, the Police Department said. Violations of the law would be considered a misdemeanor.

Why does the administration think such a law is necessary? Richard A. Falkenrath, the Police Department’s deputy commissioner for counterterrorism, told the Council’s Public Safety Committee at a hearing today, “Our mutual goal is to prevent false alarms and unnecessary public concern by making sure that we know where these detectors are located and that they conform to standards of quality and reliability.”

The law would also require anyone using such a detector—regardless of whether they have obtained the required permit—to notify the Police Department if the detector alerted them to a biological, chemical or radiological agent. “In this way, emergency response personnel will be able to assess threats and take appropriate action based on the maximum information available,” Dr. Falkenrath said.

False positives are a problem with any detection system, and certainly putting Geiger counters in the hands of everyone will mean a lot of amateurs calling false alarms into the police. But the way to handle that isn’t to ban Geiger counters. (Just as the way to deal with false fire alarms 100 years ago wasn’t to lock the alarm boxes.) The way to deal with it is by 1) putting a system in place to quickly separate the real alarms from the false alarms, and 2) prosecuting those who maliciously sound false alarms.

We don’t want to encourage people to report everything; that’s too many false alarms. Nor do we want to discourage them from reporting things they feel are serious. In the end, it’s the job of the police to figure out what’s what. I said this in an essay last year:

…these incidents only reinforce the need to realistically assess, not automatically escalate, citizen tips. In criminal matters, law enforcement is experienced in separating legitimate tips from unsubstantiated fears, and allocating resources accordingly; we should expect no less from them when it comes to terrorism.

EDITED TO ADD (1/18): Two commenters pointed to a 1938 invention: an alarm box that locks up your arm until the fire department sets you free. Yikes.

Posted on January 18, 2008 at 7:44 AM66 Comments


sooth_sayer January 18, 2008 8:29 AM

You could ask everyone who wants to buy one to get at least 2 !! Less chance of a false positive .. paranoid folks should be asked to buy 3.
How do you tell someone is paranoid .. well 1st “X” people trying to buy these things by definition are 🙂

Anonymous January 18, 2008 8:35 AM

Geiger counters are inexpensive items, easily ordered over the net. I have a nice handheld International Medcom (http://www.medcom.com/) unit myself. You can get even less expensive models that hook to a computer for 24/7 monitoring (see http://www.aw-el.com/ for one of several).

I suspect more than a few of these are in use by private citizens who live near nuclear reactors — unwilling to trust the government to monitor and sound an alarm. Others are to monitor radon levels in their basements. Most are probably just augments to their weather stations.

Maybe NYC can ban anemometers, amateur seismometers, and, in general, forbid curiosity?

pete January 18, 2008 8:54 AM

I find it highly disturbing that a government wants to ban detectors (which are not dangerous items) just to prevent “false alarms and unnecessary public concern”.

Especially the part about “unneccessary public concern” sounds ominous. That means that the goverment can decide I am not allowed to acquire certain data because I might get concerned?

Beta January 18, 2008 9:12 AM

At first I thought of writing “what an idiotic law”, but the more I think about it the more sense it makes.

The goal isn’t to prevent a false alarm — they could do that just by ignoring every such call they get from an untrusted source — but to prevent such an alarm BEFORE THEY HAVE TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE DECISION TO IGNORE IT.

Also, it’s a law which 1) sounds as if it makes the children safer, 2) affects very few people so there’ll be no public outcry, 3) can’t be generally enforced so no one can blame them for not spending effort at it, 4) allows them to heap additional penalties on those who play pranks, and best of all 5) allows them to prosecute innocent people who annoy them for some other reason. In the eyes of most authorities, it’s the perfect law.

John Davies January 18, 2008 9:18 AM

If the authorities really want to cut down on false alarms then I suggest that they ban car alarms. In the UK at least, nobody takes any notice of car alarms, especially when they go off at 2 a.m!

FP January 18, 2008 9:27 AM

Compare that with the encouragement to the public to call in terrorist threats, where officials are perfectly happy to investigate false alarms, and to give a pat on the back to everyone who calls in on an obscure hunch.

Peter Pearson January 18, 2008 9:32 AM

Similar motivations have already resulted in laws banning mail-order AIDS tests and non-official testing of meat for mad-cow disease. It’s the logical consequence of the premise that the role of government is to do whatever is good for society.

norp January 18, 2008 9:37 AM

“The fire dispatcher was playing a guitar for a couple of girls at the time and he kept on serenely strumming, completely unawares.”

The song he was playing was titled, “My Pet Goat”.

FNORD January 18, 2008 9:51 AM

Note the two parts of the law.
1) Try to prevent false alarms by denying citizens access to sensors. This was already discussed as a bad idea.

2) Require those who do have sensors to report any activity, leading to false or overblown alarms. A great many things those detectors find, even when working properly, do not need police resources. But now, people are required to inform the police even if they think it is a false alarm. This really doesn’t match with concern over wasted police resources that motivated part 1.

TSK January 18, 2008 9:53 AM

: 2) prosecuting those who maliciously

sound false alarms.

Nice idea. HOW ??!
Most of the prank calls from my country come from telephone cells. It is practically impossible to search the prosecutors.
It is especially a feat of (gladly very,very few) malicious lazy school boys
to avoid a school test by giving a bomb alarm for the school.
CYA policy prevents people from ignoring that call even if everything points to “BOGUS”.

stacy January 18, 2008 10:09 AM

I’m having a really hard time reconciling these two quotes:

“Our mutual goal is to prevent false alarms and unnecessary public concern by making sure that we know where these detectors are located and that they conform to standards of quality and reliability.”


“The law would also require anyone using such a detector — regardless of whether they have obtained the required permit — to notify the Police Department if the detector alerted them to a biological, chemical or radiological agent.”

As was pointed out by “Anonymous”, individuals who own these devices will have a variety of reasons for owning them, and I would guess the most common reason would be curiosity. If these people are not required by law to notify the police every time the thing goes “PING”, how on earth will that reduce the number of false alarms?!?

derf January 18, 2008 10:18 AM

Can you imagine the panic in NYC if people knew a dirty bomb had exploded? This way, they’ll just quietly get radiated without panicking and possibly causing a Katrina style problem for the poor old government.

mARK January 18, 2008 10:40 AM

FNORD and stacy are right about the schizophrenia of this plan.

(Even if they’ve come to opposite conclusions on how to capitalize their names)

Andre LePlume January 18, 2008 10:47 AM

So every lab worker, and every doctor and nurse in a radiological medicine facility will need a license to wear the radiation detection badges that show the load to which they’ve been exposed (as a safeguard)?

Heckuva job, Bloomie!

rjh January 18, 2008 11:12 AM

The law is silly, but the false alarm concern is appropriate. As indicated by some of the comments here, people do not realize just how common radioactive materials are. The medical community is still educating the TSA and others to clarify that there are normally tens of thousands of people that are radioactive because of a medical test procedure. All sorts of ordinary products (like cat litter) are naturally radioactive. It is a very difficult educational job.

Since the natural false positive rate is at least several million to one, the false alarm rate will be very high. Education on the widespread normal occurence of radioactivity will not be enough. Some sort of minimum level before reporting is also needed. I could see discouraging the sale of units that cannot measure dose, and penalties for reporting an incident when the dose was not some reasonable percentage of the normal safe occupational level.

Neal January 18, 2008 11:49 AM

This proposal is causing a great deal of consternation among industrial hygienists and environmental technicians who routinely use instruments to measure workplace or environmental chemical exposures. They don’t want to pull a permit with the police just to measure the level of methyl ethyl whatever in the local factory. Radiation and Geiger counters are used in many workplace settings; there are probably hundreds of Geiger counters used daily for workplace monitoring in New York City. When a Geiger counter buzzes because of a spill in a bio-research lab, it isn’t a “false alarm” but it doesn’t require police attention either. The authors of this proposal were focused on the “needle” they were looking for and didn’t think about the “haystack”.

moop January 18, 2008 11:56 AM

In defense of the arm trapper posted above, remember that these boxes used to be located on the street like phonebooths. It’s still a feeble idea, but I doubt it was meant to be used indoors.

macemoneta January 18, 2008 12:20 PM

I’m just wondering what the current false alarm rate is to warrant such a law.

I have a radiation monitor I purchased from Edmund Scientifics, and I’ve managed never to phone in a false alarm.

Are such false alarms common? I suspect they haven’t even experienced one (at least not from anyone with a real radiation monitor).

The purpose behind the law needs examining. Perhaps they are concerned about the ability of people to detect the movement of radioactive material? The radiation monitors would actually be useless for that.

Could we already be exposed to unusually high levels in some locations for some other reason?

Andy January 18, 2008 2:21 PM

When I first read this, I thought its as simple as adding some traceability for a tool likely used by a nuclear armed terrorist. Keep in mind that NYC is nuclear weapons target #1. Any terrorist would want a geiger counter nearby, if not for his own safety but to test his shielding. This law would just provide one more lead for any detectives looking for a terrorist cell, as opposed to the device being purchased off the shelf for cash. The law will upset so few people, that it’ll probably get passed. My guess is that this is just continuous improvement in our overall defense in depth strategy.

Aaron Muderick January 18, 2008 2:40 PM

To me the whole idea of requiring a permit for a passive sensing device is wrong. What other passive sensors require permits today?

It is true that the general public has incredible fear and misconception of ‘radiation’. When I whip out my geiger counter, people are immediately concerned as it registers ‘background radiation’. When I do urban prospecting, say at an antique store, a ‘hit’ generates serious, unwarranted, concern.

This proposal is yet another sign of how our culture regards technology, science, and general curiousity as something to be left to ‘professionals’. Amateur science is what led our country to be a leader in science and technology.

Roger January 18, 2008 3:26 PM

To further defend the 1938 arm trapper: old timers who have actually seen it used, say that reports of it trapping your arm are false. What it actually did was attach a conspicuous metal collar around your wrist, labelling you as the person who tripped the alarm. There was nothing to prevent you fleeing the fire.

ForReal January 18, 2008 4:45 PM

Anything from Bloomberg should be ignored. He is running a stealth campaign for the Presidency and thus should be considered insane and dangerous.

Jilara January 18, 2008 6:51 PM

Wow, this is enough to make me want to run out and buy a Geiger Counter while I still can. When radiation detectors are outlawed, only outlaws will be able to detect radiation!

Seriously, I’ve used a Geiger counter, and I’m having a hard time even conceiving of a situation where someone would feel compelled to call in some sort of “false alarm.” Sometimes, you find spikes in the reading (old clocks with radium dials, natural sources in paving stones, etc.), but it mostly leads to a “hmm, that’s interesting” reaction rather than anything more.

However, if I think about it, if industry or its government bedfellows wanted to jetison radioactive waste somewhere, and didn’t want anyone to be able to notice it was leaking into the Snafu Mine’s water drainage, you definitely wouldn’t want private citizens who were playing with these things to get spikes and start wondering why. Damn, I’m starting to think of scenarios like something out of “An Enemy of the People.” Maybe I just don’t trust business and/or government. Fancy that.

Shad January 18, 2008 8:05 PM

If they want to ban something, they have to also enforce it. If it will not be a nationwide action, people will still be able to source the devices by mail-order. Even if it would be, sensing radiation is way too easy to ban. A scintillator with a photocell will do a basic level indication job; for high intensities an ionization chamber can be made of a tin can. Certain types of transistors can be made into sensors as well.

If such law happens here, I will do the only thing a reasonable technician can do: ignore the law with extreme prejudice.

Anonymous January 19, 2008 12:02 AM

The response to the Great Boston Fire of 1872 (the year after Chicago) was similar in that the alarm boxes were locked, but timely response occurred. The first alarm from Box 52 was struck within minutes of the fire being noticed– of course, by then, the fire had been burning for some time.
What massively hampered response times was a horse distemper that was still lingering in the Fire Department’s horses– many engines had to be drawn by teams of men pulling ropes.

Matt from CT January 19, 2008 5:42 PM

1) It reminds me of the USDA’s prohibition (for many years, and may still be in effect) of private testing for BSE (mad cow).

A rancher, processor, retailer, etc if they wanted to test all their cattle for BSE are prohibited by law from doing so. And there were premium brands who wished to certify their heards as BSE free.

The closest thing to a justification? Well that would give them a market advantage over those who don’t test! Funny, I thought that was what a market economy was all about…

The USDA itself tests a tiny (1 in 100,000?) part of the U.S. herd randomly, plus “downer” cattle who are symptomatic. And that’s all. By law.

2) At least into the late 1980s “man trap” fire alarms where still an idea kicking around — the one I read of was a phone booth style that you where locked inside once pulling the alarm. Used for places like in front of high schools. While it was already a poor idea, pretty sure ADA compliance completely killed them off 😉

Many colleges, high schools, etc that experience high false alarm pulls will coat them with a powdered ultraviolet ink. A black light then does wonders.

not a ban January 19, 2008 6:31 PM

Huh? Who said anything about a ban? Is Schneier smoking crack? And then, ’cause Schneier says “ban”, a bunch of sycophantic monkeys start saying it too?

The article says legislation could require getting a free permit for detectors. I suppose, by Schneier’s logic, cars, boats, dogs, marriage, and guns are all variously “banned”, even though with those you usually have to pay for the license.

Something is seriously impairing reading comprehension around here. Schneier, maybe you need to quit being Mr Executive and get your head back in the game.

Shad January 20, 2008 1:08 AM

not a ban: No permit is really free; if nothing else, it has the personal cost of time and effort wasted on obtaining it, and the social cost of promoting superfluous bureaucracy.

I for one refuse to even consider registering my measuring instruments, as a matter of principle.

not a ban January 20, 2008 3:42 AM

Shad: the legislation described in the article doesn’t cover your “measuring instruments.” It’s about “detectors” designed to warn “in case of a biological, chemical or radiological attack.” But your defensive spin is again the result of Schneier’s wild generalization to the banning of Geiger counters.

One perfectly reasonable explanation for this proposal could be that a market may be developing, especially in places sensitized by actual attacks, in which unethical companies are preying on people’s fears to sell crappy “attack detectors”–exactly the sort of thing that the real Schneier, wherever he may be, would frown upon.

Ishmael January 20, 2008 5:59 AM

Well, one could really wonder why people would buy a counter when what they really need is a dosimeter. IOW, people will look at you really strangely when you walk around with a counter (which means most folk won’t do it) but a pen-sized dosimeter fits neatly in a pocket and tells you what you really want to know (how much radiation you’ve been exposed to).
Back in the “stone age” (60’s) as a high school student, I volunteered for the local Civil Defense team and could sign out counters and dosimeters provided by the government. 🙂

Shad January 20, 2008 8:06 AM

not a ban: Where’s the boundary between a “crappy attack detector” and an inexpensive radiation sensor? Does a DRSB-88 detector count as the former, or the latter? Victoreen CD V-700? Gamma-Scout? NukAlert keychain? Who will decide? How?

Ishmael: You want to know both how much dose you got, and – perhaps even more important – that you are in process of getting some. For the former you certainly need a dosimeter. For the latter even the cheapest pocket-sized Russian DRSB Geiger will do a decent job (assuming the intensity of the radiation does not overload the tube), including figuring out where the radiation comes from. A dosimeter will tell you how likely you will or will not live, ex post facto. A counter tells you that it is a good idea to relocate yourself, immediately when it matters; in my opinion somewhat more useful.

not a ban January 20, 2008 1:16 PM

Shad: obviously we have far too little information to deduce what specific devices would be covered. But clearly will be a boundary of some kind, since your typical smoke detector, which /is/ a radiological measuring instrument, is not covered by the proposed rule. And to equate a rule about licensing “attack detectors” with a ban on Geiger counters, while completely discounting licensing as a form of quality control, is altogether absurd, and not characteristic of Schneier. My concern, based on this and a few other recent postings, is that the pod people seem to have replaced him with a soft, gooey, doppelschneierganger.

Dan January 20, 2008 2:51 PM

The “1938 invention” of the arm-trapping fire alarm wasn’t entirely new. U.S. Patent No. 2,175,976 claims a similar device (filed 1936). A safer idea is the fire alarm with camera, U.S. Patent No. 1,891,242 (filed 1930). That would give you a picture of a false-alarm puller, but he won’t have to burn to death if there’s a real fire.

U.S. Patent No. 2,175,976:

U.S. Patent No. 1,891,242:

Anonymous January 20, 2008 4:10 PM

@not a ban:

“the legislation described in the article doesn’t cover your “measuring instruments.” It’s about “detectors” designed to warn “in case of a biological, chemical or radiological attack.””

There is no operative difference, Mr. State Apologist.

David January 20, 2008 4:25 PM

A quote from the article:

would empower the police commissioner to decide whether to grant a free five-year permit to individuals and companies seeking to “possess or deploy such detectors.???

A few paragraphs down, it mentions processes to develop guidelines on who should be allowed to possess such dangerous items as Geiger counters.

There’s also that interesting thing about being legally forced to admit you’re breaking the law, but I think the courts would at least think about the Fifth Amendment.

So, this is about banning the possession of detection equipment, at least on a case-by-case basis. It isn’t about having to apply for a license before doing something, it’s about possibly being denied a license.

not a ban January 20, 2008 5:30 PM

@David: “A few paragraphs down…”

Apparently you are reading an entirely different article from the one I am reading, because the words “guidelines” and “Geiger” appear nowhere in text of the one I’m reading. Please provide a direct quote.

“There’s also that interesting thing about being legally forced to admit you’re breaking the law”

Again, I see nothing in the article that corresponds to this statement. Let’s have a direct quote.

“So, this is about banning the possession of detection equipment, at least on a case-by-case basis”

Another paranoid conclusion completely unsupported by the article cited. Where’s your evidence? And you really need to go look up the word “ban”–the notion of a case-by-case ban is oxymoronic. I guess the reading comprehension thing is affecting a lot of people.

not a ban January 20, 2008 5:32 PM


If you can’t see the operative difference between an “attack detector” and a Geiger counter, you have a lot to learn about both radioactivity and marketing.

Anonymous January 20, 2008 5:52 PM

@not a ban equivocates further:

“”There’s also that interesting thing about being legally forced to admit you’re breaking the law”

Again, I see nothing in the article that corresponds to this statement. Let’s have a direct quote.”

Fourth paragraph. It reads in part like this: “The law would also require anyone using such a detector — regardless of whether they have obtained the required permit — to notify the Police Department if the detector alerted them to a biological, chemical or radiological agent.”

Naturally, for an apologist of the state, this can’t possibly read as admitting you are using equipment illegally.

It’s the same sort of equivocation re: detector vs. instrument you are trying to push. In this context the two words are completely synonymous, as all those here and quoted in the article appear to understand. What is your excuse?

not a ban January 20, 2008 6:58 PM

@Anonymous: “for an apologist of the state, this can’t possibly read as admitting you are using equipment illegally.”

First off, what is all this “apologist of the state” crap? You’re the one trying to justify a complete misreading of the article and consequent wild speculation. I’m simply pointing out the total disconnect between a “ban” and the requirement of a free license, and the fact that Geiger counters and other “measuring devices” aren’t mentioned AT ALL.

Your conclusion is wholly illogical. How does notifying the police of “attack” detection equate to “admitting” anything? If you aren’t using the equipment legally, just don’t say who you are. Or better yet, apply for the stupid license. By what incredible measure of laziness does applying for a five-year license qualify as an onerous task? I seem to have no problem keeping my car registered and I have to do that every two years. I can get a one-year fishing license at the same tackle store I go to for bait. What’s the freakin’ problem? You act like the whole city will slow to a crawl under the weight of miles of red tape. It’ll prolly just be an ugly web site where you enter your address and phone, and the model and type of detector(s) you have. Among other things, having that information would help the police department seek out corroborating data from geographically proximate detectors in the case of a reported attack.

“detector vs. instrument you are trying to push. In this context the two words are completely synonymous”

“Detector” vs “instrument” is not the dichotomy under discussion (nor are they remotely synonymous for a native speaker of English)–“attack detector” vs. “measuring instrument” is. What proportion of a typical Geiger counter’s use as a measuring instrument do you think is intended to “detect” an “attack”, anyway? Do you think Geiger counters are designed for the purpose of detecting attacks?

In contrast, a smoke detector is a radiological device that measures alpha particle absorption, which it translates into “detection” of smoke. Sometimes it’s wrong, but it is a measuring device COUPLED with a heuristic circuit that interprets the measurement, AND an alarm signal. This is entirely different, in application, operation, and marketing, from a generic alpha absorption meter.

Anonymous January 20, 2008 7:19 PM

@not a ban:

“How does notifying the police of “attack” detection equate to “admitting” anything?”

I can only make the words appear on your screen. If you refuse to read and understand them, that is your problem, not mine.

“detector vs. instrument”

The only person who is having difficulty with this is the government proposing this law and it’s sycophantic defenders like you. Everyone knows there is no distinction, even the one you are attempting to synthesize. The article alone makes little sense if this was not true. For proof, try a simple experiment: s/detector/instrument/ or s/instrument/detector/ over the entire article and it has exactly the same semantic content.

Actually, no, don’t try that, as you have demonstrated yourself unable to read normal English. But as I said above, that’s your problem, not mine.

not a ban January 20, 2008 7:34 PM

@Anonymous: “I can only make the words appear on your screen…”

Did you write that bit for yourself? Thanks for saving me the trouble.

BTW, it seems you think misquotation is argument. Again: it’s not “detector” vs. “instrument”; it’s “attack detector” vs. “measuring instrument”. Now read it again and again, and perhaps again, until you understand the difference. Geiger counter: measuring instrument. Geiger counter in a ceiling-mounted plastic case with a threshold circuit, piezo alarm, and a big fat LED labeled “radiological attack”: attack detector.

lsa7 January 20, 2008 10:42 PM

Take your analysis in another direction. Perhaps life is becoming too complicated, too connected for any police force to monitor; this type of legislation would add to the use of informants to maintain compliance. A small amount of snitch money could cause a lot of people to ignore thinking about long-term risk to themselves, satisfy their ego that they are “helping”, feel the adrenaline of being the voyeur, assume kinship with a powerful agent, and fantasize that they may get a favor against some future transgression. Pretend that law enforcement has people as smart as yourself and this is an example of noteworthy long-term thinking. lsa7.

not a ban January 20, 2008 11:54 PM


Uh, wow. It’s a misdemeanor, and it will be extremely rare in practice. You think Jimmy the Snitch is going to skate on his next heroin possession bust because he turns in the guy in his building who has an unlicensed “radiological attack detector”? You think Jimmy will even know someone who has an unlicensed detector? A rebel, an outcast, perhaps–a free-thinking maverick who refuses to submit the free application for the detector license, you know, “on principle”? Gods save that poor naif if he should befriend sneaky ol’ Jimmy.

What is it the real Schneier says? “Refuse to be terrorized, people.” That goes equally for making up grand conspiracy theories about how “the government” (actually the New York City Council, in this case) is going to take away all our precious biological, chemical, and radiological attack detectors, not to mention put fluoride in our water to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids. Next thing, they’ll “ban” Yorkshire terriers by refusing to issue licenses for them on a case-by-case basis, then they’ll ban irrational numbers, then we’ll have to inform the police before we go to the bathroom, then we get the mandatory barcode tattoos and RFID implants, and then, before you know it, mass hysteria!

Anonymous January 21, 2008 1:53 AM

As for designers not thinking about security, California’s recently announced plan to introduce remotely controlled thermostats strikes me as a particularly interesting DoS target. As described, the system is pure broadcast, with no verification. Now the traffic may be signed, encrypted or whatever, but the security mechanism only has to be broken once for anybody to be able to broil or freeze Californians in their own homes…

Anonymous January 21, 2008 5:20 AM

@not a ban:

As expected, you are making this all up as you go along.

“Geiger counter in a ceiling-mounted plastic case with a threshold circuit, piezo alarm, and a big fat LED labeled “radiological attack”: attack detector.”

I’ll note that this is not in the cited article. And previous to this you asking if:

“Do you think Geiger counters are designed for the purpose of detecting attacks?”

So if “attack detectors” are in fact “measuring instruments” with different kind of display, then you have basically conceded the point there is really no operative difference between the two.

Worse: that the CO sensor in my basement, would likely fall under this regulatory regime because in addition to the “big fat LED”, it also has a 2 digit LED display presenting the ppm as well?

Or my geiger counter, which has a user-configurable “big fat LED”, along with the real-time activity, and a counts/minute etc display?

Or really almost any sensor like this? Almost all “measuring instruments” have features like your describe. Even weather stations have “big fat LED”s!

You didn’t know, did you?

And now, you lecture us on the meaning of Schneier’s “refuse to be terrorized”. In reality it means to honestly evaluate the risks, not to blindly fall before the all knowing government, kissing its collective posterior in the belief it is out to save ours.

So, lets do that:

The threat due to unregistered, unlicensed, sensors in the hands of a free people is insignificant, if it exists at all.

Whereas the threat due to a government in a panic over X, wielding the legislative and regulatory sledgehammer with abandon is demonstrably real.

Only a die-hard state apologist fails to perceive any of this. Just look at your nonsense:

“It’s a misdemeanor, and it will be extremely rare in practice.”

You have no idea whatsoever. Better still, its no skin off your nose if you are wrong.

Lyle January 21, 2008 10:27 AM

Then we can look forward to the first time some kid is arrested at JFK for wearing a sweatshirt with two big fat red 8-segment iron-ons that read “78” above another iron-on reading “Nuclear Attack Detector”.

not a ban January 21, 2008 1:14 PM


“So if “attack detectors” are in fact “measuring instruments” with different kind of display”

I can’t believe you’re really as thick as you seem. Do I really have to explain it to you in this much detail? Generally a measuring instrument measures a physical parameter and provides a more-or-less continuous reading of that actual parameter. A detector, on the other hand, provides a discrete reading, usually binary, and often of a condition that is indicated by the parameter, but not the parameter itself (e.g. smoke detector, radar detector). A detector also generally requires little or no training to operate and interpret, and is designed for an entirely different PURPOSE: this is the concept which is having a lot of trouble permeating through your dense skull. It’s not the LED, my paranoid friend–it’s the MEANING of the LED, that matters. Does the LED on your Geiger counter say “radiological attack”? No? I didn’t think so.

“the CO sensor in my basement, would likely fall under this regulatory regime”

Okay, at this point it is obvious that you haven’t even read the article, so why are we bothering with this? And if you’re so concerned they’re going to try to take your Geiger counter away–why in the name of Pataki do you imagine they would want to do this?–go call the City Council and talk to them about it. Report back what they tell you and stop your wild-eyed, unfounded speculation.

Even if your Geiger counter does turn out to be covered (even though the proposal as described in the article wouldn’t), then what’s your problem, anyway? Where’s the skin off YOUR nose? Five minutes filling out a form, and maybe a postage stamp? Cue the violins.

Moshe Yudkowsky January 21, 2008 5:33 PM

I’ve actually seen one of these late-1800’s fire alarm boxes, years ago, courtesy of a local collector. I can only speak to the ones that were in use in Chicago at that time.

Homeowners were issued keys; each key had an individual number. Inside the box, a windup mechanism signaled the fire department by telegraph.

The key opened the box but could not be removed after the box was opened. The goal: to deter deliberate false alarms. I will conjecture that the cost of a false alarm was far higher back then than it is now given the higher costs of fire engines, the higher cost of a horse-drawn vehicles compared to motors, and the “opportunity cost” of a fire company absent from its quarters in an era of very limited communications. (I also wonder if the city dwellers were less civilized then as compared to now — I suspect they were.)

Inspector911.com January 21, 2008 9:46 PM

Interesting article on the fire alarm boxes and the fear we get on calling wolf. Didn’t hear about the law by NYC before today. The pull box is going away and we still need dispatchers to get the big red fire truck to the fire. Just another good reason for automatic fire alarm and fire sprinkler systems.


Henri the Celt January 23, 2008 1:21 PM

If one broadens his panorama it all makes sense. The Twin Towers had mini-nukes at their bases. The radioactive dust is scattered all over lower Manhattan, perhaps further. The perps have been using THEIR geiger counters and have been alarmed by the persistence of this radioactive dust in myriad building crooks and crannies. The perps don’t want the average New Yorker to be nosing around with HIS geiger counter.

John David Galt January 23, 2008 4:31 PM

Matt from CT has it right.

Calling detector users paranoid is like insulting someone who counts his change. If somebody feels like taking precautions to protect himself on his own nickel, who is anyone else — including government — to tell him he can’t?

Once in a while these hazards do come up — and the right to have and use your own detector is the right to live through the event when it happens.

Therefore both this new law and the FDA’s ban on private testing for BSE should be thrown out under existing treaties recognizing a human right to live.

not a ban January 23, 2008 5:12 PM

@John David Galt: “who is anyone else — including government — to tell him he can’t?”

No one is telling him he can’t. That’s where you and all the other paranoiacs keep getting it wrong. RTFA.

Shad February 2, 2008 6:57 PM

Henri the Celt: Yes, there was nasty stuff in the dust there. No, it was not fallout from some nukes, it was something much more mundane – asbestos. It is already taking its toll.
not a ban: Who is anyone else – including governments – to force people to unneeded paperwork hassle, and to keep them in databases (how secure are those…), for mere use of passive sensors? Sorry, but superfluous bureaucracy makes me see red to the point of justifying armed violence.

not a ban February 2, 2008 9:03 PM

Shad: “Sorry, but superfluous bureaucracy makes me see red to the point of justifying armed violence.”

Then you’re clearly someone the government should be keeping an eye on, because you’re seriously unhinged, dude.

Matt February 15, 2008 9:14 AM

This is already a requirement in Charlotte, N.C. – all burglar alarms must have a permit issued to be installed. The kicker is that the police are not required to respond to any alarm that isn’t registered!

Paul Farseth February 15, 2008 10:16 AM

This reminds me of the early 1970s when there were a number of anti-war bombings in Minnesota, including one at the loading dock of a state office building. The response of the State’s building managers was to lock the emergency stairwells in some of the state buildings, so that you could get in but could not get out on the upper floors…and then to put deadbolt locks on the exits to the outside so as to defeat the panic bars on the doors. It took a lot of arguing to get the deadbolt locks removed. The desire to be able to say you have done something “for security” trumps the desire to do only what is useful.

AJ February 17, 2008 5:12 PM

As mentioned earlier, some of the argument over “attack detectors” and “measuring instruments” is mute due to measuring instruments containing the functionality that defines an “attack detector” (they’re all one and the same to someone who understands law enforcement more than technical specifications).

I guess the bottom line is that we are generally being ushered into a situation (even ignoring agendas at this stage) that means we have to ‘apply’ to the State to be able to exercise our freedoms.
There are 2 bad things about this, one is having to ‘ask’ to exercise freedom (instantly contradicts itself) and the other is that there is now an existing ‘potential’ for this ‘freedom’ to be denied.
We could speculate wildly for days on what the ‘real’ agenda could be (and create fear in millions of people in the process) but we are better off just calming down and focusing our energy on what the realistic effect of this particular situation is, the unnecessary restriction of a people to be aware of their environment and have the ability to acquire first hand information.
This is bad and should be halted in its tracks.

It’s amazing what policy, frameworks, measures and restrictions people have freely accepted in the name of “Security” but unfortunately there is a foundational life principal (repeatedly highlighted within the software development industry), ‘intended function’ doesn’t mean ‘only usage’.

Keep up the great work Bruce.

not a ban February 19, 2008 8:17 AM

@AJ: “We could speculate wildly for days on what the ‘real’ agenda could be (and create fear in millions of people in the process) but we are better off just calming down and focusing our energy on what the realistic effect of this particular situation is”

True. So why do you proceed to speculate wildly about what the “realistic” effect is? It’s amazing how people can indict and practice fearmongering at the same time.

todd April 6, 2008 11:36 PM

When geiger counters are outlawed,
only outlaws will have geiger counters.

More government-know-best nonsense
from NYC.

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