Keeping America Safe from Terrorism by Monitoring Distillery Webcams

Really:

We had an email recently from an observer "curious as to why the webcam that was inside the shop/bar is no longer there, or at least, functional". The email was from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in the United States.

When we replied that it was simply a short term technical problem, we asked why on earth they could be interested in the comings and goings of a small Distillery off the West Coast of Scotland. Were there secret manoeuvres taking place in Loch Indaal, or even a threat of terrorists infiltrating the mainland via Islay?

The answer we received was even more surreal. Evidently the mission of the DTRA is to safeguard the US and its allies from weapons of mass destruction -chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high explosives. The department which contacted the Distillery deals with the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, going to sites to verify treaty compliance. Funnily enough chemical weapon processes look very similar to the distilling process and as part of training there is a visit to a brewery for familiarization with reactors, batch processors and evaporators. As they said, it just goes to show how "tweaks" to the process flow or equipment, can create something very pleasant (whisky) or deadly (chemical weapons).

As they say: "In the post-Cold War environment, a unified, consistent approach to deterring, reducing and countering weapons of mass destruction is essential to maintaining our national security. Under DTRA, Department of Defense resources, expertise and capabilities are combined to ensure the United States remains ready and able to address the present and future WMD threat. We perform four essential functions to accomplish our mission: combat support, technology development, threat control and threat reduction. These functions form the basis for how we are organized and our daily activities. Together, they enable us to reduce the physical and psychological terror of weapons of mass destruction, thereby enhancing the security of the world's citizens. At the dawn of the 21st century, no other task is as challenging or demanding".

EDITED TO ADD (11/7): This story seems mostly bogus. See "The Story Continues..." on this page.

Posted on October 31, 2008 at 11:15 AM • 53 Comments

Comments

andyinsdcaOctober 31, 2008 11:46 AM

Nevermind that you could actually get a tour of a distillery or read a book on distilling.

Reality ChequeOctober 31, 2008 11:50 AM

Well, this sort of does make sense. Some of the more "peaty" scotch can be a tad deadly if your not used to them and take a hefty swig...

AndyOctober 31, 2008 11:53 AM

Doesn't the original post look like much ado about nothing? It seems that the lazy asses at that gov agency wanted to watch the chemical processes online rather than visit in person as part of training. What am I missing? I didn't see any mention of monitoring. The original post even has a followup email where the gal (complete address) says "personal".

That's what you get when you send emails from work account...

PourMeAtallOneOctober 31, 2008 12:09 PM

The webcam was inside the shop/bar, apparently not where the distilling vats are located.

When is the last time the U.S. was attacked from a distillery or by the output of a distillery? Never.

When is the next time this happens. Probably same answer.

Morons.

Dr. SouseOctober 31, 2008 12:13 PM

Hmm, inside the shop/bar -- obviously this is where the military tour groups go to "deplete" the distillery's store of "chemical weapons". They must monitor supply via the webcam to ensure the productivity of the inspection visit.

Dr Jack DanielsOctober 31, 2008 12:22 PM

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2001–2005, in the USA there were approximately 79,000 deaths annually attributable to excessive alcohol use. Unless things have changed, I guess that makes alchohol a weapon of mass destruction.

Please note I like a drink and am not a recovering alcoholic.

JemaleddinOctober 31, 2008 12:27 PM

"Funnily enough chemical weapon processes look very similar to the distilling process"

Oh, that is funny! Ha!

Wait. No.

Regardless: the way you can tell the difference is that in distilling people are coming by and tasting the product. Chemical weapons? Not so much.

baldheadedguyOctober 31, 2008 12:36 PM

I'm curious why everyone is poo-pooing this. I mean, Bruce, you constantly advocate for behavioural analysis, it sounds to me like the agency in question is doing behviour analysis of people taking tours using the web-cam. It makes reasonable sense to me anyway.

SOctober 31, 2008 12:41 PM

Please tell me what the consequences of a SHA256 collision are. Also if this is related to a partial preimage, what is the further consequence of that? Thank you.

PeterOctober 31, 2008 12:42 PM

Andy, much ado about nothing? Really, what business or authority has Defense Threat Reduction Agency in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in the country called UNITED KINGDOM?

ColoZOctober 31, 2008 12:51 PM

I suggest the good folks at DTRA spend more of their time "monitoring" internally the output of Scottish distilleries. I would volunteer for that job.

Not So SinisterOctober 31, 2008 12:53 PM

If you look at the blog post, it seems that the webcam was being used PERSONALLY familiarize/reacquaint the DTRA employee with how distillation works, which is part of their job requirement or working with DTRA.

SkorjOctober 31, 2008 12:56 PM

While this is a bit silly, I *do* like the idea of using a distillery tour as a training excercise for chemical weapons inspection - where do I sign up?

DanOctober 31, 2008 1:08 PM

"The use of the webcam is purely personal. I saw a television program about your distillery and have enjoyed watching your webcams ever since."

Just because the guy works at the DTRA doesn't mean it's being used to track terrorists. I agree with Andy above...are we missing something?

SeanOctober 31, 2008 1:09 PM

Quote: "webcam that was inside the shop/bar"

Well, we don't want any "Terrists" (aka bad guys) monitoring TSA/DTRA/DOD planning sessions. After all, the rules and plans from these agencies all bear the hallmark signs that they were concocted while liberally "under the influence" (tight, snockered, drunk) of some sort of distillery product. This probably was one of the headquarters where said planning occurred.

MOctober 31, 2008 1:16 PM

Here's a far-out possibility. They monitor the webcams for faces (with software), and plug those faces into the facial recognition software they have. Cross-indexing this with their watch/suspect list, they are able to see if any of their suspects are checking out distilleries/etc to learn about the process in making chemical/other weapons.

It's only a single data point, but correlated with other data it could be used to effectively build upon patterns of behaviour in known suspects.

GweihirOctober 31, 2008 1:32 PM

Whata bout really bas Whiskey? Do the distillers then count as terrorists? Would probably be the one good result of this lunancy...

John David GaltOctober 31, 2008 1:46 PM

If it were that easy to repurpose the equipment at a distillery, you would think that certain groups in Northern Ireland would have been using chemical weapons against their foes for most of the last century.

mcbOctober 31, 2008 1:59 PM

WMD disguised as single malt. Uisge beathe becomes uisge bás, so to speak. What a way to go.

Michael ScottOctober 31, 2008 2:00 PM

A visit to the DTRA website (www.dtra.mil) is quite instructive. in language and pictures almost (but sadly not) a parody of itself.

An Icelandic terrørist møøse once recruited my sister ...October 31, 2008 2:05 PM

No realli! She was trained by the møøse how to hijack a plane with the sharpened end of an interspace tøøthbrush given her by Svenge - her brother-in-law - an Icelandic terrørist and star of many Al-Jazeera møvies: "The Høt Hands of an Icelandic Terrørist", "Bømbings of Passiøn", "The Huge Interspace Tøøthbrush of Møhammad bin Nørdfink".

When they're done boondoggling over to Scotland to buy single malt, they can have a layover at Reykjavík.

http://www.indefence.is/

Truly insane.

Clive RobinsonOctober 31, 2008 2:05 PM

There is one thing that strikes me as very very odd.

Why are they talking about chemical weapons?

The process of distilling is preceded by the process of brewing.

Brewing essential is the growing of micro organisums in a controled environment to maximise their reproduction.

The alchol is a mear by product.

So why are they not talking about biological weapons?

Dr Jack DanielsOctober 31, 2008 2:21 PM

@Clive Robinson

Joke threat level severe......

The biological angle is a manageable threat as new all new home brew kits are monitored via embedded transponders.

JoshOctober 31, 2008 3:03 PM

The email thread was updated. Turns out this was NOT being used by DTRA to monitor.

From the site:
=============
The use of the webcam is purely personal. I saw a television program about your distillery and have enjoyed watching your webcams ever since.

I work at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Our mission is to safeguard the U.S. and its allies from weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high explosives). Our area deals with the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention so we go to sites to verify treaty compliance. I still find it very funny that their chemical processes look very similar to your distilling process. I mean no disrespect. As part of a training class we went to a brewery for familiarization with reactors, batch processors, evaporators, etc. before going in the field. It just goes to show how "tweaks" to the process flow, equipment, etc., can create something very pleasant (whiskey) or deadly (chemical weapons).

When I look at your webcams, I think about my time spent in that area of the world and thoughts of going back. If I do, your island and your distillery are on my list of places to visit.
=============

JoeVOctober 31, 2008 3:04 PM

I really don't know how a security person, monitoring remotely a distillery via webcam video, can tell the difference between bioterrorism chemical processing and beverage chemical processing. They're mixing stuff with liquids into vats, monitoring temperatures, etc. It all looks the same on video.

You've got to be a pretty good expert on bioweapons to discern the subtle difference between highland's and lowland's single-malt weaponized anthrax!

~J

ArminOctober 31, 2008 3:13 PM

Ahem, how about some of you just follow the link and check out the Bruichladdich website a bit? Then you would have noticed the cameras are all over the distillery, not only the shop. They've been for years, including 5 years ago when this story actually happened (yep, it's ancient, I'm a wee bit surprised to find it here now).

Apart from that Mark (the managing director) is quite clever with his marketing. If he sees something quirky he'll probably use it and get lots of press attention, which he certainly got and is still getting for this story.

Those asking for distillery tours: Pretty much every distillery in Scotland offers them daily (at least during the tourist season) and in particular every distillery on Islay.

If you come to Islay with a bit of luck you might even bump into George Robertson, formerly NATO Secretary General.

Booked your flights yet? ;-)

AnonymousOctober 31, 2008 3:41 PM

@Armin: If you come to Islay with a bit of luck you might even bump into George Robertson, formerly NATO Secretary General.

Bump into or trip over?

John CampbellOctober 31, 2008 3:42 PM

@PourMeAtallOne:

Consider the 1920s.

If I recall history correctly, one of the first things FDR did on entering office was to have Prohibition repealed.

It strikes me that the current GOP have a whole bunch of things they'd like to Prohibit... as if you can legislate, execute or judificate (sic) morality.

Ed T.October 31, 2008 3:44 PM

Uh... even if it was "personal viewing", if equipment belonging to DTRA were being used to (en effect) SPY on a facility on the soil of the UK (nominally a US ally), wouldn't they need to get the OK of the British government first? Or, at least let MI5 monitor a US-based microbrewery (or maybe a "gentleman's club") in return?

~EdT.

robert the shrubberOctober 31, 2008 4:26 PM

@S

"Please tell me what the consequences of a SHA256 collision are."

The same as the consequences of any hash collision. It depends on what the hash is being used for.

"Also if this is related to a partial preimage, what is the further consequence of that?"

You'd first have to explain exactly what you mean by "related to".

Sparky in North CantonOctober 31, 2008 4:45 PM

The government agent in question was probably just on-the-lookout for attractive females....

Andre LePlumeOctober 31, 2008 6:17 PM

"The government agent in question was probably just on-the-lookout for attractive females...."

Could be, but given that the agent's name is Ursula, and this is a U.S. military organization, this may be one of those DADT situations.

SteveOctober 31, 2008 7:56 PM

I don't know if anyone noticed or if it's relevant, but this story is more than five years old!

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/...

In addition, the "observer" points out that it was for her own use and interest that she was monitoring the site, not an official program. You may, of course, believe or disbelieve her but there is a ring of plausibility to her assertion.

Sometimes it helps to read all the way to the bottom.

Clive RobinsonNovember 1, 2008 5:17 AM

I suspect at the end of the day the truth of it lies between personal use and work use.

If she is a trainer teaching a fairly dry subject then being able to appeal to "mans baser instincts" would be a way of enlivening the course.

The there is "course critique" time when the knuckle chewers say just how boring the tutor was. Which as we who have been there know appears to be managments way of assessing how good a teacher you are...

What better way to improve your popularity than as a final excersice to take the grunts around a virtual distilary tour whilst having a bottle of the quality product and some glasses on "teachers desk" to be handed out with the critique forms...

After all Highland Hospitality was a way of bribing your foe into negotiations (Unless as the Cambells found out you are a perfidious Stewart)

ArminNovember 1, 2008 6:04 AM

@j

The "weapons inspector" web cam is called that because it looks at a weapons inspector.

You can't see it very well on the camera (or the preview), but there are a pair of legs sticking out of the top of the old still. Obviously they are the legs of a weapons inspector checking out the still...

John WatersNovember 3, 2008 12:17 AM

Sounds like a scheme to get free distillery tours/scotch tasting.

I would be more worried about someone putting a slow acting or persistent poison in the booze than using the manufacturing gear to breed and dry antrhax or C. botulinum.

If I was still a drinker, I would sign up to "inspect" those "potential bioweapons manufacturing facilities" in a heartbeat. Especially if they threw in a Morgan +8 and a tweed cap for transport.

NeighborcatNovember 3, 2008 5:47 AM

I picture a DTRA supervisor berating an employee after this story came out: Weapons of MASS DESTRUCTION, you idiot, not "mash production!"

Neighborcat

Ahh; The boss! Alt-tab! Alt-tab!November 3, 2008 6:41 AM

Nothing to see here; move along. The USG does enough dumb shit that we don't need to make any up.

This was someone watching a webcam for personal reasons. She just happened to be a govt employee. She had been to the country and was reminiscing about her visit. I do the same thing with a website in Germany, at least once a week on my lunch break.

Whether she was goofing off on the job or just taking an authorized break isn't addressed in the article; but I suspect if NOBODY did it there would be a lot fewer posts to blogs.

As far as whether a distillery is a suitable substitute for a WMD lab; I have never been to a sufficient sample of WMD labs to have an opinion.

SturatNovember 3, 2008 8:54 AM

@ John Waters

"I would be more worried about someone putting a slow acting or persistent poison in the booze "

Given that after distilling the product will cask-aged for at least 12 years (or even longer) before it is bottled and sold, it will be VERY slow-acting. In fact this would be one of the slowest terrorist attacks ever.

KadinNovember 3, 2008 5:23 PM

The webcam has as much to do with the actual activities of the DTRA, as Buffy the Vampire Slayer has to do with the CIA (remember all those Wikipedia edits?).

Somebody from DTRA apparently got a kick out of watching this webcam, and when it went offline sent them an email (unfortunately from their work account). Then they tried to come up with a shoddy excuse for why they cared when they got called on it.

DTRA, like virtually every other USG agency, is filled with a whole lot of bored people with a surplus of free time. Some particular peon just happened to enjoy staring at this webcam while on Uncle Sam's dime; they could just as easily spent their time doing crossword puzzles, but that would probably be harder to explain away when they got caught. (That's assuming anyone actually cares, not a safe assumption.)

John WatersNovember 4, 2008 1:33 AM

@Sturat

Exactly! That's what would make this threat so insidious. They hate your toddler's freedom, if your toddler ends up being a single malt man (or Amy Winehouse).

Willam RickerNovember 5, 2008 8:32 PM

I didn't get to taste the WMD Commemorative single malt whiskey but it's sequel WMD II "Yellow Submarine" is a fabulous expression, and a great story on MoD too. Not that I have had any Bruichladdich that I didn't like; Master Distiller Jim McEwan is a showman with a flair for self-promotion as the WMD whiskey show, but he delivers the goods to satisfy the niche boutique markets he creates.

http://www.bruichladdich.com/

(caveat - Whiskey Bible opines the WMD II doesn't live up to B'laddie's "normally orbital standards", which in my book is praising with faint damns, but it probably is trading at ah artificial novelty premium - if you aren't going to save the bottle for your Security Theatre collection, there's a finer B'laddie for the same price.)

DMcCunneyNovember 5, 2008 9:04 PM

You know, I see the expressions of outrage that a US government agency should have the temerity to monitor a Scottish distillery, and I can tell who *didn't* follow the link to the original article, where the DTRA employee explains "The use of the webcam is purely personal. I saw a television program about your distillery and have enjoyed watching your webcams ever since."

Moral outrage, like any other distillation, needs care taken in the ingredients and attention to the process to be to be something worth partaking.

John WatersNovember 10, 2008 12:23 AM

What about all those fellas in rural America cooking up moonshine, methamphetamine, and psiclobe cubensis? One would think that the people that are manufacturing or cultivating these three things are far more threatening to our security than well established, publicly accessible, businesses.

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