The Story of the Bomb Squad at the Boston Marathon

This is interesting reading, but I’m left wanting more. What are the lessons here? How can we do this better next time? Clearly we won’t be able to anticipate bombings; even Israel can’t do that. We have to get better at responding.

Several years after 9/11, I conducted training with a military bomb unit charged with guarding Washington, DC. Our final exam was a nightmare scenario—a homemade nuke at the Super Bowl. Our job was to defuse it while the fans were still in the stands, there being no way to quickly and safely clear out 80,000 people. That scenario made two fundamental assumptions that are no longer valid: that there would be one large device and that we would find it before it detonated.

Boston showed that there’s another threat, one that looks a lot different. “We used to train for one box in a doorway. We went into a slower and less aggressive mode, meticulous, surgical. Now we’re transitioning to a high-speed attack, more maneuverable gear, no bomb suit until the situation has stabilized,” Gutzmer says. “We’re not looking for one bomber who places a device and leaves. We’re looking for an active bomber with multiple bombs, and we need to attack fast.”

A post-Boston final exam will soon look a lot different. Instead of a nuke at the Super Bowl, how about this: Six small bombs have already detonated, and now your job is to find seven more—among thousands of bags—while the bomber hides among a crowd of the fleeing, responding, wounded, and dead. Meanwhile the entire city overwhelms your backup with false alarms. Welcome to the new era of bomb work.

Posted on November 5, 2013 at 6:53 AM39 Comments


bickerdyke November 5, 2013 7:31 AM

Hmm, it seems that the worst things that some terrorists could do is not to stick to the worst case scenario…

While a nuke at the Super Bowl still sounds a bit movie plot like….

But we had that before that post 9/11 we set up quite good countermeasures against a 9/11-style attack. But ONLY against an EXACT 9/11-style attack.

the real me November 5, 2013 8:11 AM

Hasn’t this basic scenario been in two dozen movies plots or more over the last few decades? Sorry to be contrary, but how is this new?

Pete November 5, 2013 8:14 AM

Very similar to the mindset change we needed to make after Columbine and VA Tech. It used to be, the patrol officers that initially responded would establish a perimeter and wait for the tactical teams to arrive. Now with the active shooters, they need to make entry themselves — this required significant changes in training, equipment, and mindset.

Daniel November 5, 2013 10:01 AM

It seems to me the real lesson in the paragraph quoted (I didn’t read the full article) is that once again society is reacting to and solving the last attack, always fighting the war that is already over.

By their own statement terrorist have changed their tactics. Terrorists will just change tactics again once the authorities are looking the other way.

SJ November 5, 2013 10:37 AM

@bickerdyke, @theRealMe

the “nuke at the Super Bowl” idea was a movie-plot idea. And before that, a novelists plot idea.

(Both book and movie were titled “The Sum of All Fears”.)

However, I don’t think a cluster of smaller bombs has been used often as a movie-plot idea.

Brian M. November 5, 2013 10:41 AM

Actually, the methodology for IEDs has never changed. In the 1890s there were “anarchists” planting bombs. In the 1960s there were “militants” who planted bombs in support of various “causes.” It basically comes down to dropping an explosive when nobody is looking, and running away. The Boston bombers did the same thing.

There are a lot of things that we just can’t protect ourselves against, because the perpetrators simply lie in wait until the right opportunity. And there will always be a “right” opportunity. Look at how many bombs the IRA planted. Were the police ever able to prevent a bomb from being planted? They definitely got very good at disarming them.

Matt from CT November 5, 2013 11:11 AM

Very similar to the mindset change we needed to make after
Columbine and VA Tech.

The police procedures changed after Columbine.

VA Tech showed a reaction to the new procedures. Since the cops would no longer set a perimeter and wait to assemble a highly-trained, specialized assault team (SWAT)…the Virginia Tech shooter brought a chain with him and locked out the police.

To some extent, EMS & Fire responses are evolving again in the wake of some of the recent shootings and perhaps even Virginia Tech, and perhaps especially to Boston — with new training protocols being developed to bring EMS in much more aggressively into the “warm zone” that has been preliminarily cleared by law enforcement but may not be absolutely safe yet. “Tactical EMS” to accompany SWAT has existed for years, but this is too specialized to be available in the quantities needed immediately; just like ordinary patrol officers are receiving training to act more aggressively against active shooters. For shooters locking the doors behind them, police cruisers don’t carry forcible entry tools — but fire trucks do.

It will continue to be a chicken and egg game of evolving strategies.

Some things are simple and low cost, hard to exploit — we have far more public defibrillators hanging around the country now then we have caches of tourniquets to apply to a bombing victim in a mall.

Others are expensive and easy to exploit — look at the response to the Halloween costume on Central Connecticut State University yesterday involving hundreds of officers, or the single gunman at the New Jersey mall yesterday which had a response of 500 officers.

The bad guys notice that. Sure, we can argue whether 500 officers was too many (and I can understand the arguments it was not). But what it undisputedly does is strip a large area of coverage of both normal patrol officers and members of specialist teams.

Lesson: Create a distraction or preliminary incident, and you can pull off a much larger secondary incident.

We’ve been trained for decades to be wary of secondary explosives aimed at exploiting how first responders operate at scenes. I suspect the next “big thing” will be extending this principle to take advantage of the impulse for massive and overwhelming response to one incident to pull off a second incident exploiting the weakened coverage created by the first.

Munin November 5, 2013 11:17 AM

It’s not even as if it’s a fresh modus operandi for Boston. The London bombings used several people setting off multiple bombs in multiple places.

It’s stupid how the previous responder scenario scenario was unrealistic and with no precedent whilst the “egads we’ll have to rethink everything” event is something that occurred before in several other places.

NobodySpecial November 5, 2013 11:26 AM

Perhaps if the bomb had spent less time reading Tom Clancy novels and more time watching news reports from Northern Ireland – it wouldn’t have been such a shock ?

Another common feature of the “the euphemisms” were secondary devices deliberately targeted at bomb squads and police/security response.

paddy o'schneier November 5, 2013 11:56 AM

There were events of Irish origin that got intercepted (such as in Gibraltar and an attack on a police station to pick 2 most famous).

Quite a number of bombs didn’t explode – apparently because security forces had some infiltration of terrorist organisations and managed to denature the explosives in storage before use. (No link ‘cos I don’t know how to search this without looking fishy)

EH November 5, 2013 1:49 PM

Even for the obviously movielike nuke-at-a-football-game scenario, isn’t it also quite rare for there to be “seven more bombs” after six go off?

Someone November 5, 2013 4:02 PM

No link ‘cos I don’t know how to search this without looking fishy

FFS, why doesn’t everyone get that this is what’s wrong with mass surveillance??

It’s also an act of giving up and giving in to improper authority to submit to being afraid of this kind of thing… but that’s a separate issue.

The fact that I’m using Tor to post this may seem a bit ironic too..

Brian M. November 5, 2013 5:06 PM

Gee, and I’ve been doing all kinds of searches on IRA bombs and the Boston bombers! Delving into history will just ever so land you in such a suspicious state!!

They’re coming to get me for reading the Encyclopedia Britannica…

(I’m so glad that tin foil hats are sooooo fashionable. It’s the new black!)

Eldoran November 5, 2013 5:28 PM

As for the multiple bombs at the superbowl movie – “Sudden Death” comes to my mind. I know it doesn’t completely fit, but there are multiple bombs at a stadium.

Though I suppose 1 or a few unannounced bombs would be enough for a carnage. Even if the bombs don’t destroy the stadium or kill most people. The mass panic alone would kill enough people to make it a disaster.

z November 5, 2013 7:32 PM

I think EMTs really need to be trained to deal with complex attacks, as well as dealing with scenarios with additional delayed IEDs. We can’t wait until a complex attack happens to be prepared for them.

65535 November 5, 2013 8:13 PM

“This is interesting reading, but I’m left wanting more. What are the lessons here?” – Bruce S.

I agree.

The story is lacking a few important points. In fact, this seems to be more of a sensational, action packed, piece than one which tries to finds the cracks in the system.

My time is squeezed by other activities so I’ll make my points with quick internet searches (these are just quick searches so take them as such – and excuse the grammar/spelling errors).

  1. The NSA and it’s “customers” failed to stop the Boston bombing even though they spend $10.8 billion a year and were warned by Russian FSB’s that Tsarnaev was a trained extremist and had traveled to Russia. Further, he was interviewed by the FBI – yet was left to go free and commit acts of violence.

[The Daily Beast]

“…two members of Congress have asked the Obama administration for answers about the FBI’s empty investigation. On Saturday, Rep. Michael McCaul (R–Texas), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and Rep. Peter King (R–New York), the chairman of that panel’s subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence, wrote a letter asking for “all information possessed by the U.S. government related to Tsarnaev prior to April 15, 2013.”

“The FBI interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev at the request of a foreign liaison service, on the basis of suspicions that Tsarnaev was involved in terrorist activities,” they wrote. “Tsarnaev subsequently traveled to and from Russia and posted jihadist materials on his social media. Yet Tsarnaev remained at liberty in this country to conduct the Boston attack, and it took days to publicly identify him as a suspect.”

  1. The story omits the fact that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was run-over and left to die by his brother while fleeing the scene of a murder/shoot-out/car jacking (His body was a large piece of evidence). The identity and pictures of the Tsarnaev brothers were only released after the license plate of the Honda used was inspected and the owner/driver identified.

I will note that various on line groups had a fairly good picture of both the “black hat” and “white hat” around the scene of the blasts. For example if you look at the Reddit logs during that period of time there were pictures of “black hat” and “white hat”. Yes, it is true that those were just amateur investigators but they did forward their findings to the FBI. Yet, the authorities only positively identified the Tsarnaev brothers after a murder, car-jacking, shoot-out and dying shooter left at the scene.

There is some indications that the public release photos of the Tsarnaev brothers and may have caused the brothers to panic leading to a carjacking and shootout (but the positive ID only happened after running the Honda’s plates and finding the owner after said shootout).

  1. The police, SWAT, National Guard, FBI and law enforcement helicopters failed to locate the second shooter. He was found by a resident who step out of his house, noticed his boat cover was covered with blood and called the authorities with said information. See Manhunt in previous Wikipedia link.
  2. It is still unclear if the entire participants in the Boston bombing have been rounded up and detained. See Dias Kabyrbayev, Azamat Tazhayakov, and Robel Phillipos in previous the Wikipedia article.

It is unclear what happened in the death of Ibragim Todashev who died wile being question by the FBI.


“A Chechen immigrant who was being questioned about his possible links to one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects was shot and killed by a federal agent in Florida on Wednesday after he suddenly turned violent, the FBI said.” –Reuters

Also, see:

“Maybe if the National Security Agency had noticed the Boston bomber’s visits to al Qaeda’s magazine or ‘Terrorist’ YouTube videos and stopped him, Edward Snowden wouldn’t have become a leaker.”

In conclusion, I estimate that the expenditure of $10.8 billion per year and the invasive, wide-spread domestic surveillance program of the NSA has produced less that what it is worth.

Figureitout November 6, 2013 12:24 AM

–They are legitimate points. Funny how authorities can turn a city into an actual police state, then say “We’re not scared of terrorists!” (lol it was 2 people w/ a pressure cooker bomb, there are many worse ways to kill people), then the suspect who just ran over his brother after murdering another cop and stealing a car is found by a civilian who saw blood on his boat. Really, it’s surprising this isn’t talked about more, how much of a failure on the part of law enforcement this was; they couldn’t even make use of all the systems at their disposal already.

Given the continuing failure of the economy, young people not having anything to lose, we’re going to continue to see random murders when they finally get pushed over the edge.

Figureitout November 6, 2013 12:38 AM

–Just to add to how unprepared law enforcement/ Emergency management people are, when someone w/ a supposed “gun” on my college campus literally shut it down, had swat teams cover the entire campus and 2 choppers; their crap systems didn’t alert my on-system cellphone (a dumb phone, mind you) until 2 fricking hours into the lockdown. So, I was planning to meet w/ my math professor that day, happened to come late, and noticed nothing different on campus besides some students saying “yay class is out”. So I went up to the math department door and was knocking and it was locked, weird. The people inside were already on lockdown and even though they weren’t sure I was a gun-man, opened the door and first alerted me to a possible gun-man on campus. This made me very mad, and it ruined my day and I couldn’t think or get anything done for the rest of the day.

You know what really makes me mad? The supposed “gun-man” was I believe just someone picking up an oboe in his trunk and some girl reported it. That’s all it took to completely lock down our campus of 30,000 students and it ruined my day and a few more. I couldn’t even get in the Math Assistance Center, we had to wave at someone inside to let us in and then they said they we were not allowed to leave until the “all clear” signal was sent out. My C-programming class (which I want more C-programming classes, many more) got cancelled so it affected my education.

Moral of the story? One stupid incident can shutdown a large campus and perhaps even bigger.

Mike the goat November 6, 2013 1:25 AM

Figure it out: seems like a clever “denial of service” (get someone to report something innocuous as a gun) but then again the poor guy with an oboe might get shot by a trigger happy campus cop.

65535 November 6, 2013 2:01 AM


I agree. The authorities are over-reactive in many instances. Your moral that one stupid incident can shutdown a large campus holds true.

In some respects, the Tsarnaev brothers achieved most of their goal by getting the police, FBI and National Guard to lock down an entire city – not to mention shooting hundreds of bullets into innocent people’s houses (and boats).

That type of fear lingers for a long time.

Clive Robinson November 6, 2013 3:45 AM

@ Paddy,

    Quite a number of bombs didn’t explode – apparently because security forces had some infiltration of terrorist organisations and managed to denature the explosives in storage before use.

If I remember correctly it was bad weather and condensation due to incorrect storage.

Basicaly a lot of home brew explosives won’t go off if the moisture content is above aprox 5%, so your more experianced bomb maker dries the ingrediants in an oven mixes and then either uses immediatly or stores in sealed (ziploc etc) plastic bags. The latter being the case for large bombs as it takes a while to dry a ton of incredients a couple of pounds at a time in a domestic oven.

From what I’ve been told in atleast one case somebody tried to save time by packing the explosives in the barrels the bomb was to be built in, as they went along and did not take sufficient precautions to keep the mix dry.

Apparently this was also a problem for other UK based terrorists who used chapati flower to make their bombs and then did not use them for a few weeks.

There is also another problem with “drying the mix” and that’s the fuel bill. It’s been indicated that a number of IRA and other N.I. terrorist safe houses were identified by having well over the top energy bills (just as incautious hemp growers are identified these days).

Clive Robinson November 6, 2013 4:13 AM

@ EH,

    Even for the obviously movielike nuke-at-a-football-game scenario, isn’t it also quite rare for there to be “seven more bombs” after six go off?

It’s been known but not the sort of bombs you might be thinking of.

Quite a while ago somebody (not sure if they were ever caught) had the idea of putting inceduary bombs in ciggeret sized boxes and putting them in cloths etc hanging up in large stores in shopping areas. It was not just one or two it was several all timed to go off to cause maximum disruption.

We also know from various attacks that some bombers use a large bomb and a little bomb. The little bomb goes off and people got to “designated areas” where unfortunatly the bomber has put the large bomb…

It’s known as “herding” and has been taught to soldiers as a method of driving the enemy unprepared into a killing ground ambush point.

Apparently this tactic has been seen being used by terrorists in Afghanistan etc. We’ve also seen multiple car bombs placed around towns and cities in the likes of India/Pakistan. So I guess sooner or later the idea of using many little bombs to drive people into one or more killing zones will be seen in places like malls and shopping centers to reduce the number of terrorists involved in any one place and thus attack several malls simultaniously. Which is something few places have the emergancy service resources to counter.

Also if you think about it of “nightmare senarios” it’s one heck of a sight more likely than a Nuclear / Biological / Chemical weapons attack.

Ryan November 6, 2013 4:15 AM

In Israel they have “security pits” scattered through the cities, basically concrete holes to contain explosives. This seems like a much better solution than ripping open bags. Grab all bags and drop them into a hole. Possibly a portable explosive containment device could be used at large events.

Autolykos November 6, 2013 4:18 AM

Designing bombs to target medics, fire brigades and other responders is in no way new. IIRC the Americans and British did exactly that in WW2, with delayed fuses timed from minutes to several days, to make sure the bombed factories won’t be repaired soon. Funny how quickly people can forget their own tactics.
@Clive: Depends a lot on what exactly you’re trying to brew there. If you’re trying to process table salt to sodium perchlorate in relevant amounts, you’re in for a serious energy bill. OTOH, I wouldn’t want to dry acetone peroxide in an oven; that seems like an elaborate way to commit suicide to me. I wouldn’t even bet that stuff can be safely dried over the radiator (these difficulties are what makes the liquids ban on planes so ridiculous…). Same goes for nitroglycerin, probably. It might be possible with TNT or RDX, but those are better suited for large-scale industrial production than home-brewing anyway.

Ursus Maritimus November 6, 2013 4:24 AM

“lock down an entire city ”

Call it what it is: curfew.

It seems that after pupils and parents have been habituated for years to “lockdowns” in schools and universities they don’t react when

What is the legal basis for imposing a curfew on Boston or districts of Boston? Remember that “General Gage said so” is not a proper legal basis.

Winter November 6, 2013 5:35 AM

‘It’s known as “herding” and has been taught to soldiers as a method of driving the enemy unprepared into a killing ground ambush point.’

About not knowing history and repeating it.

The Mongol conquerors would destroy a city and kill everyone in it. Then they would return a few days/ a week later and kill everyone who had survived and returned.

The Mongol armies were also masters in flee-and-destroy tactics. Against a strong army, they would flee. Then they would turn and ambush the “victorious army” that were pursuing them.

Clive Robinson November 6, 2013 6:35 AM

@ Ryan,

    In Israel they have “security pits” scattered through the cities, basically concrete holes to contain explosives. This seems like a much better solution than ripping open bags. Grab all bags and drop them into a hole.

Err generaly not to “contain” but direct/disipate in a safe direction. Nearly any “municiple pond” or other water feature does just as well if designed correctly.

And that is the major point we should be considering which is to design public places and pub/private building etc where people congregate to minimise the effect of attacks.

It can be done horribly like millitary check points or sympatheticaly and superficialy invisably by training/involving designers and architects at the earliest (if not before) stages of a project.

The point being the way to beat terrorists is to deny them the oxygen of publicity in various ways or make them look rediculous (think Times Sq & Glasgow airport.

Back in the days of the “PIRA Mainland” attacks Maggie thatcher got the agreement of newspapers to give minimum reporting where people had been directly attacked and give lots of coverage where it was infrestructure only. The result was a lot less deaths but an increase in journy times etc as PIRA switched to attacking the railway network in South & South East London. Eventualy PIRA realised they had been played, and a splinter group made a couple of quite large bombs in London which eventualy caused the “Ring of Steal” and vastly increased surveilance that was just becoming economical to use for saturation surveilance. Thus suspects were seen in video recordings driving vehicals that were used to carry bombs. Likewise the later Islamic bombers of central London were fairly quickly identified from CCTV.

Perhaps the best spend for “public money” to reduce the impact of terrorism is on building design and compulsory training in first aid to near medic level. Both will improve outcomes in other areas considerably.

We used to speak of the “golden hour” then the “platinum ten minutes” in saving lives in disasters and accidents of all kinds. The simple fact is there is an exponential decrease in surviavability with time to first medical response. Thus the faster the response the exponentialy increased chance of survival not just for bombs and bullets but vehical and home / work accidents.

We recognise this in Afghanistan and Iraq where every soldier is trained as a “meatball medic” with use of personnel kit and people who formaly would have died where they fell are now surviving and recovering to the point where they can go home to family and friends and have a good chance of living life aproximatly normaly all be it with the loss of limbs and other issues. If the same could be done for vehical accidents the numbers saved in a year could dwarf the 9/11 fatalities.

Munin November 6, 2013 7:24 AM

@ Brian M.

I would laugh about it if you didn’t have, for instance, examples out there of people being arrested and charged for possessing “terrorist materials” they got from a public US government website which they needed for an academic project related to their University course.

Yeah, the average citizen probably has little to fear but just add one or two more risk factors (Muslim, not a citizen, visited an Islamic country in the past) and you can become the target of a witch hunt.

The level of paranoia the US security apparatus has reached is crazy. I’d love to visit places like Isfahan (which was at one point the capital of Persia and has some stunning ancient architecture and one UNESCO World Heritage site) and Socotra (an island which is part of Yemen and is famous for its unusual flora and fauna) but I also still need to be able to travel to the US…

Harry November 6, 2013 11:30 AM

What the bomb techs did during the Marathon is called slash-and-tag. It’s standard procedure for the circumstances, and quite dangerous. The article is quite accurate, although it left out the part where the bomb techs got permission from the Chief of Police before commencing the slash-and-tag.

To answer Bruce’s question: There were a lot of lessons learned from the Boston Marathon Bombings, and the Chief of Police, among others, have been busy sharing the knowledge. Just because this article doesn’t contain them, doesn’t mean they haven’t been learned and disseminated.

Skeptical November 6, 2013 6:03 PM

65535 –

Would it not be as much as an error to conclude from the Boston Bombing that current security is a total failure as it would be to conclude from an airplane crash that current flight safety efforts are a total failure?

No security is going to be perfect. No system of safety is going to be perfect. We can work on reducing probabilities, but they’re unlikely to ever get to zero. So while we learn from every incident, and improve with every incident, we’ll always need to prepare for future incidents.

Given the difficulty of the task, my own view is that the record of prevention is impressive.

Matt –

I’d speculate that such a tactic (using one attack as a diversion to stage an attack elsewhere) is an anticipated, even expected, contingency. When something happens the response always entails more than sending personnel to the reported scene. Immediately after the Boston Marathon incident security was increased not just across Boston but across the United States, especially in cities most sensitive to the possibility of terrorism, no?

Clive –

It’s been reported that new buildings in Pakistan are now sometimes designed using software that can simulate the effects of explosive devices of various types, in order to create buildings that mitigate the effects of such devices.

I would say (I know I’m likely in the minority here) that better surveillance has a role to play as well. Higher quality public surveillance cameras with broader coverage, software that can recognize possibly suspicious actions (leaving a backpack unattended) and direct attention, faster facial recognition, better scanning technology for concealed devices and weapons, and, yes, signals intelligence that can be used to thread together what might be nearly disparate cells or to paint the past of a hitherto unknown terrorist.

As bad as the Boston bombing was, it’s easy to envision even worse scenarios had the two perpetrators been determined and able to travel to New York City and launch another attack.

In other words, containing an attack means planning not just to mitigate any additional explosive devices, but also to find and “defuse” the perpetrators of the attack. This would be important not simply from the vantage of limiting further physical damage, but also from the vantage of limiting any further psychological or economic disruption from an attack. And that in turn is an important part of discouraging future attacks.

I completely understand the civil liberty concerns with such technology, but we ought to be able to design institutions and procedures in such a way as to enable the appropriate development and use of that technology while protecting against its abuse. And there are benefits beyond preventing and mitigating terrorist attacks, such as detecting reckless or intoxicated drivers, persons in medical distress, crimes in progress, or wanted violent criminals. Properly limited and supervised, technology like that can reduce not just low probability/high impact events, but also the more frequent causes of death and suffering that occur every day.

Figureitout November 6, 2013 6:10 PM

seems like a clever “denial of service”
Mike the goat
–Well, guess you would have to twist clever; why would someone want to shutdown a school? I also heard that maybe the entire thing was just a training exercise. It doesn’t matter how much you train, and the day left me feeling more shaky seeing just how unorganized everything was. When you know an active shooter is near you, you freak out and run. Look at every footage of an active attack…If you don’t, you’re dead. You don’t know if they’re going to go room by room, killing hiders.

ER November 6, 2013 10:24 PM

We certainly can anticipate bombings, but chilling effect of govt surveillance keeps this from happening. Used to be one didn’t worry too much about merely watching the news, aggregating the news, or even communicating with terrorist newsmakers as long as one was not aiding or abetting them — but not any more, such activities can be spun as “preparing” to aid them and worse. Back to anticipating — it’s super easy — read the texts (they’re followed to the T), then listen to the players (not the wonks), follow the players’ MSM contacts (sometimes they upload something before event happens, such as failed Times Square car bomb), etc. We in the US are infiltrated at the highest levels and all the security knowledge in the world is at best fruitless, at worst, misdirected, if there’s no understanding and wisdom to go with the knowledge.

Figureitout November 6, 2013 10:42 PM

–Bruce blogged about this before. Of all the comments, this video stuck in my mind. What we are witnessing are blatantly illegal searches; some people were commenting how it would be best to stay indoors or that it was a “voluntary curfew”, BS. A swat team doesn’t ask you for permission to bust in your home. You can’t even escape it bundled up in your own home. This police state is going to be the future and it is going to be hell, mark my words and put them on my tombstone.

Brandioch Conner November 7, 2013 1:17 AM


Higher quality public surveillance cameras with broader coverage, software that can recognize possibly suspicious actions (leaving a backpack unattended) and direct attention, faster facial recognition, better scanning technology for concealed devices and weapons, and, yes, signals intelligence that can be used to thread together what might be nearly disparate cells or to paint the past of a hitherto unknown terrorist

The false positives would quickly overwhelm that system.

65535 November 7, 2013 4:36 AM

“A swat team doesn’t ask you for permission to bust in your home. You can’t even escape it bundled up in your own home. This police state is going to be the future and it is going to be hell, mark my words…”- F.I.O.

I agree. And, there something needs to be done about it.

Skeptical November 7, 2013 6:21 AM

Brandioch –

Good point, but it depends on how good the software’s heuristics are and how large a response any given software signal will bring, no? If it signals every time a person simply rests a backpack or bag on the ground, then not very good and little response. If it signals whenever someone throws away a small bit of trash, not very good and little response. But if it picks out the guy who walks to a point in a crowd, dumps a large bag, and then rapidly walks away… well that’s a good flag, and should bring some immediate response to verify the flag. By immediate response I mean at first something as simple as a human being taking a closer look at the footage flagged by the software; it can be escalated or de-escalated from there.

And with machine learning approaches, the software can improve every time it’s shown an instance of an actual bombing or attempt (or cardiac arrest, or mugging, or drunk driving, etc).

Re SWAT teams and curfews, this type of disruption is minimized if you’re able to identify the perpetrators and quickly find and fix them. But, if you don’t have that capability, and you’re grappling with an ongoing terrorist operation, then a voluntary curfew and lots of requests to conduct searches (99% of homeowners will be grateful for the check) will be used.

My view is that we’re not heading towards a police state, but rather to a time when more and more public behavior will be verifiable. And that means we can tell with more accuracy whether a police officer used excessive force, improperly checked a person’s records (in the US, checks of national databases by law enforcement are already audited regularly by the FBI), etc. It’ll mean very careful regulation, transparency, and control over the technology enabling all that, but ultimately this is something that should enhance legal rights, not diminish them.

Autolykos November 7, 2013 7:30 AM

@Skeptical: That’s definitely a possible vision of the future, but it won’t happen if we just stand by and let things happen. “Authorities” tend to avoid anything that looks like transparency and accountability like the plague, and they won’t accept it unless we force it on them.
It’s all about the power imbalance between government and people; and right now this is mostly decided by information. That’s the main problem I see with your vision: Politicians are people who dedicated their whole life to grab as much power as possible, sometimes to an almost pathological degree. Thus they are the least likely to give that power up again.

soothsayer November 14, 2013 9:51 PM

Bruce ..
God left Israel long time ago; there are no gods there anymore — so it’s a rather xumb lamentation.

Terrorism is fueled by 2 things

1 MONEY — Israel didn’t stop suicide bombers — Death of Saddam Hussain did — (He used to pay $10,000 – $25,000 to every bombers family depending upon the yield) and he is gone.

In Pakistan you can still buy a bomber for $10K –though yield is not guaranteed.

#2 is Martyrdom and grant of hoories in the heaven – if they fear about the longevity of their GF/wife/mother here — there will be less incentive to curry the favors of divine grant if they were facing their papa in the line too.

There is a VERY simple fix for terrorism — alas the enlightened people will let their own innocent citizens be killed a 1000 times before they will even “think” of harming an “innocent” …

Simple fix is to destroy the whole town where the terrorist of 9/11 and later days have sprung from or trained — actually it might be mildly less severe to just kill the families of the terrorists .. but that’s a fine point for “liberals” to ponder – terrorism will stop in about the time the dust cloud settles.

No other solution IS possible.

People developing “liberal” solutions are charlatans — you should do a book on them like your last book — hey you might have a role in it.

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.