Airline Passenger Mistakes Vintage Camera for a Bomb

I feel sorry for the accused:

The “security incident” that forced a New-York bound flight to make an emergency landing at LaGuardia Airport on Saturday turned out to be a misunderstanding — after an airline passenger mistook another traveler’s camera for a bomb, sources said Sunday.

American Airlines Flight 4817 from Indianapolis — operated by Republic Airways — made an emergency landing at LaGuardia just after 3 p.m., and authorities took a suspicious passenger into custody for several hours.

It turns out the would-be “bomber” was just a vintage camera aficionado and the woman who reported him made a mistake, sources said.

Why in the world was the passenger in custody for “several hours”? They didn’t do anything wrong.

Back in 2007, I called this the “war on the unexpected.” It’s why “see something, say something” doesn’t work. If you put amateurs in the front lines of security, don’t be surprised when you get amateur security. I have lots of examples.

Posted on October 12, 2021 at 10:04 AM30 Comments

Comments

Leo October 12, 2021 10:24 AM

I don’t understand the response here.

TSA is scanning checked and carry on bags.

What are the odds that a passenger will be able to sneak a bomb onto a plane (let’s call it 5:1), and then calmly expose that bomb to their seat-mate, but NOT detonate it? Is real life so much like Hollywood that the villain gives the hero the opportunity to save the day during their long soliloquy of how their plan was perfect? Is the cost of diverting a plane so low that the reasoned response is to land the plane?

What’s the risk of having a flight attendant analyze the situation at greater depth; they ARE there for our security…

Amateur security is one thing – this appears to be rank stupidity.

Chelloveck October 12, 2021 11:15 AM

@Richard Samuels: The man shown in the video is clearly white. Probably between 20 and 50 years old, but that’s hard to say given that he’s prone and facing away from the camera.

@Leo: I don’t know what the airline rules are, but my guess is that there’s no flexibility or judgement call allowed in bomb situations. If someone reports suspicion of a bomb the plane will land and let law enforcement take it from there. (I don’t claim that’s the way it should be, I just suspect that’s the way it is.)

@Bruce: Why several hours? First they had to detain him. Then they had to call in the bomb squad to verify that it’s not a bomb. Then they had to find a vintage camera expert to verify that it is a camera. Then they had to find a lawyer to figure out if there’s anything they could charge him with anyway, because he wouldn’t have been arrested if he wasn’t guilty of something. Finally they had to browbeat the man about why he dared carry on something that someone might possibly mistake for a bomb. Okay, maybe I’m being cynical, but lately I’ve come to doubt that there’s any such thing as being too cynical.

Bill October 12, 2021 11:38 AM

@odom:

Oh yes they will, sometimes destroying the case or locks in the process. Search for Deviant Ollam and some of his videos on escapades of traveling.

Aaron October 12, 2021 11:50 AM

Considering the evidence that the concept of an “eye witness” is actually less credible then previously believed, especially in a court room setting; the idea of “if you see something, say something” needs to have a reinforced idea behind it about actually understanding what you are seeing. How often does somebody, usually a stay at home parent, call the cops on something they completely miss-witnessed and makes the situation worse had they just observed more and panicked less.

https://www.psychreg.org/how-reliable-eyewitness-testimony/

How is it that not another person on the plane would believe the camera aficionado and actually take a look and go “yea, something doesn’t seem right here because that’s not a bomb”. It is not like everybody has knowledge of what a bomb or explosive device looks like; you can’t count Hollywood productions as experience.

Knee-jerk reactions can do more harm then good.

Quantry October 12, 2021 12:29 PM

JUST IN FUEL: A COUPLE MILLION POUNDS OF CARBON PER HOUR. JUST THE AIRLINE INDUSTRY??? WE WET THE BED ABOUT EXPLOSIVES??? ONE IN A DECADE ISH???

Between external threats to a flight: security theatrics at the airport and in the air, weather, birds, drones, volcanic ash, sams; and internal threats: disease, ieds, human error, human mental breakdowns; and flight failures: mechanical screw-ups, bad design, supply chain failure [bad fuel, bad parts…]; now multiply by how many people are on the the aircraft, and / or touch or service or direct the aircraft, the aerodrome, or the product that goes into keeping it all alive…)

Now think of the KNOWN costs, like the carbon consumption. Think 5000 pounds per hour, per aircraft ish, multiply ALL OF THIS by the 13739 flights currently in the air reported by flightaware.com today.

Anyone who flies CAN and DOES have to lick their finger and stick it into the wind and ask, “it it worth it”.

Is the problem of explosive devices so high when painted on that canvas that it justifies any of this? Not even remotely.

No explosives are needed: We have the media to skew and “justify” the security numbers. Obviously its working. A local man was evidently accosted by the cops for carrying a weed whacker across a school field.

To begin fixing this, punish media bias, and de-fund security. AKA, this is permanent.

Do something useful folks: invest in diapers, give one to the lady, tell her to stay home. Cheers Bruce. Thanks

wumpus October 12, 2021 1:46 PM

@aarron

The failure of eyewitnesses has long been known by psychology and presumably keeps being told to the legal community, who insists on putting its fingers in its ears and saying “la la I can’t hear you”.

Medieval evidence rules (mainly witnesses and confessions) are kept because they are useful in keeping “the right people” above the law and “the wrong” people consistently in jail, while changing things would require work and might upset the apple cart.

Don’t expect anything like justice or accuracy from the US legal system. I’m not sure what places have something that works, but I’d suspect such a system to only work in small and homogeneous groups (where everyone in the court can agree on what is “obvious”).

Dave October 12, 2021 7:38 PM

As some guy called Schneier once said:

If you put amateurs in the front lines of security, don’t be surprised when you get amateur security.

This case just proves the point.

Clive Robinson October 12, 2021 8:46 PM

@ Bruce,

Firstly, the link you give indicates it is not available in my region, which I suspect is a result of the EU GDPR being seen as a significant threat… So I’ve had to go with the likes of,

https://news.in-24.com/world/207592.html

Which is not shall we say the most indepth reporting…

But with regards,

Why in the world was the passenger in custody for “several hours”? They didn’t do anything wrong.

In short the reason is due to,

1, Uncertainty.
2, Political wallpapering.

To understand why you have to look into things in much greater depth, and the journey has some seamingly odd parts to it…

So you have to start somewhere and a good point is the old saying of,

“There are two sides to every story.”

Whilst true it kind of misses the more general point I’ve made in the past about “point of view”.

If you have N viewers of some event, if they are being truthfull you will get N different stories. Because each person sees things from a different point of view and they only see part of the truth. So there are actually N+1 “truths” where the “+1” is the actual truth that can not be told but only at best deduced from the information available after the event.

Now whilst in my above argument I appear to be indicating “physical” points of view which should be clearly evident if people draw things out on a piece of paper and add “sight lines” in reality it actually goes a lot deeper than that.

As has also been said,

“We are the sum of our experiences.”

It likewise misses a subtle point, our experiences “colour our perspective” that is we all metaphorically wear glasses that distort our perspective thus point of view. Most on consideration will see that this is true, and that people are not “honest reporters of events” because of it (not because they chose to be dishonest).

But also our “experiences” are both “external” and “internal” that is “from physical interaction” with the world outside of us and “from thinking forward” within our own minds.

Thinking forward is something we all do in one way or another and we give it so many different names “instinct, intuition, experience, imagination, prediction, foresight, thinking hinky, etc etc” most of us do not realise it’s all due to an underlying “survival process”. Which in what might appear to be “circular reasoning” is actually “based on our experience”. It’s not and as a result we can effectively see a short distance into the future.

Part is hard science covered by the likes of Newtonian laws of motion, only we “don’t do the math” we aproximate from repeated experience. So we can see very aproximately where a ball will go thus move to where it will land or into a position to catch it or as importantly to survival avoid it.

But what many do not realise is the same applies from our “internal experiences”. An experienced musician does not think about the note they are playing but the note they will be playing next and often several other notes beyond that. It’s the same with any skill we “think forward” in some way.

But… thinking forward can go horribly wrong. If you think forward on the wrong “external experience” or a purely fictional one from an “internal experience” from imagination your prediction can be wrong.

In science we call such “thinking forward” a hypothesis, that is often based on observation of the physical world. However science requires not just that you hypothesize, but actually “measure” but “test” not just to “prove” but also to “disprove”.

In the real world if somebody points a potential weapon at you, from the survival aspect you have two options,

1, Be somewhere else.
2, Neutralize the threat.

Mostly only option two is open to you… The question then devolves into what “neutralize” means and how you go about it.

Where this can obviously go wrong is where person A has an object in their possession that person B thinks or claims is a weapon. If the scientific rational is applied “measurments are made” and their results are “tested” both positively and negatively as to not just if something could be a weapon but if it is a viable weapon such an assesment needs “relavant experience” and when novel requires time to measure and test.

For example is a newspaper a weapon? Many would say no, but others yes.

I can say on the basis of experience that the answer is “Yes”.

Two examples of this are,

If you roll a newspaper tightly it very nearly aproximates a wooden stick. You can use a tightly rolled newspaper to “smash glass” amongst other things, and breaking bones and rendering people unconcious or dead are well within the repertoire of people that have thought it through or have been shown/taught.

Likewise the so called “Millwall Brick”[1] if you know how to fold a newspaper up it becomes like a wooden block or half-brick. Put it in a sock and you have a very effective cosh or broad faced soft hammer (ie it will quite easily make a real mess of car body pannels and side windows etc).

But also of more relevance to aircraft flights, would you consider a wooden coat hanger used in a “carry on” luggage a vicious weapon?

Again in my experience “Yes”.

Because if you chose to look, usually the part used for hanging is a bent metal hook, that importantly “screws in”. If you unscrew one and put the curved part flat in your palm and close your fist around it so the spiked screw thread sticks out between your middle and ring finger then you have a quite effective improvised stiletto knife. All be it quite short it is still very effective to attack a head or neck, inside of a thigh and many other vital points on a human body causing incapacitation or death.

Thus the “experienced” view might appear to be fantastical to most others at first, but upon testing it is seen to be valid. So from the security asspect there is a large “uncertainty gap” untill testing is compleated and a threat assesment made.

As has been pointed out in the past with older laptops, it takes no genius to take sheets of semtex or other explosives and mould them inside the case likewise with older mobile phones. So what about an old bellows type camera?

As a hypothesis it has credability, and may or may not be valid in each case. So “uncertainty” will always be there even if the probavility is very small.

Which is where we move from demonstrating “uncertainty” to denonstrating “political wallpapering”.

From a political perspective if it became known after a bomb went off that some one had alerted the authorities and the authorities failed to investigate then it would at the very least be a total PR disaster[2] for the politicians.

So to avoid such “PR disasters” happening for “Politicians” they have authorities under their nominal control issue avoidence rules that effectively say,

“Untill proven otherwise all notified threats are to be treated as credible and must be acted upon.”

So if person B says the object person A has in their possession is a security threat the “Untill proven otherwise…” rule kicks in untill the uncertainty is resolved.

However this rule is not just in relation to aircraft security…

Some years ago I was siting in Lewisham Hospital[3] waiting for a weekly blood test. In another part of the hospital a person threw a bag of crystalline substance and screamed what was thought to be a “terroristic threat”. The hospital went not just into full “lockdown” but “full confinment in place” in case it was a biological weapon that had to be contained. So “no ins no outs” whist the emergancy services deployed and scientists tested the substance in various ways which as most will realise is not a “five minute process”.

Many hospital appointments were cancelled and most ordinary proceadures brought to a compleate halt. The cost not just in financial terms, but in human terms and ultimately lost opportunity costs is difficult to calculate, but very far from negligible.

Thus a “Political Rule” has become a weapon in it’s own right. That can be used against individuals and organisations via “denial of XXX” be it “Service”, “Rights”, “Liberty”, “Reputation”, etc, etc.

As we saw with the “bomb in a printer” scare, some years back, the bomb does not have to be viable in any way what so ever to cause very substantial damage.

The thing is it is a “no win” issue no matter what you do. 9/11 two decades back happened because those who committed the acts, had previously tested and found they could get box-cutters onto aircraft in their pockets or “carry on”.

Any expert will tell you “any object can be seen as a weapon” all that has to be done is “Work out how to realise the transformation”.

In short everything is a threat including naked humans, who as we know from the Saudi Ass Bomber can have bombs sewn into them… How you deal with the issue is fraught. But eventually it is going to be a loosing game especially with an adversary that has nothing to loose and everything to gain in their mental model.

As always there is also going to be “collateral damage” in this case it was person A and also to a lesser extent so far person B.

Whilst I have quite a degree of sympathy for the person with the camera having had my own liberty curtailed for a period because of the actions of others, what happened had a degree of inevitability about it. Thus with 20-20 hindsight some will claim it was the persons own fault, and avoid giving any kind of compensation, even though the probability that the camera was dangerous was very very low.

[1] Millwall football club is a couple of miles to the East of London Bridge railway station. In the 1960’s through the rest of the last century it developed a very very bad reputation for violence in some of it’s “alleged” supporters, who in reality used it as a “fight club”. They used the “East London Ethos” going back several centuries, of turning unlikely objects into weapons. Some, such as a sock full of coins as a cosh are easy to see. Others such as sharpened pennies sewen inside a cap brim that could be used in the same way as a cut throat razor and many many more. One particular “nasty” that Glasgow in Scotland also claim as their own, is to take two razor blades and fix them together about 2-5mm apart so that when you slash someone you do not “cut them” you “ribbon them” that is you give them a wound that will not heal easily or at all and is so prone to infection that significant illness or death is likely even with modern medicine and micro-surgery. For those that survive, they have not scars but mutilations. Oh and if you think that horendous there are far, far worse than that with “improvised weapons” as those with the training will tell you “any object is a weapon when you see and use it that way”.

[2] For those that want to see such a political disaster “open up” have a look at todays news in the UK. As many commenters here have said the US and UK response to COVID was without a doubt a disaster and as predicted many have died needlessly. Well in the UK a group of MP’s have come up with a report that basically says that the current UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and members of the Cabinet of Ministers he selected were without a doubt not just negligent but wilfully ignored sound scientific and fairly obvious advice. Basically the UK and US political executives went into some kind of fantasy mode and hundreds of thousands of people have died because of it. Oh and certain “favoured groups” have profited greatly from it via very overt “disaster capitalism”. Read,

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/12/damning-covid-report-reveals-failure-after-failure-by-tories

To see what some are thinking, and follow the embedded links in the “letters” to see just how bad things were, and worse yet “will be”.

[3] A hospital in South East London that has a large Muslim population around it that has the very distinct plus side of making the food menu way way better than most other hospitals in London. Also it gained UK wide and international fame, from a choir of staff members who released a charity record that became a Winter festival top selling hit.

lurker October 12, 2021 9:56 PM

@Dave
When did RED become vintage? I drooled over their first release, body only, supply your own lens and storage, but that was hardly fifty years ago…

Fergus October 12, 2021 10:20 PM

I think the complainant might be a character from Oliver Sack’s the Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. On the other hand, after shoe bombs and underwear bombs who’s really to say. If I had to choose a camera that’s a bomb it would be the old Holga. It leaks light like a sieve and you have to cover it in so much gaffer’s tape as a result that it could look a might sketchy.

MarkH October 13, 2021 1:13 AM

@Chelloveck, re cynicism:

Lily Tomlin said, “I try to be cynical, but it’s so hard to keep up.”

Denton Scratch October 13, 2021 6:01 AM

@Clive

In short the reason is due to,

Carrying a round black thing with BOMB written on it in large letters?

It really doesn’t look much like a camera. Without the lettering, you might well wonder what it was. But with that lettering, it’s not hard to imagine someone mistaking it for a hoax.

So why two hours?

  1. Get 200 people off the plane: 10mins
  2. Detain the suspect: 2mins
  3. Work out what to do with the package: they’re airport police, so 1min.
  4. Wait for the bomb-squad to turn up: an hour?
  5. Bomb squad examines package: 10mins?

I’ve no idea what the procedure is for dealing with a suspect bomb, but I guess you have to (a) clear the area, (b) get the device to some safe place outdoors, like maybe an airport apron, (c) get a bomb-disposal suit on, (d) X-ray the device? (e) prepare for a controlled explosion?

Moral: don’t whip a peculiar-shaped package labelled “BOMB” out of your carry-on while travelling by air.

I mean: if you so much as mention the musician known as “Bomb The Bass” while queueing at check-in, you are liable to get arrested, even if you have no luggage. I think this traveller was reckless, and I imagine the cops took several minutes to explain that to him. Maybe he could even have beeen charged (and that can take an hour) – in the UK there is a criminal offence of “wasting police time”.

Petre Peter October 13, 2021 6:49 AM

“If you see something say somthing” encourages visions of bombs and heroism. What we need is to train people to fight for one another.

Z.Lozinski October 13, 2021 7:58 AM

@Dave,
That part isn’t the camera, it is just the eyepiece. RED is a company that makes very high end professional video cameras in the USD10K-100K price range. The sort of cameras that are used to shoot Netflix and Amazon series. The problem is that RED cameras don’t look anything like most people’s concept of camera, and you almost never see them outside a shoot. Think black cubes, with multiple frames, rails and cables attached. The “BOMB” was an unfortunate choice of branding on RED’s part .. but a RED camera looks sufficiently unusual it may have been the cause itself.

I’m guessing the pro videographers will be reaching into their bags for black tape to cover over the offending words.

Clive Robinson October 13, 2021 8:23 AM

@ Denton,

Carrying a round black thing with BOMB written on it in large letters?

Might or might not have caused the woman to be not exactly thinking logically.

But it most certainly was not “vintage camera equipment” so I suspect it’s not mentioned in the article @Bruce linked to either.

However as I indicated at the top of my post, that article did not make it’s self available in the UK so I had to find abother story source, that made no mention of the “view finder” or that it had “bomb” written on it.

The story I read painted a quite different story, apparantly the man had spent considerable time going through pictures, and it was these that caused the woman alarm and she was already convinced he was a bomber before he got a camera out…

So there is quite a variation on the stories as far as I can tell.

But even so I was still speaking in the general case, AFTER a person has reported a suspicion. As this is not the only occurrence of this behaviour, and the “official play book” appears to get used every time. And even though the rules are not exactly published they are not that difficult to work out and the probable reasoning vehind them.

Hence my two points,

1, Uncertainty.
2, Political wallpapering.

Stand, and my reasoning to say so likewise holds.

Z.Lozinski October 13, 2021 11:22 AM

I was thinking about this some more. I think the security challenge here is how do we educate people to deal with things that are way outside their experience or expertise, without over-reacting, and without missing actual threats.

I have travelled by air with some uncommon gear (development circuit boards, loaded 19″ racks, interesting cameras). Most of the time my experience has been that everything works fine when you have good security who ask intelligent questions. I was pulled aside at Heathrow, and talking to the screener, a classic camera with a metal body, brass lens and glass elements looks very different on X-Ray to to DSLRs with a plastic lens. Fair enough.

My worst experiences have been in countries where tech is less common, when a carefully laid out set of cables and adapters caused severe upset in the soldiers doing the security screening and their officers!

Winter October 13, 2021 12:07 PM

@Josbert Maldurian
“Most people are stupid, ignorant and suspicious”

Obligatory XKCD reference:
https://xkcd.com/2501/

I would also want to note that half the people have an IQ of 100 or less.

I myself despise people who judge others on their ignorance. In almost all cases the judgement should be against their schools, the politicians who fail to fund these, and above all, the people who voted for these politicians.

In this particular case, likely a woman with flight anxiety was brain washed by Homeland (the fairy tale TV series) to believe there are terrorists everywhere.

WhiskersInMenlo October 13, 2021 7:14 PM

Did anyone discover what camera was involved.
.
I looked and could find nothing.

Then there was the counterfeit accusation when a student attempted to pay fir lunch with a $2 bill. A couple years back.

SpaceLifeForm October 13, 2021 10:29 PM

Flight not diverted, the destination was LaGuardia

hxtps://flightaware.com/live/flight/AAL4817

Jon October 13, 2021 11:20 PM

@odom

I mentioned this to my brother, who is a competitive shooter, and travels a great deal both domestically (USA) and overseas for competition.

He observed that those bags do indeed go astray, and/or have been found later to ‘not contain’ the firearm. J.

J October 14, 2021 1:29 AM

We all know it’s crucial to label your bomb “BOMB” in bold letters after you’ve finished building it. In case you’re later inclined to mistake it for a camera.

(“Now which one of these was the bomb, and which one was the camera? Dang it, I got mixed up again!”)

NZ October 14, 2021 1:05 PM

Guys, the Red “Bomb” camera comment was certainly a joke. Real camera, joke comment.

The article doesn’t say what kind of camera it was; I’m guessing it was one of those really old ones with the accordion housing and the parallax viewfinders, maybe also a large format or something; do a DDG image search for “vintage camera” and you’ll find some that bear no visual resemblance to a modern camera other than having a round shiny circle on the front somewhere.

Dave October 15, 2021 12:47 AM

Guys, the Red “Bomb” camera comment was certainly a joke. Real camera, joke comment.

As the clown who posted it, I can confirm that it was a joke comment.

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