Entries Tagged "bombs"
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On April 1, I announced the Eighth Movie Plot Threat Contest: demonstrate the evils of encryption.
Not a whole lot of good submissions this year. Possibly this contest has run its course, and there’s not a whole lot of interest left. On the other hand, it’s heartening to know that there aren’t a lot of encryption movie-plot threats out there.
Anyway, here are the semifinalists.
Cast your vote by number here; voting closes at the end of the month.
Chicago is doing random explosives screenings at random L stops in the Chicago area. Compliance is voluntary:
Police made no arrests but one rider refused to submit to the screening and left the station without incident, Maloney said.
Passengers can decline the screening, but will not be allowed to board a train at that station. Riders can leave that station and board a train at a different station.
I have to wonder what would happen if someone who looks Arab refused to be screened. And what possible value this procedure has. Anyone who has a bomb in their bag would see the screening point well before approaching it, and be able to walk to the next stop without potentially arousing suspicion.
This borders on ridiculous:
Chinese scientists are developing a mini-camera to scan crowds for highly stressed individuals, offering law-enforcement officers a potential tool to spot would-be suicide bombers.
“They all looked and behaved as ordinary people but their level of mental stress must have been extremely high before they launched their attacks. Our technology can detect such people, so law enforcement officers can take precautions and prevent these tragedies,” Chen said.
Officers looking through the device at a crowd would see a mental “stress bar” above each person’s head, and the suspects highlighted with a red face.
The researchers said they were able to use the technology to tell the difference between high-blood oxygen levels produced by stress rather than just physical exertion.
I’m not optimistic about this technology.
Two opposite mistakes in an after-the-fact review of a terrorist incident are equally damaging. One is to fail to recognize the powerful difference between foresight and hindsight in evaluating how an investigative or intelligence agency should have behaved. After the fact, we know on whom we should have focused attention as a suspect, and we know what we should have protected as a target. With foresight alone, we know neither of these critically important clues to what happened and why. With hindsight, we can focus all of our attention narrowly; with foresight, we have to spread it broadly, as broadly as the imagination of our attackers may roam.
The second mistake is equally important. It is to confuse the fact that people in official positions, like others, will inevitably make mistakes in carrying out any complicated task, with the idea that no mistakes were really made. We can see mistakes with hindsight that can be avoided in the future by recognizing them clearly and designing solutions. After mistakes are made, nothing is more foolish than to hide them or pretend that they were not mistakes.
Eldo Kim sent an e-mail bomb threat to Harvard so he could skip a final exam. (It’s just a coincidence that I was on the Harvard campus that day.) Even though he used an anonymous account and Tor, the FBI identified him. Reading the criminal complaint, it seems that the FBI got itself a list of Harvard users that accessed the Tor network, and went through them one by one to find the one who sent the threat.
This is one of the problems of using a rare security tool. The very thing that gives you plausible deniability also makes you the most likely suspect. The FBI didn’t have to break Tor; they just used conventional police mechanisms to get Kim to confess.
Tor didn’t break; Kim did.
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.
I can’t get worked up over it, though. Dry ice bombs are a harmless prank. I set off a bunch of them when I was in college, although I used liquid nitrogen, because I was impatient—and they’re harmless. I know of someone who set a few off over the summer, just for fun. They do make a very satisfying boom.
Having them set off in a secure airport area doesn’t illustrate any new vulnerabilities. We already know that trusted people can subvert security systems. So what?
I’ve done a bunch of press interviews on this. One radio announcer really didn’t like my nonchalance. He really wanted me to complain about the lack of cameras at LAX, and was unhappy when I pointed out that we didn’t need cameras to catch this guy.
I like my kicker quote in this article:
Various people, including former Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, have called LAX the No. 1 terrorist target on the West Coast. But while an Algerian man discovered with a bomb at the Canadian border in 1999 was sentenced to 37 years in prison in connection with a plot to cause damage at LAX, Schneier said that assessment by Bratton is probably not true.
“Where can you possibly get that data?” he said. “I don’t think terrorists respond to opinion polls about how juicy targets are.”
It’s being reported, although there’s no indication of where this rumor is coming from or what it’s based on.
…the new tactic allows terrorists to dip ordinary clothing into the liquid to make the clothes themselves into explosives once dry.
“It’s ingenious,” one of the officials said.
Another senior official said that the tactic would not be detected by current security measures.
I can see the trailer now. “In a world where your very clothes might explode at any moment, Bruce Willis is, Bruce Willis in a Michael Bay film: BLOW UP! Co-starring Lindsay Lohan…”
I guess there’s nothing to be done but to force everyone to fly naked.
The FBI and the CIA are being criticized for not keeping better track of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the months before the Boston Marathon bombings. How could they have ignored such a dangerous person? How do we reform the intelligence community to ensure this kind of failure doesn’t happen again?
It’s an old song by now, one we heard after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and after the Underwear Bomber’s failed attack in 2009. The problem is that connecting the dots is a bad metaphor, and focusing on it makes us more likely to implement useless reforms.
Connecting the dots in a coloring book is easy and fun. They’re right there on the page, and they’re all numbered. All you have to do is move your pencil from one dot to the next, and when you’re done, you’ve drawn a sailboat. Or a tiger. It’s so simple that 5-year-olds can do it.
But in real life, the dots can only be numbered after the fact. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to draw lines from a Russian request for information to a foreign visit to some other piece of information that might have been collected.
In hindsight, we know who the bad guys are. Before the fact, there are an enormous number of potential bad guys.
We have no idea how many potential “dots” the FBI, CIA, NSA and other agencies collect, but it’s easily in the millions. It’s easy to work backwards through the data and see all the obvious warning signs. But before a terrorist attack, when there are millions of dots—some important but the vast majority unimportant—uncovering plots is a lot harder.
Rather than thinking of intelligence as a simple connect-the-dots picture, think of it as a million unnumbered pictures superimposed on top of each other. Or a random-dot stereogram. Is it a sailboat, a puppy, two guys with pressure-cooker bombs, or just an unintelligible mess of dots? You try to figure it out.
It’s not a matter of not enough data, either.
Piling more data onto the mix makes it harder, not easier. The best way to think of it is a needle-in-a-haystack problem; the last thing you want to do is increase the amount of hay you have to search through. The television show Person of Interest is fiction, not fact.
There’s a name for this sort of logical fallacy: hindsight bias. First explained by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, it’s surprisingly common. Since what actually happened is so obvious once it happens, we overestimate how obvious it was before it happened.
We actually misremember what we once thought, believing that we knew all along that what happened would happen. It’s a surprisingly strong tendency, one that has been observed in countless laboratory experiments and real-world examples of behavior. And it’s what all the post-Boston-Marathon bombing dot-connectors are doing.
Before we start blaming agencies for failing to stop the Boston bombers, and before we push “intelligence reforms” that will shred civil liberties without making us any safer, we need to stop seeing the past as a bunch of obvious dots that need connecting.
Kahneman, a Nobel prize winner, wisely noted: “Actions that seemed prudent in foresight can look irresponsibly negligent in hindsight.” Kahneman calls it “the illusion of understanding,” explaining that the past is only so understandable because we have cast it as simple inevitable stories and leave out the rest.
Nassim Taleb, an expert on risk engineering, calls this tendency the “narrative fallacy.” We humans are natural storytellers, and the world of stories is much more tidy, predictable and coherent than the real world.
Millions of people behave strangely enough to warrant the FBI’s notice, and almost all of them are harmless. It is simply not possible to find every plot beforehand, especially when the perpetrators act alone and on impulse.
We have to accept that there always will be a risk of terrorism, and that when the occasional plot succeeds, it’s not necessarily because our law enforcement systems have failed.
This essay previously appeared on CNN.
EDITED TO ADD (5/7): The hindsight bias was actually first discovered by Baruch Fischhoff: “Hindsight is not equal to foresight: The effect of outcome knowledge on judgment under uncertainty,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 1(3), 1975, pp. 288-299.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.