Entries Tagged "movie-plot threat contests"

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New York Times Movie-Plot Threat Contest

My contest idea (first and second) has gone mainstream:

Hearing about these rules got me thinking about what I would do to maximize terror if I were a terrorist with limited resources. I’d start by thinking about what really inspires fear. One thing that scares people is the thought that they could be a victim of an attack. With that in mind, I’d want to do something that everybody thinks might be directed at them, even if the individual probability of harm is very low. Humans tend to overestimate small probabilities, so the fear generated by an act of terrorism is greatly disproportionate to the actual risk.

[…]

I’m sure many readers have far better ideas. I would love to hear them. Consider that posting them could be a form of public service: I presume that a lot more folks who oppose and fight terror read this blog than actual terrorists. So by getting these ideas out in the open, it gives terror fighters a chance to consider and plan for these scenarios before they occur.

Far more interesting than the suggested attacks are the commenters who accuse him of helping the terrorists. Not that I’m surprised; there were people who accused me of helping the terrorists.

But while it’s one thing for this kind of thing to happen in my blog, it’s another for it to happen in a mainstream blog on The New York Times website.

EDITED TO ADD (8/9): Sadly, he had to explain himself.

Posted on August 9, 2007 at 12:48 PMView Comments

Second Movie-Plot Threat Contest Winner

On April 1, I announced the Second Annual Movie-Plot Threat Contest:

Your goal: invent a terrorist plot to hijack or blow up an airplane with a commonly carried item as a key component. The component should be so critical to the plot that the TSA will have no choice but to ban the item once the plot is uncovered. I want to see a plot horrific and ridiculous, but just plausible enough to take seriously.

Make the TSA ban wristwatches. Or laptop computers. Or polyester. Or zippers over three inches long. You get the idea.

Your entry will be judged on the common item that the TSA has no choice but to ban, as well as the cleverness of the plot. It has to be realistic; no science fiction, please. And the write-up is critical; last year the best entries were the most entertaining to read.

On June 5, I posted three semi-finalists out of the 334 comments:

Well, we have a winner. I can’t divulge the exact formula — because you’ll all hack the system next year — but it was a combination of my opinion, popular acclaim in blog comments, and the opinion of Tom Grant (the previous year’s winner).

I present to you: Butterflies and Beverages, posted by Ron:

It must have been a pretty meadow, Wilkes thought, just a day before. He tried to picture how it looked then: without the long, wide wound in the earth, without the charred and broken fuselage of the jet that gouged it out, before the rolling ground was strewn with papers and cushions and random bits of plastic and fabric and all the things inside the plane that lay like the confetti from a brief, fiery parade.

Yes, a nice little spot, just far enough from the airport’s runways to be not too noisy, but close enough to watch the planes going in and out, fortunately just a bit too close to have been developed. When the plane rolled over and angled downward, not even a mile past the end of the runway, at least the only people at risk were the ones on the plane. For them, it was mercifully quick, the impact breaking their necks before the breaking wing tanks ignited in sheets of flame, the charred bodies still in their seats.

He spotted the NTSB guy, standing by the forward half of the fuselage, easy to spot among the FAA and local airport people — they were always the only suits in the crowd. Heading over, Wilkes saw this one wasn’t going to be too hard: when planes came down intact like this, breaking in to just a few pieces on impact, the cause was always easier to find. This one looked to be no exception.

He muttered to the suit, “Wilkes,” gesturing at the badge clipped to his shirt. No need to get too friendly, they’d file separate reports anyway. As long as they were remotely on the same page, there wasn’t much need to actually talk to the guy. “What’s this little gem?” he wondered aloud, looking at the hole in the side of the downed jet.

“Explosion,” drawled the NTSB guy; he had that Chuck Yeager slow-play sound, Wilkes thought, like someone who could sound calm describing Armageddon. “Looks like it was from the inside, something just big enough to rip a few square feet out of the side. Enough to throw it on its side”

“And if the plane is low enough, still taking off, with the engines near full thrust, it rolls over and down too fast…” he trailed off, picturing the result.

“Yep, all in a couple of seconds. Too quick for the flight crew to have time to get it back.” The NTSB guy shook his head, the id clipped to his suit jacket swaying back and forth with the motion. “Always the best time if you’re going to take a bird down: takeoff or landing, guess whoever did this one wanted to get it over with sooner rather than later.” He snorted in derision, “Somebody snuck in an explosive, must have been a screener havin’ an off day.”

“Maybe,” said Wilkes, not ready to write it off as just a screener’s error. The NTSB guys were always quick to find a bad decision, one human error, and explain the whole thing away. But Wilkes’ job was to find the flaws in the systems, the procedures, the way to come up with prophylactic precautions. Maybe there was nothing more than a screener who didn’t spot a grenade or a stick of dynamite, something so obvious that there was nothing to do but chalk up a hundred and eighty three dead lives to one madman and one very bad TSA employee.

But maybe not. That’s when Wilkes spotted the first two of the butterflies. Bright yellow against the charred black of the burned wreckage, they seemed like the most incongruous things — and as he thought this, another appeared.

As they took photos and made measurements, more showed up — by ones and twos, a few flying away, but gradually building up to dozens over the course of the morning. Odd, the NTSB rep agreed, but nothing that tells us anything about the terrorist who brought down that plane.

Wilkes wasn’t so sure. Nature was handing out a big fat clue here, he was sure of that. What he wasn’t sure of was what in the hell it could possibly mean.

He leaned in close with the camera on his phone, getting some good close images of the colorful insects, emailing back to the office with a request to reach out to an expert. He needed a phone consult, someone who knew the behavior of this particular butterfly, someone who could put him on the right track.

Within minutes, his phone was buzzing, with a conference call already set up with a professor of entymology, and even better one local to the area; a local might know this bug better than an academic from a more prestigious, but distant university.

He was half-listening during the introductions, Wilkes wasn’t interested in this guy’s particulars, the regional team would have that all available if he needed it later. He just wanted answers.

“Pieridae,” the professor offered, “and all males, I’d bet.”

“Okay,” Wilkes answered, wondering if he this really would tell him anything. “Why are they all over my bomb hole?”

“I can’t be sure, but it must be something attracting them. These are commonly called ‘sulfur butterflies’, could there be sulfur on your wreckage?”

Yeah, Wilkes thought, this is looking like a wild goose chase. “No sulfur, we already did a quick chem test for it. Anything else these little fellas like?”

“Sure, but not something you’d be likely to find in a bomb — just sodium. They package it up with their sperm and deliver it to the female as an extra little bonus — sort of the flowers and candy of the butterfly world.”

“Okay, that’s…wow, the things I learn in this job. Sorry to bother you, sir, I guess it’s just…yeah, thanks.”

Butterfly sperm — now this might set a new record for useless trivia learned in a crash investigation. Unbelievable.

The NTSB guy wandered over, seeing Wilkes was off the phone. “Get anything from your expert?” he queried, trying and failing to suppress a grin. Wilkes suspected there would soon be a story going around the NTSB office about the FAA “butterfly guy”; ah well, better to be infamous than anonymous.

“Nah, not much. The little guys like sulfur,” Wilkes offered, seeing his counterpart give a cynical chuckle at that, “and sodium. Unless there was a whole lot of salt packed around the perp’s explosive, our little yellow friends are just a mystery.”

The NTSB rep got a funny look on his face, a faraway look. “Sodium. An explosive that leaves behind sodium. Well, that could be…”

They looked at each other, both heading to the same conclusion, both reluctant to get there. Wilkes said it first: “Sodium metal. Cheap, easy to get, it would have to be: sodium metal.”

“And easy,” the NTSB rep drawled, “to sneak on the plane. The stuff is soft, but you could fashion it in to any simple things: eyeglass frames, belt buckles, buttons, simple things the screeners would never be lookin’ at.”

“Wouldn’t take much,” Wilkes offered, an old college chemistry-class prank coming to mind. “An couple of ounces, that would be enough to blow out the side of a plane, enough for what we’re seeing here.”

“With the easiest trigger in the world,” the NTSB man added, putting words to the picture forming in Wilkes mind. A cup of water would be enough, just drop the sodium metal in to it and the chemical reaction would quickly release hydrogen gas, with enough heat generated as a byproduct of the reaction to ignite the gas. In just a second or two, you’d have an explosion strong enough to knock the side out of a plane.

“Sounds like a problem for you FAA boys,” his counterpart teased. “What ya gonna do, ban passengers from carrying more than a few grams of anything made of metal? ”

“No,” Wilkes shot back, “we can’t ban everything that could be made of sodium metal. Or all the other water-reactives,” he mused aloud, thinking of all the carbides, anhydrides, and alkali metals that would cover. “Too many ways to hide them, too many types to test for them all. No, it isn’t the metals we’ll have to ban.”

“Naw, you don’t mean,” the NTSB man stared in disbelief, his eyes growing wide. “You couldn’t, I mean, it’s the only other way but it’s ridiculous.”

“No, it’s not so ridiculous, it’s really the only way. We’re going to have to ban water, and anything containing a significant amount of water, from all passenger flights. It’s the only way, otherwise we could have planes dropping out of the sky every time someone is served a beverage.”

Ron gets signed copies of my books, a $50 Amazon gift certificate contributed by a reader, and — if I can find one — an interview with a real-live movie director. (Does anyone know one?) We hope that one of his prizes isn’t a visit by the FBI.

EDITED TO ADD (6/27): There’s an article on Slate about the contest.

Posted on June 15, 2007 at 6:43 AMView Comments

Second Annual Movie-Plot Threat Contest Semi-Finalists

On April 1, I announced the Second Annual Movie-Plot Threat Contest:

Your goal: invent a terrorist plot to hijack or blow up an airplane with a commonly carried item as a key component. The component should be so critical to the plot that the TSA will have no choice but to ban the item once the plot is uncovered. I want to see a plot horrific and ridiculous, but just plausible enough to take seriously.

Make the TSA ban wristwatches. Or laptop computers. Or polyester. Or zippers over three inches long. You get the idea.

Your entry will be judged on the common item that the TSA has no choice but to ban, as well as the cleverness of the plot. It has to be realistic; no science fiction, please. And the write-up is critical; last year the best entries were the most entertaining to read.

Well, the submissions are in; the blog entry has 334 comments. I’ve read them all, and here are the semi-finalists:

Cast your vote; I’ll announce the winner on the 15th.

Posted on June 5, 2007 at 12:01 PMView Comments

Announcing: Second Annual Movie-Plot Threat Contest

The first Movie-Plot Threat Contest asked you to invent a horrific and completely ridiculous, but plausible, terrorist plot. All the entrants were worth reading, but Tom Grant won with his idea to crash an explosive-filled plane into the Grand Coulee Dam.

This year the contest is a little different. We all know that a good plot to blow up an airplane will cause the banning, or at least screening, of something innocuous. If you stop and think about it, it’s a stupid response. We screened for guns and bombs, so the terrorists used box cutters. We took away box cutters and small knives, so they hid explosives in their shoes. We started screening shoes, so they planned to use liquids. We now confiscate liquids (even though experts agree the plot was implausible)…and they’re going to do something else. We can’t win this game, so why are we playing?

Well, we are playing. And now you can, too. Your goal: invent a terrorist plot to hijack or blow up an airplane with a commonly carried item as a key component. The component should be so critical to the plot that the TSA will have no choice but to ban the item once the plot is uncovered. I want to see a plot horrific and ridiculous, but just plausible enough to take seriously.

Make the TSA ban wristwatches. Or laptop computers. Or polyester. Or zippers over three inches long. You get the idea.

Your entry will be judged on the common item that the TSA has no choice but to ban, as well as the cleverness of the plot. It has to be realistic; no science fiction, please. And the write-up is critical; last year the best entries were the most entertaining to read.

As before, assume an attacker profile on the order of 9/11: 20 to 30 unskilled people, and about $500,000 with which to buy skills, equipment, etc.

Post your movie plots here on this blog.

Judging will be by me, swayed by popular acclaim in the blog comments section. The prize will be an autographed copy of Beyond Fear (in both English and Japanese) and the adulation of your peers. And, if I can swing it — I couldn’t last year — a phone call with a real live movie producer.

Entries close at the end of the month — April 30 — so Crypto-Gram readers can also play.

This is not an April Fool’s joke, although it’s in the spirit of the season. The purpose of this contest is absurd humor, but I hope it also makes a point. Terrorism is a real threat, but we’re not any safer through security measures that require us to correctly guess what the terrorists are going to do next.

EDITED TO ADD (6/15): Winner here.

Posted on April 1, 2007 at 6:46 AMView Comments

Movie-Plot Threat Contest Winner

I can tell you one thing, you guys are really imaginative. The response to my Movie-Plot Threat Contest was more than I could imagine: 892 comments. I printed them all out — 195 pages, double sided — and spiral bound them, so I could read them more easily. The cover read: “The Big Book of Terrorist Plots.” I tried not to wave it around too much in airports.

I almost didn’t want to pick a winner, because the real point is the enormous list of them all. And because it’s hard to choose. But after careful deliberation (see selection criteria here), the winning entry is by Tom Grant. Although planes filled with explosives is already cliche, destroying the Grand Coulee Dam is inspired. Here it is:

Mission: Terrorize Americans. Neutralize American economy, make America feel completely vulnerable, and all Americans unsafe.

Scene 1: A rented van drives from Spokane, WA, to a remote setting in Idaho and loads up with shoulder-mounted rocket launchers and a couple of people dressed in fatigues.

Scene 2: Terrorists dressed in “delivery man” garb take over the UPS cargo depot at the Spokane, WA, airport. A van full of explosives is unloaded at the depot.

Scene 3: Terrorists dressed in “delivery man” garb take over the UPS cargo depot at the Kamloops, BC, airport. A van full of explosives is unloaded at the depot.

Scene 4: A van with mercenaries drives through the Idaho forests en route to an unknown destination. Receives cell communiqué that locations Alpha and Bravo are secured.

Scene 5: UPS cargo plane lands in Kamloops and is met at the depot by terrorists who overtake the plane and its crew. Explosives are loaded aboard the aircraft. The same scene plays out in Spokane moments later, and that plane is loaded with explosives. Two pilots board each of the cargo planes and ask for takeoff instructions as night falls across the West.

Scene 6: Two cargo jets go airborne from two separate locations. A van with four terrorists arrives at its destination, parked on an overlook ridge just after nightfall. They use infrared glasses to scope the target. The camera pans down and away from the van, exposing the target. Grand Coulee Dam. The cell phone rings and notification comes to the leader that “Nighthawks alpha and bravo have launched.”

Scene 7: Two radar operators in separate locations note with alarm that UPS cargo jets they have been tracking have dropped off the radar and may have crashed. Aboard each craft the pilots have turned off navigational radios and are flying on “manual” at low altitude. One heading South, one heading North.

Scene 8: Planes are closing in on the “target” and the rocket launcher crew goes to work. With precision they strike lookout and defense positions on the dam, then target the office structures below. As they finish, a cargo jet approaches from the North at high velocity, slamming into the back side of the dam just above the waterline and exploding, shuddering the earth. A large portion of the center-top of the dam is missing. Within seconds a cargo plane coming from the South slams into the front face of the dam, closer to the base, and explodes in a blinding flash, shuddering the earth. In moments, the dam begins to fail, and a final volley from four rocket launchers on the hill above helps break open the face of the dam. The 40-mile-long Lake Roosevelt begins to pour down the Columbia River Valley, uncontrolled. No warning is given to the dams downriver, other than the generation at G.C. is now offline.

Scene 9: Through the night, the surging wall of water roars down the Columbia waterway, overtopping dam after dam and gaining momentum (and huge amounts of water) along the way. The cities of Wenatchee and Kennewick are inundated and largely swept away. A van of renegades retreats to Northern Idaho to hide.

Scene 10: As day breaks in the West, there is no power from Seattle to Los Angeles. The Western power grid has failed. Commerce has ground to a halt west of the Rocky Mountains. Water is sweeping down the Columbia River gorge, threatening to overtop Bonneville dam and wipe out the large metro area of Portland, OR.

Scene 11: Bin Laden releases a video on Al Jazeera that claims victory over the Americans.

Scene 12: Pandemonium, as water sweeps into a panicked Portland, Oregon, washing all away in its path, and surging water well up the Willamette valley.

Scene 13: Washington situation room…little input is coming in from the West. Some military bases have emergency power and sat phones, and are reporting that the devastation of the dam infrastructure is complete. Seven major and five minor dams have been destroyed. Re-powering the West coast will take months, as connections from the Eastern grid will have to be made through the New Mexico Mountains.

Scene 14: Worst U.S. market crash in history. America’s GNP drops from the top of the charts to 20th worldwide. Exports and imports cease on the West coast. Martial law fails to control mass exodus from Seattle, San Francisco, and L.A. as millions flee to the east. Gas shortages and vigilante mentality take their toll on the panicked populace. The West is “wild” once more. The East is overrun with millions seeking homes and employment.

Congratulations, Tom. I’m still trying to figure out what you win.

There’s a more coherent essay about this on Wired.com, but I didn’t reprint it here because it contained too much that I’ve already posted on this blog.

Posted on June 15, 2006 at 2:37 PMView Comments

Movie Plot Threat Contest: Status Report

On the first of this month, I announced my (possibly First) Movie-Plot Threat Contest.

Entrants are invited to submit the most unlikely, yet still plausible, terrorist attack scenarios they can come up with.

Your goal: cause terror. Make the American people notice. Inflict lasting damage on the U.S. economy. Change the political landscape, or the culture. The more grandiose the goal, the better.

Assume an attacker profile on the order of 9/11: 20 to 30 unskilled people, and about $500,000 with which to buy skills, equipment, etc.

As of this morning, the blog post has 580 comments. I expected a lot of submissions, but the response has blown me away.

Looking over the different terrorist plots, they seem to fall into several broad categories. The first category consists of attacks against our infrastructure: the food supply, the water supply, the power infrastructure, the telephone system, etc. The idea is to cripple the country by targeting one of the basic systems that make it work.

The second category consists of big-ticket plots. Either they have very public targets — blowing up the Super Bowl, the Oscars, etc. — or they have high-tech components: nuclear waste, anthrax, chlorine gas, a full oil tanker, etc. And they are often complex and hard to pull off. This is the 9/11 idea: a single huge event that affects the entire nation.

The third category consists of low-tech attacks that go on and on. Several people imagined a version of the DC sniper scenario, but with multiple teams. The teams would slowly move around the country, perhaps each team starting up after the previous one was captured or killed. Other people suggested a variant of this with small bombs in random public locations around the country.

(There’s a fourth category: actual movie plots. Some entries are comical, unrealistic, have science fiction premises, etc. I’m not even considering those.)

The better ideas tap directly into public fears. In my book, Beyond Fear, I discusse five different tendencies people have to exaggerate risks: to believe that something is more risky than it actually is.

  1. People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.
  2. People have trouble estimating risks for anything not exactly like their normal situation.
  3. Personified risks are perceived to be greater than anonymous risks.
  4. People underestimate risks they willingly take and overestimate risks in situations they can’t control.
  5. People overestimate risks that are being talked about and remain an object of public scrutiny.

The best plot ideas leverage one or more of those tendencies. Big-ticket attacks leverage the first. Infrastructure and low-tech attacks leverage the fourth. And every attack tries to leverage the fifth, especially those attacks that go on and on. I’m willing to bet that when I find a winner, it will be the plot that leverages the greatest number of those tendencies to the best possible advantage.

I also got a bunch of e-mails from people with ideas they thought too terrifying to post publicly. Some of them wouldn’t even tell them to me. I also received e-mails from people accusing me of helping the terrorists by giving them ideas.

But if there’s one thing this contest demonstrates, it’s that good terrorist ideas are a dime a dozen. Anyone can figure out how to cause terror. The hard part is execution.

Some of the submitted plots require minimal skill and equipment. Twenty guys with cars and guns — that sort of thing. Reading through them, you have to wonder why there have been no terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11. I don’t believe the “flypaper theory,” that the terrorists are all in Iraq instead of in the U.S. And despite all the ineffectual security we’ve put in place since 9/11, I’m sure we have had some successes in intelligence and investigation — and have made it harder for terrorists to operate both in the U.S. and abroad.

But mostly, I think terrorist attacks are much harder than most of us think. It’s harder to find willing recruits than we think. It’s harder to coordinate plans. It’s harder to execute those plans. Terrorism is rare, and for all we’ve heard about 9/11 changing the world, it’s still rare.

The submission deadline is the end of this month, so there’s still time to submit your entry. And please read through some of the others and comment on them; I’m curious as to what other people think are the most interesting, compelling, realistic, or effective scenarios.

EDITED TO ADD (4/23): The contest made The New York Times.

Posted on April 22, 2006 at 10:14 AMView Comments

Announcing: Movie-Plot Threat Contest

NOTE: If you have a blog, please spread the word.

For a while now, I have been writing about our penchant for “movie-plot threats“: terrorist fears based on very specific attack scenarios. Terrorists with crop dusters, terrorists exploding baby carriages in subways, terrorists filling school buses with explosives — these are all movie-plot threats. They’re good for scaring people, but it’s just silly to build national security policy around them.

But if we’re going to worry about unlikely attacks, why can’t they be exciting and innovative ones? If Americans are going to be scared, shouldn’t they be scared of things that are really scary? “Blowing up the Super Bowl” is a movie plot to be sure, but it’s not a very good movie. Let’s kick this up a notch.

It is in this spirit I announce the (possibly First) Movie-Plot Threat Contest. Entrants are invited to submit the most unlikely, yet still plausible, terrorist attack scenarios they can come up with.

Your goal: cause terror. Make the American people notice. Inflict lasting damage on the U.S. economy. Change the political landscape, or the culture. The more grandiose the goal, the better.

Assume an attacker profile on the order of 9/11: 20 to 30 unskilled people, and about $500,000 with which to buy skills, equipment, etc.

Post your movie plots here on this blog.

Judging will be by me, swayed by popular acclaim in the blog comments section. The prize will be an autographed copy of Beyond Fear. And if I can swing it, a phone call with a real live movie producer.

Entries close at the end of the month — April 30 — so Crypto-Gram readers can also play.

This is not an April Fool’s joke, although it’s in the spirit of the season. The purpose of this contest is absurd humor, but I hope it also makes a point. Terrorism is a real threat, but we’re not any safer through security measures that require us to correctly guess what the terrorists are going to do next.

Good luck.

EDITED TO ADD (4/4): There are hundreds of ideas here.

EDITED TO ADD (4/22): Update here.

Posted on April 1, 2006 at 9:35 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.