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A tale about homemade electronics, specifically an iPod charger and TSA, Damon writes -

I tell him it is a battery charger for my iPod. He asks if I made it myself, to which I reply that I purchased a kit over the internet. He says that he can’t let me on the plane with it. I explain to him that I have flown with it 4-6 times a month for a year now and nobody has questioned it. He says, “Not on my watch and not with my people.”

He swabs the device and runs it through the calorimeter. Again, no residue.

I ask why it can’t be taken on the plane and he said, “Because it looks like an IED.” Now, I agree it looks suspicious, but the machine found no traces of explosives, and the device wasn’t big enough to do any damage.

…He tells me to sit down and he checks my feet. I was about to make a joke about him giving me more attention than my wife when Donna comes over and sits down next to me. She asks what the thing is, I tell her it’s a battery charger. She asks why I have it, and I begin to explain that the iPod only has about 2 hours of video time, but with the MintyBoost! I can get about 20 hours of video time. I explain that the airport commute and the airplane flight take a few hours…

She interrupts me and says she doesn’t like the look of it. She starts in with the typical, “In these times…” excuse for the concern.

My Encounter with the TSA – Link.

I fly with a lot of electronics and so far nothing like this has happened, but I think it’s worth reading the entire story (he eventually did get on the plane with his gear).

Phillip Torrone

Editor at large – Make magazine. Creative director – Adafruit Industries, contributing editor – Popular Science. Previously: Founded – Hack-a-Day, how-to editor – Engadget, Director of product development – Fallon Worldwide, Technology Director – Braincraft.


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Comments

  1. Bre says:

    I travel with a bunch of hobby electronics and about 50% of the time my luggage doesn’t make it. If it’s on my way home, it’s great because then they deliver it to my apartment the next day!

  2. JohnnyGTO says:

    Ya I’ve had the stupidest things taken (multi-bit screwdriver and zip ties) while still having a forgotten 3″ pocket knife in my laptop bag. Sometimes I think it just boils down to what they need at home :-)

  3. Ari-El says:

    This is our reward for allowing authoritarian governance to empower totalitarian behavior to the classmate voted most likely to underachieve.

  4. JohnWasser says:

    Perhaps they were survivors of the Boston Mooninite Invasion.

  5. tele64 says:

    It’s a different world after 9/11. Do you really need to ‘game’ everywhere you go? Grow up!

  6. Tercero says:

    Mission Accomplished.

  7. potentato says:

    This is the very reason I didn’t sit in on any of the workshops at Maker Faire this year. I didn’t want to have to explain to some idiot TSA worker that Mousey the Junkbot wasn’t a bomb.

    tele64, are you serious?

  8. philliptorrone says:

    @tele64 – if we trade in our freedom for security, we deserve neither.

  9. gear_head says:

    People that stupid shouldn’t be allowed to fly. Leave the homemade crap at home and buy a charger that’s not going to raise suspicion. I bet all the people he inconvenienced waiting in the security line were all very sympathetic to his cause.

  10. philliptorrone says:

    @gear_head – i don’t think most of us want to live in a world where we just shut up and buy crap that “doesn’t raise suspicion”.

    you can call this person stupid and insult him, but you might be interested to know he’s an actual real a rocket scientist.

    http://www.natch.net/thesis_final.pdf

  11. AndyPeters says:

    Douchebag TSA idiots destroyed $100 worth of Fuji Provia 100 transparency film in 120 roll film format. They demanded that I let them open the factory-sealed foil-wrapped packages for each roll, even though the package says clearly “open in subdued light conditions only.” And this film needs to be stored in a fridge and once the package is opened you can’t do that because moisture will condense on the film and damage it.

    Anyways — when I pointed out that the film was factory sealed, the idiot TSA agent said, “Don’t you think the people we are looking for can do this?”

    The TSA is the PROBLEM … not the solution.

  12. gear_head says:

    @phillip I understand your point but these TSA folks are not rocket scientists and have no idea whether a homemade ipod charger may interface with another seemingly innocent homemade device brought on board by another passenger. I’d rather they played it safe and didn’t let thing like this one the plane.

  13. sherab says:

    Sadly none of these precautions do any good. Terrorism by it’s very nature, like hacking, exploits holes that weren’t thought of. Trying to stay in front of terrorists is at best, a defensive exercise.

    Now what we’re left with is a lot of inconvenience and several thousands of federal employees that practically can’t be fired.

  14. philliptorrone says:

    @gear_head – playing it safe would to make everyone take all their clothes off, ban people who “look suspicious” – or have funny accents. what world do you want to live in?

  15. gear_head says:

    @phillip That kind of world not only sounds like it makes sense but it’s kind of sexy too.

  16. philliptorrone says:

    body cavity searches are hot.

  17. justinph says:

    I’m pretty sure “the terrorists” (I haven’t seen any in 6 years, have you?) aren’t smart enough to make a device as innocent looking as a couple D-cells and an iPod.

    And do we live in an authoritarian, consumer-driven society that a guy can’t make his own electronics anymore? It doesn’t matter what it looks like, it matters what it actually is. In this case, it was a charger, not a bomb. Until we get people who have the yay or nay on letting things on planes that are smart enough to make the decisions, you’re insane to blame the guy who made it.

  18. Fusion says:

    perhaps if you spent more time making it look like a finished piece of equipment more than something that was home made it would have passed scrutiny. also, when he asked you if you bought it why didn’t you just say “yes”, i understand the pride in making things yourself, but i go out of my way to not create a high profile in high security areas. i spend much of my life in the spotlights as it is.

    i would have said “yes i bought it, but the casing broke when i dropped it.” swallow your pride.

    my $.02

  19. mkeblx says:

    Message to bin Laden, LLC.: Make all your necessary electronics look nice and polished: Clean SMT PCB, molded plastic case and put the Apple logo on it or something, and so on. Then you should have clear sailing.

  20. AlYankovic says:

    He swabs the device and runs it through the calorimeter…

    you can call this person stupid and insult him, but you might be interested to know he’s an actual real a rocket scientist.

    That’s nice. He’s a rocket scientist who doesn’t know the difference between a calorimeter and a spectrometer. Those big words have meanings.

    Philip, I enjoy Make, but your Left Coast bias is truly irritating at times. I was mildly amused at the original post, if only because the TSA is essentially the War on Terror as run by the Department of Motor Vehicles. But your continuing defense of this guy and his attitude belongs on a more appropriate blog.

  21. philliptorrone says:

    @Fusion – i don’t think it’s good to lie to the TSA.

  22. TerraPlop says:

    You should jettison 75% of your toys / junk before you end up on the No Fly List.
    It will be strange to end up on the No Fly List and be a rocket scientist.
    You should also think about turning up your collar a little, when you travel away from your neighborhood, so you red neck does not show.
    Your story could have just as easily been told by referring to the 1st TSA employee, the 2nd TSA employee….., the supervising TSA employee………
    What frightens me is that you have not been stopped before.
    Thanks for holding up the line.
    No sympathy here.

  23. fstedie says:

    I was wondering when someone was going to point out the fact that the race of the TSA agents was very specifically described. If the agents had been white, I wonder if he would have referred to them as the “Irish American” or the “German”.

    I agree, lose the toys and buy a book.

  24. eccramer says:

    Echoing potentato’s statement, I agree that when I was at Maker Faire, I didn’t go to any of the workshops for fear that the TSA would seize my luggage or detain me at the airport for building one of those Ybox set top box kits. It’s really absurd when the TSA confiscates things that they’ve proven are safe with their own equipment.

    Also, addressing the point of “leaving the toys at home” and buying something that doesn’t look so “suspicious” instead. I’ve been burned by that before. On one trip I had my laptop seized because it “Didn’t look new enough”. This was a laptop from around 1997 that I was carrying in 2005. It was not cosmetically or functionally tampered with in any way. I don’t see how that is a fair use of power by the TSA. There is some serious restructuring that needs to be done to the TSA code, especially in the area of what the agents can seize under their discretion.

  25. tms10000 says:

    gear_heads makes a good point: terrorists will board planes with bombs concealed in professionally looking objects, not one that look like home made crap.

    TSA goons are only after what *looks* suspicious and that covers their asses. If someone boards a place with an objects that does not have the “looks like a bomb” attribute, then it won’t be their fault if the plane blows up: “there was nothing that looked suspicious, and we have records to prove it”

    We will end up being anally probed with every flight because of “security concern”, because nobody remembers that flying is a service we pay for, and security too, real security is something that they cannot provide (except for shoe x-raying and back patting)

    We pay for the service, we elect the people in charge of caring for security and all we get is incompetence, inconvenience and not one ounce of better security.

  26. morepowerdammit! says:

    There is no freedom without responsibility.
    BE A RESPONSIBLE USER OF YOUR GADGETS!
    Yes it sucks that the TSA is paranoid but can you blame them at this point? The 9/11 Hi-jackoffs got past several levels of security (one of them being commonsense) with box cutters. They got into the US with fake or stolen passports. The list goes on.
    Al Qeada used a broken security system to their advantage. If we are going to use the Air Transportantion System, then we have to expect some level of inconvience at this point. No we should not give up our personal freedoms, but we should not give up our commonsense either.

  27. Jack-of-Most-Trades says:

    I used to take a homebrew QRP Ham radio with me when I traveled, but no more precisely for this reason.
    See? “9-11 Changed Everything”, because I’m more afraid of missing a flight, getting a gloved hand shoved up amongst last night’s dinner, or pissing off a bunch of hipsters in line behind me for “inconveniencing” them than I was 7 years ago.

    I’ve often said that all Oh-Sumguy-bin-Fergotten and Al-Ka-Seltzer had to do was smack us ONCE.

    We’d finish the job for him ourselves with our hyper-paranoia.

  28. d0ubled says:

    TSA agents and inspectors job is to guard the safety of air travel. In this case the TSA personnel focused on an object that posed no threat. Furthermore a small amount of training and common sense about the qualities of a potential explosive would allow someone to determine that this object while “funny looking” and “different” could not be an explosive. Oh and the machine designed to scientifically detect explosives confirms the fact.

    And while all this time is spent agonizing over a 3 ounce piece of inert electronics other threats could be passing by unchecked.

    I would much rather have TSA agents trained to recognize potential threats based on real criteria rather than a loose and uniformed opinion of something looking non-standard.

  29. Village_Idiot says:

    My father’s bag was swabbed and the computer came back with a “hit,” meaning it detected explosive residue.

    The TSA pinhead said “Don’t worry about it, go ahead.”

    Well, my father WAS worried about it, and would have preferred to be checked more thoroughly (since he assumed others would be let through easily too). However, he is also a wealthy, older white male and everyone knows such people are harmless (to other wealthy white males, at least).

    TSA’s job is make everyone think “things are being done,” as opposed to actually doing anything real to increase security beyond what it had been before TSA existed. The real threats to us are heart disease, cancer, and car wrecks, not the boogeyman du jour. Oceania is at war with Eastasia, after all…

    To those who think “7-11 changed everything” (or whenever it was) I would say: No it didn’t. We were (and are being) spoon-fed lies and propaganda to try to make us think that way.

    That said, propaganda does not deceive anyone, it just makes it easier for us to deceive ourselves.

    Wait until you see what’s next… Let’s not forget that Iran is the main course, and after whatever pretense chosen for invading is manifested, travel will get much, much harder. Something is terribly wrong, and everyone around me seems to be feeling it. The way to respond is to refuse to become one of the lock-step lemmings bending over backward (and sometimes forward) to “comply” with every inane new BS regulation (leave my homemade stuff at home because it looks funny?!? I pity the fear-driven mindset that spawns such a comment…)

    All-nude airlines aren’t a joke anymore, and even then there are, um, places to hide stuff. And guess what? We’re all gonna die anyway so quit worrying, which causes high blood pressure and exacerbates heart disease (a threat!).

  30. samurai1200 says:

    To everyone: Shut the fck up, get on the fcking plane, and mind your own fcking business. If everyone’s going to stay paranoid all the time, giving into government-mandated exercises, we’re going to end up in an Orwellian situation.

    If (a) terrorist(s) want to sneak something onto a plane past the TSA employees, they’ll be able to do it. You can’t stop them.

    To Makeblog employees: I dare you to censor me.

  31. westb3 says:

    For a good example of real security check what Israel does for their nat airline.

    For everyone who wont bother looking up they now/at one time, used planes that have isolated cockpits. 9/11 and pretty much any terrorist threat is *IMPOSSIBLE* given that setup, which ONLY is a hassle for the pilots.

    (when was the last time a bomb was used ON the plane anyway?)

  32. susan says:

    Put it in a checked bag. You sound like a whiney baby who has clearly experienced way too much indulgence throughout your life. Rules are for you too pal.

  33. JR says:

    The TSA is full of morons.

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