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Scot Peele
This is annoying, the TSA is proudly claiming a huge victory on their site – no they didn’t catch someone trying to do something bad and unfortunately we’re all not safer. They found a battery pack someone made for their DVD player in their carry on luggage via Schneier on security.

The checkpoint area was immediately closed as Bomb Appraisal Officer Timothy D. Smith inspected the item and spoke with the passenger. The item in question was determined to be an empty metal bottle and a home-made battery pack, consisting of 28 rechargeable batteries connected by multiple resistors and held together in two layers with a silicone-based adhesive.

Sounds like the commercial battery packs you can buy, but this one was made by an engineer. It likely took the bomb expert 2 seconds to determine it was not dangerous.

It’s more likely that the “metal” cylinder was for water, you can’t bring full water bottles so most smart people keep an empty bottle and fill it up once you get past the check point. The TSA took a staged photo so it looked like it was some type of fake movie-device that Bruce Willis needs to disarm at the last second.

The passenger was an engineer and said he built the battery to power his DVD player for the long flight to Hawaii. After recognizing that the item could be seen by other passengers as a threat, the man surrendered it to Supervisory TSO Raiford Patterson and was allowed to board the flight.

Other passengers aren’t the TSA, a battery pack isn’t a threat, we are not the experts. Once the TSA saw it wasn’t a threat they should have just taken care of this and not put up a victory story. If there is some new rule about not being able to have batteries and wires they need to publish that and put signs up everywhere (I’m aware of the laptop battery rule and carry my extra one in a plastic bag).

“We must treat every suspicious item the same and utilize the tools we have available to make a final determination,” said Federal Security Director David Wynn. “Procedures are in place for a reason and this is a clear indication our workforce is doing a great job.”

It seems to me like the opposite is true, they’re confiscating things that “look” like things in movies and then putting up stories about it. Real dangers do not look like extra batteries for a DVD player. I fly with homemade electronics and so far I’ve never had a problem, the TSA is usually very competent and know what they’re doing. Real dangers should be found and documented, I realize this engineer didn’t do a great job on their battery pack (sorry) but I don’t think the TSA site is helpful if this is what they’re doing to be doing with it.

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. diggets says:

    Reminds me of the infamous Star Simpson bust. MORONS. Of course it’s impossible for them to admit being wrong.

    http://boingboing.net/2007/09/21/mit-student-arrested.html

  2. nap70 says:

    Actually, that’s pretty much what an IED looks like. TSA did the right thing. If they make exceptions to their security policies you can consider that a hole in security. We are safer.

  3. Phillip Torrone says:

    @nap70 – do you make or have access to IEDs?

    an expert knows that a battery pack like that isn’t an IED, in fact the TSA and their experts knew that in about 2 seconds.

    i didn’t say they should make an exception, i said celebrating a false victory isn’t a good use of their site (or our money since we eventually pay for this in some way).

  4. matt joyce says:

    I don’t fault the screeners for exercising some extra scrutiny if they think something looks dangerous. And personally I think that the TSA needs to make it possible for people to get questionable carry-on approved by experts prior to a flight so they aren’t hassled. If I can show up an hour early and see an expert to have a DIY project cleared for carry-on that seems to me to make sense. Forcing all content through a general catch all is bound to generate these sorts of false positives.

    That being said, the real problem here is that the TSA is touting their failure as a success. This man’s personal property was taken from him under duress (threat of not flying) simply because it was assumed a passenger might be afraid of something they did not understand. This is just another instance in which least common denominator is equated with safety. That the TSA would publicly display their negligence with pride tells me that there is clearly a top down policy problem within the organization. A problem that is likely having a very negative impact on their ability to properly secure our airports. Additionally, it makes it clear that your civil rights cease the moment you step foot in an airport.

  5. Oscar says:

    “The TSA is usually competent and knows what it’s doing”

    You’re kidding, right?

  6. hojo says:

    The TSA is tragically flawed because they rely on stupid people to make difficult determinations. We’d be better off taking our chances with the terrorist. They’ve basically ruined the airline industry. I do whatever I can to avoid flying.

  7. alandove says:

    Let’s not lose sight of the actual inspiration for all this beefed-up security. One morning in 2001, a small group of guys destroyed four airliners, three landmark buildings, and a few thousand lives. Their weapons did not include anything resembling a battery pack – just a few boxcutters, a little bit of flight training, and boundless hatred of the United States. Until we do something to reduce (or at least stop inflaming) that last item, all of this police-state nonsense is just a fart in the wind.

  8. citizen says:

    Once I was trying to buy LED clocks on Craigslist for a project and I was reported to the authorities because by someone that has seen a few too many LED countdown timer scenes in action movies and cop dramas.

  9. Phillip Torrone says:

    keep up the good discussions folks! this is how thing will eventually change and get better.

    @citizen – can you send me an email, that sounds horrible!

  10. Dax says:

    You think this is bad? This guy was denied boarding because he had a transformers t-shirt on…

    http://theedgeofmadness.com/index.php?p=246&more=1&c=1&tb=1&pb=1

  11. meh says:

    You know, letting everyone know what type of material you consider suspicious and what kind of material you consider benign is a pretty idiotic way to handle security. Especially when terrorists have engineers, hackers, and all sorts of warped MAKERS on their side too.

    It’s sort of like letting everyone know what your metal detectors will detect and what they will not. If I can make it through security at multiple airports in the US with my titanium watch (case & bracelet), titanium eyeglass frames, money clip, and a stainless steel Parker pen in my pocket, do you think they’d be able to reliably detect a carbon steel box cutter blade and a composite handle?

    The only times I’ve had problems with the TSA wanting to examine my carry-ons was when I had something like a 6 lb. smoked meat log wrapped in aluminum foil stashed away, or a bag full of photo gear wrapped in fluffy socks. It’s funny, they’ve never bothered me about a STK500, breadboards, baggies full of components, my headphone amp, my batteries, or anything else germane to this discussion.

  12. Robin Debreuil says:

    While living in Canada and working in California, I had to fly down every six weeks. I had a Toshiba laptop with a horrible power supply problem. There was a successful lawsuit in the US over it, but that didn’t apply to Canada, so I had to solder fix it. That ended up having external wires for the jack.

    Every time I passed through security there were gasps. I do understand their side too, so I always introduced the clip first. Still major hassles. Basically all modded electronics are a big flag. Certainly because it looks suspicious, but mostly because it is easy.

    As most people know, all security is for show — I guess that explains the website posting/gloating. It is idiotic, but there is a sizable (though shrinking) percent of the population that takes comfort from the show too. I think its kind of like advertising or spam, it will stop when we all stop responding to it. Eg probably never fully.

    Here is the really dumb thing. Why airplanes? You can’t kill people on buses? Boats? Or why even the obsession with transportation? What about a concert, a parade, or lunchtime downtown? Ok, they search at concerts and sports events, but that of course is to prevent you from consuming regular priced food and drinks (err, for your own safety I mean!). Bad people only want to hurt you while you are going somewhere I guess, and only if you are flying.

    It is a dumb world, but maybe we get the world we deserve. As long as we think death at 40000 feet is worse than death on the ground we’ll be searched.

  13. Russell Nelson says:

    This keyboard cause a security shutdown in Burlington, VT:
    http://blog.russnelson.com/chordite

  14. BigD145 says:

    I’ve been halted and questioned for having a tupperware container full of quarters. Coins in a tub, oh no! At least security was nice about it and only asked a few questions for clarification. I suppose I could have thrown it at someone, but I think I’d rather just punch them.

  15. james says:

    I think that’s the problem… about the only things you can say about an ‘undisguised’ IED is that it probably looks homemade and dangerous. I doubt any expert would summarily dismiss a homemade battery pack as ‘not a bomb’ without a careful inspection. A bomb typically does need at least one battery and some wiring, and to have its components secured together with tape, hot glue etc. Since the thing is going to draw attention anyway, maybe you make a fake battery pack with one real battery and four or five fake batteries that contain timer/trigger, detonators and explosives (consider this battery diagram and what it would look like in an x-ray: http://www.virtualsciencefair.org/2006/glaz6j2/battery_encarta.JPG ). Of all the things I’ve seen people on this site complain about being mistaken for bombs (LEDs/timers, circuit boards etc) this is the first thing I’ve seen that really could be one. A lot of folks would be nervous if they saw you pull out something like this on a plane.

    Also it doesn’t seem like a good idea to let people (even ‘engineers’ – civil? railroad? sanitation?) bring homemade electronics, especially high amperage battery packs, on planes. Things can get tricky fast up there.

    I don’t disagree that this event is meaningless from a ‘war on terror’ standpoint.

  16. nap70 says:

    @Phillip Torrone You can find pictures of undetonated IEDs on your friendly neighborhood internet.

    I don’t think they aer “celebrating a false victory.” First of all I don’t read anything that implies they are celebrating. I also don’t think there is anything false about it. TSA prevented a possible in flight problem the passenger would have had with the crew and other passengers. You can’t expect the flight crew and passengers to understand why that thing got on the plane. Finally, it doesn’t look like they wasted much money on the report. Looks like a standard press release to me.

  17. Phillip Torrone says:

    @nap70 – my point is that IEDs don’t look like this (i’ve seen the same photos online as you probably have.

    they title of their page is “Explosive-Like Item Intercepted at Checkpoint” – intercepted, checkpoint, explosives… these are words used to make people afraid, but when you read the story, it’s a non-story.

    i’m not saying that they shouldn’t have taken this battery pack away, but that they’re celebrating something that was harmless. it’s obvious that the passenger with the battery pack wasn’t going to do anything wrong otherwise they would have detained him.

    any passenger on a plane could hold up any bit of electronics, homemade or not… or even a black sock and say “bomb” or “gun” – heck, you could take apart a gameboy on a flight and that would look just as “dangerous” or worse.

    a TSA celebrating their “interception” of a dvd battery pack isn’t useful, that’s really the annoying part.

  18. RDAC says:

    You’re right, PT. Sensationalist headline to try and get picked up by the outlets, but a genuine non-story. A first-line news guy might pick this one up to put in in a pile, but it’d never make air.

    By the way, my tripod is regularly inspected by the TSA, because a tripod seems to look exactly like a pipe bomb, while they completely ignore the gigantic batts in my portable audio mixer.

    At least they’re friendly about it. I started a chain letter with them on the tag, and comments back have always been polite and funny.

  19. macetech.com says:

    Russel: would it be possible for you to post the link to the actual article where you describe your encounter with the TSA? All I get is some very old articles about a keyboard project.

  20. carpespasm says:

    Man, stories like this make me mad. I’ve got friends and family that work at an international airport and they never have anything good to say about TSA. I just dropped them the following message at https://contact.tsa.dhs.gov/DynaForm.aspx?FormID=10 . Anyone else should feel free to as well, though you might get a “random extra screening” next time you fly.

    This page is really unneeded. http://www.tsa.gov/press/happenings/scot_peele.shtm How is it a good thing that even though this device was clearly not an explosive to the screener and not a threat to security the passenger wasn’t allowed to bring it with him? And to then publish a PR page on your site lauding this as a victory for our security? This was never a threat! It’s a DVD player, a battery, and a water bottle. Even McGuyver couldn’t make that explode.

  21. nap70 says:

    @Phillip Torrone – So really you just don’t like the headline of the story? You got me there.

  22. Phillip Torrone says:

    @nap70 – yah, pretty much :)

  23. Udtst says:

    Being a Maker and working with TSA I can see both sides of the picture. We (as makers)get so used to the idea of making anything out of anything that it tends to look normal to us. With TSA if the item looks like a suspicious device it can be taken. I’ll try and clarify a little bit of TSA reasoning. TSO’s (aka screeners) are told to look for the four items that make up an IED. also one person might not have the whole thing. One guy could carry the battery pack and the switch and the person right behind him in line could have the explosive and the detonator. When operating the x-ray we have to think about people working in teams and not just by themselves. When you combined TV and Hollywood explosives with passengers that don’t even know how their cell phone works, well basically they see something wrapped in plastic with wires and think the worst case scenario. Truthfully if I saw that come across the x-ray screen when I was working I would call a check too because on the screen it would look like a very basic IED. For example google “airport security x-rays” and look at the color photos. Orange is organic and blue and green are metallic.
    Also in response to BigD145 “I’ve been halted and questioned for having a tupperware container full of quarters.” We can not see through that on an x-ray. Every time there is a large black spot we think “could there be something hidden below it in the bag?” so you will be stopped every time.

    TSA has posted an update at the same page (http://www.tsa.gov/press/happenings/scot_peele.shtm)

  24. Nick5768 says:

    Though some might say I’m biased because I have a relative who works for them, I’d say there latest update owns up to problem pretty well though:

    http://www.tsa.dhs.gov/press/happenings/scot_peele.shtm

  25. The Snob says:

    @Robin Debrueil

    “Here is the really dumb thing. Why airplanes? You can’t kill people on buses? Boats? Or why even the obsession with transportation?”

    An explosive vest on a bus in israel would kill anywhere from a few to a few dozen of the people onboard, with many if not most passengers surviving, and the bus often being repairable for return to service. The same device, on board an airliner in flight, has 99.9999% chance of killing everyone on board.

    All the evidence I’ve seen suggests that the bad guys are just as obsessed with hitting aircraft, fwiw.