Microcontroller programmer is not an IED

Microcontroller programmer is not an IED

Here’s an interesting story from “Pages of Rages” about traveling with a micro-controller programmer –

Yesterday I flew out of Rapid City, SD as part of some work I’m doing. I was in the security line when I heard my name paged.

This crack security staff was digging through my bag. They were concerned because I brought a microcontroller programmer. Actually, it wasn’t just the programmer, it was the 1 ohm resistor I had spliced in series with the power lead to measure current, and the 10 second RC filter I had placed across that to give my DMM a better chance of reading the average current.

“Sir, this is an improvised electronic device. You will never be allowed to fly with this.”

I responded to many questions with information about my occupation, circuit theory up to and including Ohm’s law, and a discussion of the market for bicycle power meters. But they still would not let me fly with the programmer. I had to leave it behind.

I was finally able to fly out ten hours later, with a brand-new-in-the-box MSP430 programmer. Apparently, it’s not “improvised” if it comes in a printed box.

Microcontroller programmer is not an IED – Link.

56 thoughts on “Microcontroller programmer is not an IED

  1. abend says:

    This sort of thing bothers me a lot, because it’s something I do fairly often. I went from Boston (yes, the Boston of the Great Mooninite Freakout) to Las Vegas carrying an entire suitcase full of tools, hacked together devices, and routers with no cases. It may be because I checked it instead of carrying it on, but I didn’t have a problem.

    Between this guy’s problems and the MintyBoost trouble that the other guy ran into, this is shaping up to be a real issue. Remember, once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is (enemy action / a conspiracy).

  2. fivesixzero says:

    I had the same thing happen to me when I tried to pass an airport checkpoint at TPA with my cMoy amp and AKG headphones. As I put the Altoids-enclosed home-made cMoy into the bin, the screener eyeballing me raised her hand to call other staff over. My girlfriend and I were both flagged for secondary screening and were given about 20 minutes of additional searching and “social engineering” type verbal screenings attempting to discern the truth about our strange maker ways.

    In the end they let me fly with it. It appears that the decision was totally up to the “head honcho” at that particular screening checkpoint. He was the guy screening me and, during conversation, I was able to disarm him with a few cleverly placed jokes and discussion about my occupation. I think it was the tech tips I gave him that ultimately got me through the place. :)

    Just as a note, I flew from MSP, PHL, DCA, and several airports with my cMoy strapped to my Zune without any problems. That that one slow morning in TPA did they actually take issue with it. The hilarity of the TSA screener opening it, gasping, then showing it off proudly to about eight other screeners as a trophy was downright memorable. :D

    “OH NOES! CAPACITORS! And look, the strange man has a goatee and a large, red hooded sweater!”

  3. rdarlington says:

    Ya know, this is nothing new. The TSA guys are not electronics experts and have to err on the side of caution. Just because you fully understand the item does not mean that they do. This was happening 10 years ago, but at least then they just put the item in a box and threw it in with the cargo. Maybe next time you shouldn’t try to bring things like this on with your carry-on luggage. Take a lesson guys, things aren’t going to get better so either mail it, stow it, or be prepared to wait for another flight.

  4. christopherpepe says:

    I’ve worried about this as well. As a EE/hacker I often carry an assortment of highly modified, as well as completely original devices (ok, rats nest of wires, pcbs, sensors, and discrete components). I’ve carried some pretty scary looking things (to the untrained eye) in carry on and have yet to be stopped. Still I’m disheartened to hear this and hope its an isolated incident…

  5. miraclebaby says:

    FTW: “Sir, this is an improvised electronic device.”

    Idiots rule.

  6. justinpie says:

    I agree with rdarlington. You can’t fault TSA people for disallowing an unknown electronic device on planes — especially when it’s a modified from something else, such as the Altoids box mentioned above. I’m actually suprised and disappointed they let that one go.

  7. d0ubled says:

    justinpie and to a lesser extent rdarlington. What danger do modified electronics present?

    Is it too much to expect TSA employees to be trained to recognize potentially dangerous devices not ones that just look different or funny?

    He carried the same device onboard without a couple very small components. I think some basic training and deductive skills should allow the TSA to make the right call, no need to be electronics experts even.

  8. d0ubled says:

    One more thing. These issues need to be brought to light and we need to push for reform/training/sanity in the screening process for things such as these. But at the same time not make things worse by reacting poorly when they occur. Get their names, write letters, make complaints later. They might even be trying to just do their jobs but have not been given the right training.

  9. tikitime says:

    Gentlemen, what this means is that you’ll have to make better looking enclosures for you projects, wheter it’s a headphone amp or home made alarm clock.

    or check it with your luggage and hope that the screener doesn’t delay that bag because he had to wait for a supervisor to review the contents. Many screeners have little education / qualification to do their (thankless) jobs other than the training that they were given.

    So, looks like our mods are going to require an additional step before flight – packaging and labeling into a commercial (and thereforee harmless) looking enclosure.

  10. tr0g says:

    I can’t fault the TSA? Wrong answer, buckwheat.

    I can fault the TSA for:
    Hiring incompetent morons with the IQ of paint.
    Not having clearly defined procedures to help us, the people paying for the ratf**k, avoid issues based on the morons’ definition of “scary looking thing”.
    Not doing a damn thing to actually make flight safer, and wasting billions of dollars in the process.

    The TSA is Security Kabuki. In this particular instance, electronics don’t kill people. Even an IED needs the E part to function. No explosive, no problem. But no, improvised electronics are dangerous, because you’re going to … to… do what with them, exactly? Take over a 737 control system with something hacked together in a garage? Disregarding the fact it’s not really possible, if you have that kind of technical ability, you can sure as hell put it in a shiny case and make it look legit, can’t you? Somebody tell me what kind of electronic device you can carry on a plane that’s a threat. Please, I want to hear that answer.

    Of course, having bomb sniffers and trained people was determined to be too expensive. Any measures based on actual threat profiles are too un-PC. So, instead let’s force people to give up traveling with anything that some TSA idiot doesn’t recognize. Yeah, that makes everybody’s life better and deters terrorists. Oh, wait, it really doesn’t do either. If you can sleep better at night imagining it does, feel free. But don’t expect the rest of us to be happy about the TSA and the imaginary security it provides.

  11. volkemon says:

    @ tr0g:

    OK. I admit, I had to google Kabuki….

    “Take over a 737 control system with something hacked together in a garage? Disregarding the fact it’s not really possible,…”

    Nah…all you have to do is disable it. And I’ll put money down that there are MAKErs that could do that in their garage today.

    Heed the wise words of fivesixzero, posted above:

    “In the end they let me fly with it. It appears that the decision was totally up to the “head honcho” at that particular screening checkpoint. He was the guy screening me and, during conversation, I was able to disarm him with a few cleverly placed jokes and discussion about my occupation. I think it was the tech tips I gave him that ultimately got me through the place. :)”

    Now we know your intellect is so far superior to ours it must hurt to come down here. But try treating the TSA persons like fellow people doing their job too. Works wonders.

    PS- ” Somebody tell me what kind of electronic device you can carry on a plane that’s a threat. Please, I want to hear that answer.”
    Geez….google it yourself! :)(heh heh…use the words “blow up plane” “electronic device” and “bomb”. Someone will get back to you shortly.)

  12. phillamb says:

    Maybe we need to update Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction to say:
    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from terrorism.”
    The underlying problem is that America has abandoned the pursuit of technology while reaping the benefits of it. In amateur radio lingo, we’ve become a nation of appliance operators. (And that’s not a nice thing to say about someone!)

  13. AnswerGuru says:

    I’m not surprised, but I am saddened. I used to fly with all sorts of PCBs in my carry on when I did MRI and lab repair work. These days I design and program these boards….it’s sad that they think there’s a difference between making the board right the first time (rare), and using that same board with a few hand modifications to it so that it works properly. Silly screeners, PCBs are for engineers!

  14. morcheeba says:

    I’m somewhere between rdarlington and tr0g. It’s all security theater. No real bomb would look even remotely suspicious. Here’s a recreation of the one in Lockerbie — it even had the original box! http://www.guardian.co.uk/pictures/image/0,8543,-10304127834,00.html
    As Australian Senator Vanstone pointed out, all it takes is a pencil to bring down a plane: http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2005/11/australian_mini.html

    hmph… I’m just annoyed because I had to remove these on my last flight: http://www.vibramfivefingers.com/
    The screener couldn’t tell if they were shoes or socks — if they are shoes, then they’re a threat to national security. But, if they’re socks, then they’re ok.

  15. phlavor says:

    The workaround to this problem is simple enough. Make a retail looking box your improvised electronic devices.

    It’s all in how you sell it folks.

  16. 2600Hz says:

    “You can’t fault TSA people for disallowing an unknown electronic device on planes”
    Ok. However, we can fault TSA for having no clue what IS dangerous and what is NOT. So a large bundle of wires *could* be dangerous? So, what happens when the dangerous ball of wires is enclosed in a pretty plastic case? Is it ok that TSA passes this right along without a thought?

  17. cyrano_de_bergerac says:

    What we Makers (or Maker Wannabees) need is a crash course in Social Engineering – Kevin Mitnick Style.

  18. Blitz-ner says:

    The link isn’t working anymore? Either the site crashed from traffic or it’s a CONSPIRACY!

    But yea, if you’re not allowed tooth paste on a plane why would they let you bring a micro-controller programmer? duh, terrorists don’t brush their teeth! Just check it in your luggage, they don’t care what’s in there at all.

    @morcheeba: Those toe-shoes are hilarious!

  19. WonderWheeler says:

    Right AnswerGuru, as a culture we no longer Make anything. We are now a “Service” economy. Only rebels make anything.

  20. fivesixzero says:


    While I appreciate my words being quoted as wise, it’s important to understand that not being a dick about it took a vast amount of psychological fortitude. When someone’s groping your stuff and poking around in it, then implies that it must be trashed in order to begin your journey, it’s downright insulting. Especially when the item in question is something you’ve built with your own two hands and take a small degree of pride in.

    Basically, the “don’t be a dick” method will usually fail. Why? Because the vast majority of TSA screeners are trained to ignore niceties and friendliness.

    Just as an aside though, it’s pretty funny how I broke the ice. First, when he gave me the canned apology for having to rifle through my stuff I responded with, “Hey, if it’s the price I pay for being an electronics hobbyist then it’s all good.” The TSA guy grinned and kept digging then I said, “Hopefully you guys will have to do less of this in the future with better social screening methods.” We chatted a bit about the uselessness and waste of time that is item screening and together we yearned for a day when item screening is a thing of the past. He even laughed when I asked what they’d screen if they didn’t screen my bags and where they would get the data. Also, when he asked about my job and found that I worked for a company that he had recently had good experiences with he was totally disarmed and friendly.

    So yeah. Don’t be a dick. YMMV. :)

  21. tippenring says:

    I must have missed this memo. When did the initials IED switch from “Improvised Explosive Device” to “Improvised Electronic Device?”

    Next, we’ll be prohibiting “Improvised Educational Devices.”

  22. volkemon says:

    Damn…turning into a dialog…

    ” it’s important to understand that not being a dick about it took a vast amount of psychological fortitude”

    Yeah….a distinct quality that seems to be a rarity….

    I found out soooo late that I would NEVER get ahead faster irratating someone who I needed something from. Grin and bear (or bare;)) it!

    Found a really old post on this… “Do unto others….”

  23. shbazjinkens says:

    The only way they will tell if it is or isn’t an EMP weapon is to be trained to make an EMP weapon.

    The real question is how much do you want to pay for your plane tickets, because that training is coming out of your pocket.

    Some of you guys are being real jerks about this, I think the airport security is real vaporware too but it isn’t like there is no way an electronic only device can harm a plane. Use your head, or wikipedia.

  24. rdarlington says:

    Well, this little pile of caps and diodes sure doesn’t look like much. Tie it in with this little 555 here and this little split winding transformer, oh wait, now it’s a stun gun…

    The TSA does not need to go to school for electronics. The problem is with the people that aren’t thinking and are bringing home made items with them to the airport and then try to fly with them. Guys, put them in your luggage and stow it and there are no problems. I don’t know why so many of you feel that they owe you something, like you’re entitled to fly with electronics projects. You’re not! Get over yourselves, suck it up, and either conform to their stupid rules or you won’t fly. It really is that simple. You can whine about it all you want but about 3 seconds of thought will prevent any possible problems you might have at the airport.

  25. Village_Idiot says:

    This and other similar so-called “security” measures, like for example the neo-gulag environment in our public schools, are just conditioning us to do what we’re told and to have little if any expectation of privacy. It’s for our own good, the screeners are just “doing their job,” and Oceania is at war with Eastasia.

    Get to the airport (or school) 2 hours early, carry nothing except your shoes, and the process will go faster if you arrive on your knees with your posterior pre-lubed. Just remember, when you meet Officer Jellyfinger, the first time is always the hardest. Just relax and think patriotic thoughts. Too extreme? Remember, this is a gradual but steady ratcheting-effect, or an example of the “how to boil a frog” metaphor. Look what you put up with already that would have seemed preposterous 20 years ago. Ah, but we live in a different world, they say, but saying it don’t make it so.

    Life is risky, nobody lives forever, and excrement occurs. Same as it ever was…

  26. justinpie says:

    I do understand that a lot of people are frustrated by TSA regulations, but whether or not you think the TSA Security is effective overall is irrelevant. The fact remains that your electronic device is gonna get jacked if it’s deemed a threat, no matter how innocuous it seems to you. Remember, the terrorists used *box cutters* of all things.

    If screeners aren’t going to get chemistry training to decipher whether everyday items like contact solution are legit, they’re not going to get the electronics training to discern your Mintyboost isn’t a remote detonator.

  27. developerzero says:

    The last three posts above mine are accurate.

    [Spoiler Alert]
    Consider the movie “American Dreamz”. A group of terrorists build an IED in the bathroom of a production studio that is filled with Secret Service personnel, FBI, etc. without any suspicion. They bring in the components as a series of parts, with the C4 disguised as chewing gum. You don’t necessarily have to bring an explosive device to the destination in one piece, but can disguise the components and assemble it at the destination without anyone the wiser (until after the fact, of course).
    [End Spoiler]

    While I agree that that the culture of fear that the elected terrorists created is going over the top these days (Color-coded terror levels, anyone?), the TSA personnel are just doing their job (in fact, I agree that they should inspect any device that could be a potential explosive, a triggering device, or some kind of weapon), and you probably should have just stowed it in your bag. As a matter of fact, why were you even carrying it with you? It isn’t like you were going to be programming PICs while you’re flying 20,000 feet in the air.

    Oh, and be sure to follow the link and read Markus’s 9:03am post on 9/17, Michael Chermsides’s 11:36pm post on the same day, and Dave A’s 9:59am post on 9/18.

    And btw, if you do start disguising you Maker projects, and just one security person should find a single such project, then the security checks are just going to get worse. Much worse.

    So the moral of the story is:
    1)Check anything that is even remotely dangerous looking.
    2)Don’t elect terrorists into office.

  28. Village_Idiot says:

    Quote: “Don’t elect terrorists into office.”

    In the 2000 election at least, we didn’t.

    And so what if someone has a stun gun on a plane? They can’t get to the cockpit anymore, and these days airline passengers are not just going to sit there if someone starts waving around some type of weapon, especially something as limited in use as a stun gun. I’d be more worried about someone with a foot-long sharpened stick, which last I checked won’t set off the metal detector. Same for knives made from composites or carbon fiber, like one model called the “Frequent Flyer.” Security comes from addressing why people might want to hurt us (hint: it’s not because of our freedom!), for where there’s a will, there’s a way.

    My father was checking his golf bag once, and it was swabbed for detecting explosives residue. The machine registered a “positive,” meaning probable explosive residue was found. The screener said “It’s ok, don’t worry about it, you can go” and off he went, but he said he’d have felt better if they’d at least asked some questions or something.

    I guess the security people know that fertilizer from golf courses can trigger false positives and white guys in their mid-70’s don’t ever bother anybody. So, just disguise your project in something that registers positive for explosive residue and you’ll get right through!

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