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Weird Science: Traveling With Homemade Gadgets

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Friday, August 05, 2011
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Device Found At Omaha Checkpoint

You may have heard in the news recently about how a college student unintentionally closed down a TSA checkpoint with his science project. He had shipped it to Omaha, but decided to travel with it on his departure. Let’s be clear, it was completely innocent. He had no way of knowing his improvised mint tin would look like an improvised explosive device (IED) on our X-ray monitor. Most people wouldn’t realize it and the purpose of this post is to inform folks that homemade gadgets (however cool they may be) can look like improvised explosive devices to our officers on the X-ray monitors. You may remember a blog post from Nico about homemade gadgets from back in 2009. The devices we’re looking for don’t look like the Wile E. Coyote Acme bomb, they are smaller these days and much harder to find.

I spoke with Dave today from TSA’s Explosives Operation Division about what types of thing can cause your bag to be checked. Watch the video to see what he had to say.

So when you pack your bags for a trip, you may want to think about what items you are placing next to others to avoid the hassle of unintentionally creating an X-ray image which could cause TSA to conduct a further inspection of your carry-on and checked bags.

Bob Burns
TSA Blog Team

If you’d like to comment on an unrelated topic you can do so in our Off Topic Comments post. You can also view our blog post archives or search our blog to find a related topic to comment in. If you have a travel related issue or question that needs an immediate answer, you can contact a Customer Support Manager at the airport you traveled, or will be traveling through by using Talk to TSA.

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Comments

Submitted by Anonymous on

First, you crow about stopping someone with a trivial amount of C-4 (but no detonator) in his checked luggage.

Now you crow about perfectly legal electronic devices with no explosives.

Yet, over and over, tests show you miss 70% or more of weapons and bombs.

Get your act together, TSA.

Submitted by Avxo on

That a 'vanilla' TSO doesn't have the expertise to readily evaluate a device and decide that it's harmless is certainly reasonable, so calling someone with such expertise makes good sense. I can also understand not moving a suspect device anymore than absolutely necessary until it can be evaluated.

So, in general, I find it hard to fault the TSA here, but I think that the reaction was a little over the top. Was closing off the entire terminal for hours really necessary? To be clear, that might have been a decision made by the TSA and the Police that came on site to examine the device.

I'd be curious to hear how the student was treated during this whole incident. I think it's a fair assumption to say he was detained, but I'm curious if he was given a chance to explain in a reasonable or if he was verbally pushed around and treated as a criminal.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Anonymous, it's only a matter of time before one of these homemade devices turns out not to be innocent. TSA absolutely should check suspicious-looking devices or organic blobs that turn out to be illegally-obtained C4. Don't ya know, bad guys work in teams? One can carry the explosive. Another can carry a paper detonator (very difficult to detect). Another can contribute the timing device. And so on. If something goes BOOM, John Q. Traveling Public ain't gonna be happy.

Submitted by Mythinformed on

So does insulin count as weird science?

I'd be curious to hear about why a pregnant lady who is also diabetic is having her life-protecting medication taken away from her (that was properly labeled and included a doctor's note, no less). Fortunately the agents at Denver didn't manage to find it all, so she had enough to get her safely to her destination where she could buy more.

Care to comment?

http://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/28773212/detail.html

Submitted by Anonymous on

Hey, at least it didn't look like insulin!

"out of an abundance of caution, we will retrain our officers"

Submitted by Anonymous on

It is misleading to claim that a college student "unintentionally closed down a TSA checkpoint." The TSA intentionally closed the checkpoint, not the student. Neither is it accurate to refer to "passengers alarming." It is your system that alarms, not the passenger himself.

Also, it's rather amusing that you used the phrase "weird science" in this blog post given the fact that you are currently pushing for the expansion of a program that rests on the belief that a person can be reliably turned into a human lie detector over five days, a program which has been criticized by real scientists as lacking any scientific basis.

By the way, Bob, have you gotten any e-mails back regarding the Nature magazine article? I seem to recall that you had sent out some inquiries, what, a year ago?

Submitted by Anonymous on

TSA,

Thank you for keeping us "safe" from harmless objects and insulin.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Other than the unusual case, how do you tell a home-made device from a commercial product?

If a home-made device is carefully constructed and put into a case from a real product you won't find it.

Basically, if your screener spots it, it's probably harmless. The dangerous stuff isn't going to be detected.

Submitted by Anonymous on

I'd be curious to hear about why a pregnant lady who is also diabetic is having her life-protecting medication taken away from her (that was properly labeled and included a doctor's note, no less).
_______________
Why did they confiscate her insulin??? It says specifically on the TSA website that insulin is allowed on both carry-on and checked luggage.

I love this quote from the article:

[The passenger] said she was able to get half a vial through security, apparently unnoticed by TSA agents.

"It was at the bottom of my lunch box because they didn't search it all the way through. They just took out everything on top,” she said.

I also love this one:

“We talked to all of our people and they didn’t touch her insulin," said TSA spokeswoman Pat Ahlstrom.

With the amount of TSA theft that has occurred, the LAST person I'd believe when something goes missing is a TSA agent.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Now I know why you always pick on me at the checkpoint. As a professional scientist, I must look weird to you folks.

Submitted by JustSayin on

Good eye, TSA!

The student's gadget could easily be confused with an actual explosive device.

It's catches like this by the TSA professionals that has kept American skies safe since 9/11.

Keep up the good work!

Submitted by Anonymous on

It totally was the students fault that the terminal was shut down. Being a physics student he knew full well that this device would cause a problem. Why do you think he had it shipped to Omaha in the first place? I think TSA Omaha did a fine job in this situation.

Submitted by Anonymous on

I travel with similar devices all the time. I've rarely been asked about them but when I do, I make fun of the TSO for not understanding what constitutes a dangerous device and what doesn't. Invariably, they have sheepishly put the device back and handed me back my luggage.

I was delayed recently for having pencil lead (the suspicious .7mm size!) in my bags. Apparently, the TSO was unaware that there are mechanical pencils in the world that require replacement lead.

Amazing.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Someone said:
"The student's gadget could easily be confused with an actual explosive device."

Only by a poorly trained, inept workforce.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Anonymous said:
"It totally was the students fault that the terminal was shut down. Being a physics student he knew full well that this device would cause a problem. Why do you think he had it shipped to Omaha in the first place? I think TSA Omaha did a fine job in this situation."

STOP. What the student had with him was ENTIRELY acceptable by TSA standards. Why would you possibly blame the victim and not the perpetrators?

You should be ashamed of yourself.

Submitted by JustSayin on

Re: Insulin story...

So far, it's just a one-sided story.

Let's hear the TSA's response.

Don't jump to conclusions...

Don't foam at the mouth just cause you chose to buy the media's story without hearing all the facts...

If there's an anomoly that can't be resolved, it's not going on the plane.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Some wrote: "Let's hear the TSA's response" regarding stealing a passengers insulin.

Now why would anyone want to hear more of their lies?

Submitted by RB on

JustSayin said...
Re: Insulin story...

So far, it's just a one-sided story.

Let's hear the TSA's response.

Don't jump to conclusions...

Don't foam at the mouth just cause you chose to buy the media's story without hearing all the facts...

If there's an anomoly that can't be resolved, it's not going on the plane.

August 5, 2011 10:47 PM


So what you are "JustSayin" is that TSA is willing to kill people to keep INSULIN off an airplane.

Good plan!

Submitted by Scott on

Great comment Avxo

There's not much to add, other than the kid who made the device should be grateful that he didn't have any cash in his bag too. That won't shut down an airport, but it can go missing. Apparently, the X-ray machines have vacuums on them.
The fact the TSA blog has sunk to the level of praising agents for finding something that looks like a bomb, shutting down a terminal, and who knows what happened to the kid (other than being assigned blame for a gross over reaction to a completely harmless device).
We've always been at war with Eastasia - and if we don't stay scared, very scared, well, we won't be scared.

Submitted by F2000 on

"Was closing off the entire terminal for hours really necessary?"

Within a bureaucracy where no one is encouraged or empowered to exercise the vaguest sense of individual reason or decision making, yes. Yes it was totally necessary. Someone might have lost their job had they not ran the decision up to the next higher level of the chain. The remarkable thing about this decision is that it apparently didn't involve final clearance from Napolitano. By TSA standards, that should be counted as a win.

Submitted by Anonymous on

JustSayin said...
Re: Insulin story...

So far, it's just a one-sided story.

Let's hear the TSA's response.

If you had bothered to read the linked article, you would have seen the TSA's response. They claimed her ice packs weren't "completely frozen" (well, DUH, the second you take the ice packs out of the freezer, they start to melt and will never be 'completely frozen' until they are back in a freezer for a while), and that they "never touched her insulin".

Yeah, Right.

Submitted by JustSayin on

RB said...
JustSayin said...
Re: Insulin story...

So far, it's just a one-sided story.

Let's hear the TSA's response.

Don't jump to conclusions...

Don't foam at the mouth just cause you chose to buy the media's story without hearing all the facts...

If there's an anomoly that can't be resolved, it's not going on the plane.

August 5, 2011 10:47 PM


So what you are "JustSayin" is that TSA is willing to kill people to keep INSULIN off an airplane.

Good plan!

August 6, 2011 8:23 AM



Well, I hear what you're sayin...that you jump to conclusions without hearing all the facts.

...but I already knew that. :)

Submitted by Anonymous on

Electronics don't explode. Explosives explode.
Hence the name, "Explosives."

This seems like an attack not on bombers, but on sloppy craftsmanship.

Google "altoids tin electronics" and you'll get 513,000 results. Half a Million results. Once again for posterity's sake: Half A MILLION. You screener reacted (poorly) to something they've never seen before.

Which shouldn't be a surprise; they're a screener. Not an engineer. Not a doctor. Not someone who has experience in the world. Which is why they're a screener. Probably not their childhood dream job.

But you know what? They overreacted at the airport, and that's understandable. What upsets me more is how the TSA is spinning this, here on their webpage and in the press.

I agree with a previous commenter's reaction:

It is misleading to claim that a college student "unintentionally closed down a TSA checkpoint." The TSA intentionally closed the checkpoint, not the student. Neither is it accurate to refer to "passengers alarming." It is your system that alarms, not the passenger himself.

To this I would comment on the TSA quote: "He had no way of knowing his improvised mint tin would look like an improvised explosive device (IED) on our X-ray monitor." Is there a TSA flipbook of what IED's are supposed to look like? His project did not look like an IED. It looked like the HALF A MILLION other altoids tin projects. It was the screener who could not correctly identify an electronics project NOR correctly identify a bomb, and that's the scary part.

Submitted by Anonymous on

A mint tin science experiment caused you to force passengers to possibly miss their flights. I think the TSA should refund anyone's ticket if they miss their flight while at the so called "security theatre" line.

Submitted by Anonymous on

As a diabetic, I would really like to know why the woman's insulin was taken away. I have enough to worry about when I travel above and beyond the normal TSA experience. I've already accepted the fact that I will get the enhanced patdown because I have to opt out of the scanner due to my insulin pump. I'll gladly go through the metal detector. I don't need to worry that my insulin is going to be confiscated.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Thanks Bob. I was there, I saw the xray image, I almost wet myself. Shutting the concourse down (not the entire airport, there are 2 concourses) was the smartest thing we could have done.

People here can second guess the decision all they like, they were not there and were not tasked with making the decisions. Sure it was an innocent science project, but there is no way to tell that without opening the bag (remember people lie), and thats a stupid thing to do when you think there is a bomb in it. Oh, one other thing, he was release to continue on his way. He missed his flight obviously, him and several hundred others.

Submitted by Anonymous on

This completely amazes me that the "Highly Trained" T.S.A. agents mistake a tin of mints for an explosive device!

The tin of mints they flag but the guy with the Glock or stun gun gets through security and onto the plane with no problems!

Way to go!

Umm ... I feel safer????

Submitted by Jim on

You know what I love about the insulin story? T.S.A. confiscates her little bottles of insulin but lets her bring the needles on the plane!

What the heck is that!?! The kids working the snack bar have better training than T.S.A. agents!

Submitted by JustSayin on

Anonymous said...
JustSayin said...
Re: Insulin story...

So far, it's just a one-sided story.

Let's hear the TSA's response.

If you had bothered to read the linked article, you would have seen the TSA's response. They claimed her ice packs weren't "completely frozen" (well, DUH, the second you take the ice packs out of the freezer, they start to melt and will never be 'completely frozen' until they are back in a freezer for a while), and that they "never touched her insulin".

Yeah, Right.



If you had bothered to read TSA's policies on ice packs, you would already know that an ice pack has to be just that - completely frozen - in order to get through to the sterile area.

Submitted by Ayn R Key on

So, I guess we can consider this conclusive proof that the TSA considers the educated portion of the population to be a threat.

Submitted by Anonymous on

JustSayin said..."Good eye, TSA!...It's catches like this by the TSA professionals that has kept American skies safe since 9/11."

Your definition of safe makes me wonder.... Nothing the TSA is doing, or has done since its inception is actually designed to catch a terrorist.

A team of three bad guys can smuggle in half a gallon or more of the magic explosive liquid that is the cause of the 3-1-1 rule.

A team of two bad guys can smuggle in enough PETN to make a real mess of the inside of an aircraft without even resorting to sticking anything where the sun don't shine.

And the only way the TSA would catch any of that group was if they got the random so we don't get accused of profiling property search.

And I won't even bother with all the crap you put in the cargo hold that could do way more to a plane than anything could bring into the cabin.

TSA.... Making you think your safe since September 12.

Submitted by Anonymous on

This is just so funny I guess since Omaha is a small airport they don't have a BAO with all the millions that is being spent on invading our privacy (Body Scanners) you can't send a JPG to be evaluated by a BAO at another airport? That should have taken maybe 20 mins. Any competent EOD Tech should be able to see on an x-ray if there are any movement triggers and common sense tells you that if there are no switches and it was moved to the x-ray then it is safe to move away from the x-ray. so why shut down an entire airport other then to try to spin that the TSA does something good instead of just stealing from our luggage.

Submitted by Anonymous on

JustSayin said...
If you had bothered to read TSA's policies on ice packs, you would already know that an ice pack has to be just that - completely frozen - in order to get through to the sterile area.

Actually, I AM aware of the policy. My point was that it's an IMPOSSIBILITY. The moment ice is removed from freezing temperatures, it starts to melt, and thus, is not "completely" frozen.

Just like the government to make a policy that CANNOT be followed.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Justsaying said:
"If you had bothered to read TSA's policies on ice packs, you would already know that an ice pack has to be just that - completely frozen - in order to get through to the sterile area."

So the pregnant diabetic can just deal with it, correct?

Amazing. Prepare for privatization. Coming to an airport near you.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Hi Bob,

Just seen this story

About Body Scanners being called useless in Germany, and the EU banning the use of machines that use xrays because of worries about radiation exposure.

This is in stark contrast to all the information the TSA is giving out....

Maybe you could do a blog post on this, and why the US is pushing these machines as a panacea to all things bad, but the EU is taking a more measured approach?

cheers,

G

Submitted by Anonymous on

YASP (Yet Another Science Project) destroyed by the TSA. Am I the only one who thinks a t-shirt reading "the dumbing down of America brought to you by the TSA" or similar would be a good idea?

My captcha was mucentiv. Micro-incentive. What a laugh.

Submitted by Anonymous on

I am curious Justsayin would you care to post any links to the statue/s giving authority to the TSA to perform any sort of search on anyone or anything? I am curious do you have professional background in law enforcement or private security? You seem to know a lot about these things so enlighten us please. Again, you seem to obviously grasp something we don't which makes me very interested in your professional credentials.

Submitted by PCN on

I would certainly rather the TSA be safe than sorry when it comes to a crazy looking contraption like the one pictured. And I also appreciate that they are trying to put the word out that people cannot travel with home made gadgets if they don't want to create an incident.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Welcome to the sureal world of TSA safety where Ice doesnt melt, innocent photographers are still guilty, mothers milk is more horrifying than WMD and Kip Hawley is (not) an Idiot
Only in America

Submitted by Anonymous on

"You shall not die from a lack of insulin while in the custody of federal agents, which have perfected a way of keeping ice frozen without the means of an external cooler, in the presence of no record-capable audio or video devices before attempting to get shot at by a broad aim of radiation while carrying an unborn baby inside of you."

TSA training sorted then!

Submitted by JustSayin on

Anonymous said...
Justsaying said:
"If you had bothered to read TSA's policies on ice packs, you would already know that an ice pack has to be just that - completely frozen - in order to get through to the sterile area."

So the pregnant diabetic can just deal with it, correct?

Amazing. Prepare for privatization. Coming to an airport near you.

August 7, 2011 8:21 PM



Privitization?! You mean like before 9/11...when the US had the WORST terrorist attack in history?

Try again!

The TSA is here to stay.

Go TSA!!!

Submitted by Anonymous on

Oh well - sounds like that's just a risk of doing warantless searches...

Submitted by Anonymous on

JustSayin said...
"If you had bothered to read TSA's policies on ice packs, you would already know that an ice pack has to be just that - completely frozen - in order to get through to the sterile area."

Which make no sense at all. Why is a frozen ice pack safe but a thawed one isn't if both have the same contents? A cross country flight is long enough for a frozen ice pack to melt. What exactly is this policy supposed to be protecting against?

Submitted by Anonymous on

Any ordinary electronic device can be modified internally, without any clue from the exterior as to the modification. The device may even perform its original task perfectly, in addition to the modification.

Using the same logic, it only makes sense to have a 100% ban on all electronic devices whatsoever, even with the batteries removed. Not even in checked baggage.

If you are going to say "these devices are suspicious" then you have no choice but to accept that they ALL are suspicious.

Submitted by Anonymous on

I once triggered a manual search of my bags because I was traveling with a can of SPAM. So remember, kids, try not to travel with canned meat products!

Submitted by Korben Dallas on

"... what types of thing can cause your bag to be checked".

Er... I'm sorry, what??? "Checked"? Is this some kind of cheap smoke screen or something?

The topic of this conversation is not the checking. Most of us have no problem with having our bags checked. Most of us will gladly allow our bags to be checked five or ten times over, if necessary. It is not the issue here.

The topic here is the gratuitous abuse and destruction of personal property the TSA agents routinely carry out for their own personal entertainment. It goes far beyond the "bag checking". In fact, the "checking" is totally irrelevant here.

What you should be talking about here is what types of things the TSA agents will usually find sufficiently amusing to try to play with. I know that at certain developmental level people find it is rather amusing to crush an electronic gadget with a hammer (I did tings like that in my childhood). It can also be rather interesting to see if a pregnant diabetic woman survives a flight without her medication (I never tried tings like that though).

That kind of thing is what you should tell us about. Not your misleading mumbo-jumbo about our bags getting "checked".

Submitted by Anonymous on

TSA and their international ilk have a severe lack of discretion.

An example: I'm a contact lens wearer out of necessity - my eyes are so bad that glasses are useless. With contact lenses come maintenance products. Unfortunately, my maintenance products come in a (sterile) 120ml bottle, which barely exceeds the 100ml that is allowed. By strictly following rules, inspectors make my already difficult life more miserable: what am I supposed to do without maintenance products when a connecting flight is cancelled in the middle of the night ? An no, getting a prescription every time I need to fly is no option either.

Having no common sense at all of what's dangerous and what's not works both ways: endangering the public by letting the bad guys pass while harassing the disabled. Good job. You must be proud.

Submitted by Anonymous on

So tell us this … why couldn't they have taken the person aside, taken the bag aside, and possibly ASKED what was in it? I mean, wow, did any TSA staff ever consider how far COMMUNICATION might go?

If when you do this, you can't tell just by observing the person whether it's a real explosive or not, then the rest of your observation-based security is a worthless joke.

And if it's a real explosive and a real terrorist, your evacuation of the terminal isn't going to make a damned bit of difference. You probably don't even let the evacuees use the fire exits, but rather funnel them all out the regular exits, with their luggage (because we've all been trained not to let it out of our sight) and that would take so long and create such a crowd, such a potential target, it's actually not just a negative for the travelers, but it's a "better" situation for a potential terrorist.

Someone should really think this stuff through, because I still see a horrid lack of common sense in TSA operations.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Posting your outrage here is welcome, of course, and offered as a way to accept all all your input with no measurable impact. Other than making you feel better, that is.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Security Theater at it's best. IMHO TSA should be dismantled and get a local security firm (somebody with ties to the community and liability for mistakes and personal injury) to do it.

Blind tests show that the TSA couldn't catch a terrorist if he walked in with a name badge and nuclear bomb suitcase.

All the millimeter wave scanners are likewise a waste of money and probably a danger to the public.

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