An airport experience

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.


  1. fluffy said,

    September 17, 2007 at 9:00 am

    And here I thought the ‘E’ in ‘IED’ stood for ‘explosive.’

  2. ngvrnd said,

    September 17, 2007 at 9:01 am

    Here’s a question: was the printed box shrink wrapped?
    How much does a shrink wrapping machine cost?

  3. Markus said,

    September 17, 2007 at 9:03 am

    Hate to say it but this terror scare is catapulting us all back to the stoneage and pushes corporate consumerism. The next thing will be “Sir this is an improvised pair of socks, we don’t know what colors you’ve used when you knitted them but you might strangle someone with the threads. We will never let you fly with these.”.

    The terrorists have already won … the government is running around headlessly and imposes this panic onto the people.

    Good Luck with your future work if all your stuff has to be mailed or “branded” before you can take it anywhere.
    Good Luck to us all indeed.

  4. Eugene said,

    September 17, 2007 at 9:46 am

    This post showed up on Make: Blog.

    Now, what if the device in the box looks nothing like the image on it?

  5. Phibreoptic said,

    September 17, 2007 at 10:17 am

    What you had is a device that looked suspicious due to modifications you have made to it. It was obvious, you were not trying to hide it, but they are not looking for trained professionals who can hide a bomb in a pen, cell phone battery or bladder of liquids strapped to a body. It’s a scare show.

    What really scary is that on my most recent trip from NY to Detroit security have found and confiscated a lost bottle of water in my carry on bag, when I arrived to Detroit I was shocked, they have failed to find a swiss knife.
    Or maybe they didn’t, they are looking for water now…

    Note to myself: “Mail all *IEDs via express mail, overnight” :)

    *Improvised Electronic Devices

  6. Anonymous said,

    September 17, 2007 at 10:24 am

    Welcome to NAZI AMERIKA

  7. Crash said,

    September 17, 2007 at 7:57 pm

    More usefully than sending this story to us, consider sending it to your congressman.

  8. Scott M said,

    September 17, 2007 at 11:13 pm

    Come on dude. Have you been living under a rock? Don’t you read the papers? With the things going on these days, you should have known better. Put it in checked luggage, or mail it ahead.

    You’re gonna fault these guys because they aren’t techo-weenies like us?

  9. Michael Chermside said,

    September 17, 2007 at 11:36 pm

    Scott M:

    No, I am going to fault them because they are engaged in some kind of dramatic display which makes life harder for the rest of us and does nothing to improve security (it’s ostensible purpose). After a 15 minute conversation with builder, the security officers harbored absolutely NO serious fear that the object in question posed a danger. If they had, he would NOT have been allowed to walk away. Yet they did not allow him to fly. Carrying bottled water on a plane does not actually endanger anyone. But if enough fuss is made about it, perhaps when actual terrorists strike the government can claim “we were doing all we could”. The TRUTH is that confiscating bottled water and resisters isn’t “doing all they can”, it is just a show that’s being put on. And it’s not a show I want to be watching, nor one I want my country to be enacting.

    – Michael Chermside

  10. Dave A said,

    September 18, 2007 at 9:59 am

    if the security guy took a mobile phone picture for his blog, then wrote a post about it, it might be a dramatic display.

    I’m not sure exactly what the attitude was of the people you dealt with but they can only work inside the rules they’ve been given – surely over-zealous security staff are preferable to lazy, indifferent ones?

    an annoying experience for you though, I admit!

  11. Erica said,

    September 18, 2007 at 10:00 am

    How much of a “techno-weenie” does one need to be to grasp that a bunch of electronic components, NOT connected in any way to explosive material, cannot in and of themselves blow anything up?

    It might have made sense for the screeners to examine the device; what’s disturbing is the clear attitude that anyone who makes his own components instead of buying everything pre-packaged like a good little consumer is a suspicious and dangerous person.

  12. Wayne S. said,

    September 18, 2007 at 11:37 am

    The TSA has totally lost it concept of what is proper and what is out of line.

    Take a look at what happened to me recently.

    There is no recourse for passengers, and that is the saddest part.

  13. Wax said,

    September 18, 2007 at 11:42 am

    I travel frequently and I get pretty ashamed every time someone complains about getting stopped in airport security for “suspicious” items. You have to think rationally here. People are paid 10-12 an hour to inspect items being carried onto airplanes. Now we all know it can be ridiculous but to state you were explaining “circuit theory” to an airline security employee is asinine at best. Get Over It people, these employees are not rocket scientists.

  14. John Hedtke said,

    September 18, 2007 at 4:50 pm

    Dave A said:
    >>I’m not sure exactly what the attitude was of the people you dealt with but they can only work inside the rules they’ve been given – surely over-zealous security staff are preferable to lazy, indifferent ones?

    I vote for lazy and indifferent. It all amounts to the same result anyway and we don’t have the problem with getting hassled.

  15. Alina said,

    September 19, 2007 at 2:08 am

    In Europe you have no problems flying with electronic equipment. Me and my colleagues fly all sorts of equipment (loosely “packaged” in Aldi bags) and nobody thinks of them as bombs.

  16. chinat said,

    September 19, 2007 at 8:59 am

    What did you expect from guys who used to work at Burger King?

    No electronic parts are used to make a whopper.

  17. NotWax said,

    September 20, 2007 at 11:49 pm

    Wax bro, splain me what electronic parts have to do with explosions? Real bad guys would just put the crap in a radio casing and be done with it. doh.

  18. James said,

    September 21, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    Ridiculous. “Splain me” how a security team can think that device could cause anyone any harm, especially when a professional who really wanted to cause some damage could have just put some code on a microcontroller and put it in a pretty box. If you could even do anything of any consequence to an airplane with a microcontroller.

    Also, please look at my comment on your previous blog entry…

  19. Paul said,

    September 21, 2007 at 11:53 pm

    Because they are looking for anything out of the ordinary that is not normal to be carried onto the plane…you are upset that you were stopped? I mean they are looking for things just like that modified electronics that possibly could be part of an IED since terrorist are more likely to send parts of and IED through security seperately rather then sending it in all together (after all it is easier to do that) and they find an electronic that has obviusly been modified from its normal design which mean sit possibly could be the switch or trigger of an IED how could they know that its not? Take you the suspects word for it?

    Meh look at the bigger picture instead of how inconvenient it is for you.

  20. Andrew said,

    October 2, 2007 at 2:51 am

    I collect old telephones and for years I have carried complete phones and parts in hand luggage when I have flown on domestic and international flights. Parts of these are made from the same type of ferrous metal as weapons. There is no way that the average security guard would know what these were in an X-ray of passenger baggage but I have never been asked to open my bags so that these items could be checked. However I have been asked to open my bag to check my notebook computer, remove the battery from my mobile phone and been told that I could not take a large bunch of keys in my briefcase. It is the inconsistency of pretend ‘security’ at airports that is the annoying thing.

  21. Evil Roy said,

    October 6, 2007 at 1:31 am

    Yeah, and all you folks who are crying foul over this and saying that the gubment is going overboard will be the first ones to start screaming about them not doing enough when the a water supply is poisoned or someone pops off a nuke. God, what a spoiled, narcissistic people we’ve become . . .

  22. Stuart said,

    October 6, 2007 at 6:32 am

    Look at it this way…

    Millions of people died for freedom in WWII…

    Thousands of people died exercising that freedom on 9/11 (and since an alarming number of you don’t remember the friggin year… 2001!) and 07/07, and over Lockerbie, and on the Achille Lauro.

    Freedom is indeed not free.

    More people will die in terrorist attacks – THAT is another price of freedom. Just because you did not sign up for the Military, does not mean you can not help pay the costs.

    The tradgedy of this story is NOT that someone was inconvinienced, nor is it that security screeners, hired as they are from the ranks of the high school drop outs, are woefully under-educated. It is that, at best, everyone is being inconvinienced, and people will STILL die in the next terrorist attack. You are being asked to pay FOR your freedom, WITH your freedom.

    Bush has said he thinks it is his job to “protect” Matt Lauers family. No, it is Matt Lauers job to protect his family. It is the Presidents job to protect and defend the CONSTITUTION of the United States, and at that he is failing spectacularly.

  23. Anon said,

    October 6, 2007 at 11:55 am

    As far as those simpletons are concerned it could have been some sort of electronic jammer thingy that’d do some crazy voodoo and mess with instruments. :p

  24. Mexican said,

    October 6, 2007 at 1:10 pm

    The greatest amount of work is done by those less than highly intelligent. They are often the least skilled, and the least likely to ‘see’ things that may be truly threatening to their existence. They ‘see’ perceived threats, only as those threats are relevant to their outlook and their experiences. Often that is little more than TV. They have little ability to ‘see’ in terms of what may or may not be an actual and effective threat. Sometimes the useless is stopped while the effective is clearly visible and never seen as a threat.

    Those of us who occupy the small part of the bell jar fully realize just how easily we could bring down an airliner, control it, control the crew, or dispatch any potential threats so we could become the ultimate controlling force aboard. This is reasonably simple stuff. Fortunately for us, there are not so many mad enough to apply such horrors. We have better, more interesting pursuits–like pleasantly hacking offshore banks.

    The common man will always be the common man and we as less than that will always have to bend to their occasionally nonsensical rules. It is wise to ‘see’ in advance what they are likely to do and with a sly smile, find a way to accomplish what we need without the usual hassles. I call mine the back door policy–I never butt heads when there is another door that is usually unlocked.

    Were I to plan a airline takeover job, perhaps I would attempt to take on a circuit board and some green clay to create a stir while my plain appearing overcoat was the real menace. Soaked in an odorless chemical that would soon overcome everyone in the plane who had not prepared in advance, soon I would be flying alone, sitting in the pilots chair, enjoying a diet coke and listening to the radio. But I am not one to do such nor will I ever be.


    In jail, one has little to occupy an active mind and the company isn’t particularly stimulating. I do recommend you avoid such places whether by intelligent design or stupid action.

  25. Paulos said,

    October 6, 2007 at 1:45 pm

    Airport security is a farce and at best misguided. For instance in the UK you can’t take a container of liquid that takes more than 100ml even if there is obviously less than 100ml of liquid in it. I had to leave a can of deodorant behind and yet as soon as you pass security you can buy exactly the same item. What can pass through one country’s security is banned in another, there is no consistent policy of what is allowed. There is also the pathetic rule of only one piece of hand luggage so if you were a business passenger who had an overnight bag and a laptop you would have to check one of those in and endure all the inconvenience of baggage reclaim.

    Coming back to the UK from San Francisco one time I was at the gate with my wife standing by the doors that led to the aircraft. Some over zealous guard saw this and ushered us back and put a tape across in front as if we were about to storm the aircraft!

    Obviously airport security is important but it’s getting to the point where everyone is a suspected terrorist and until you actually pass through the aircraft door you’re treated like one. My advice, charter your own bizjet and cut out the crap.

  26. Trent said,

    October 7, 2007 at 1:17 am

    LOL Of all the places for this to happen it had to be in my town. You must have really spooked them because I don’t think I’ve ever seen 2 security officers in the same place ever in the airport. They were probably just bored and couldn’t stand to take a third nap for the day.

  27. James D. Newman said,

    October 7, 2007 at 2:48 am

    Just so long as the terrorists know that they have to put their bombs in Kleenex boxes.

    The idea that a circuit board is more likely to be explosive than an M&M package is totally and completely ludicrous. Just so we all get that the point here is that we are no safer than we ever were for all the money we’re spending.

    I’m shocked that people would defend this as reasonable.


  28. Ben Marbury said,

    October 9, 2007 at 6:10 pm

    “The fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defence against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad.”

    James Madison, 4th US President, 1751-1836.

    And we thought this was a new deal!

  29. Lucas said,

    October 11, 2007 at 4:22 pm

    I had to jump in here… How did this all start? Box cutters? Are you going to tell me that there aren’t illegal immigrants working the airport Taco Bell, cutting tomatoes with 10″ chef’s knives BEHIND the security lines? (no, this isn’t about illegal immigrants)

    Lets face it, Mr and Mrs. America may “feel” safer about flying when we cant take a bottle of shampoo through security, but who are we kidding? If you want to bring a plane down, mid-flight, you can, and no amount of bag checking is going to stop someone from doing it. If the terrorists can afford to send 8 guys to flight school to learn how to fly heavies, they can certainly afford the shrink wrapper. They can also afford to have timers, ignitors, gps’ and anything else they may need, professionally designed, produced and packaged. If a prisoner can make a wicked shank from his toothbrush, I’m pretty sure the terrorists can figure that out too.

    The TSA is probably going to be able stop the unprepared wacko from doing something stupid because he’s mad at the IRS. But they are not going to be able to stop committed, well trained and determined terrorists from repeating a 9-11 style aircraft based attack.

    I have flown internationally on private jets before and the only scrutiny we ever came under was a customs official who stuck his head in the door and asked if we were all citizens. We all said yes and were free to go. What if we had brought in a 500 pound dirty bomb? If you think you are safe, think again.

  30. James Evans said,

    October 13, 2007 at 11:48 pm

    I agree with Michael Chermside – this is all security theater. It is absolutely insane that this happens in America which is supposed to be a free country. I think terrorists will be wise enough to disguise their bombs like consumer grade electronics. Check out Lockerbie for instance, the bomb was hidden inside a boom box/radio…

  31. Andy said,

    October 15, 2007 at 3:54 pm

    This is why I don’t fly outside of Europe anymore. Last time I went to the States the security was a pain, but at the same time obviously not very good. It all looked like a show. It was all aimed at the LAST threat, not the next one. I’m used to countries that have been dealing with the IRA, Bader Meinhof and Brigade Rosse for years. And yet we still all flew with water, electronics and nailfiles. And everyone just got on with it.

    Let me, and the rest of the world known when your country is open for business again.

  32. Idetrorce said,

    December 15, 2007 at 6:19 pm

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

  33. Anonymous said,

    March 31, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    I think you are way off base here. There is absolutely NO HARM in precautions. Check it. I mean really what is the big deal. You obviously do not take this threat seriously. We cannot live with blinders on. Give these TSA guys a break.

  34. Michael said,

    June 10, 2008 at 12:07 pm

    It’s all just a policical hype, over zealous sercurity and a lack of training. If they got in this state about a resistor imagine if you were carrying more obscure electronic components. An IC, a rotary switch. Woe betide those with nixie tubes!

    The airlines are all screwed up at the moment but the trains are not. No bagage limits, no sercurity checks, the most you get is checked for a ticket! “Excuse me sir, could you please move your ticking suitcase, it’s obstructing the sandwich cart. Also there is no smoking on the train so please stop trying to light your shoe!”

    Thank you America! Thanks for the freedom!

  35. Parker Brown said,

    June 17, 2008 at 8:39 am

    THAT IS THE STUPIDEST THING EVER! if IED’s aren’t allowed on planes, i will NEVER be able to take my laptop, pda, ipod, infact, NONE of my electronics with me, since i have modded them ALL in some way, shape, or form. PROOF THAT THE U.S.’S SECURITY SUCKS!

  36. Craig said,

    June 17, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    I am surprised at the people defending the TSA. Why should we cut them any slack? If they cannot tell the difference between harmless and a threat in this situation, how and why should we expect them to do the same when a real threat occurs?

    Also, what I find particularly hilarious is that it would be okay to check it but illegal to carry on! As if a terrorist would need physical access to detonate a bomb?

  37. ajax said,

    June 17, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    There is huge harm in going through the motions with security. It makes people think something is being done, when in fact nothing has changed.
    If you want airport security, do what the Dutch and the Israelis do. Every passenger gets a 30-60 second interview by a trained security agent, looking for anything suspicious. The weapon is the person – you’ll never guess at what he might be carrying to help take down a plane, but you can (hopefully) detect that the guy is not quite right, and stop it there. How many attempts to take down an El Al plane do you think have been stopped? Must be hundreds.

  38. Youaredoomed said,

    June 18, 2008 at 8:10 am

    It’s amazing how high the level of ignorance is about how ineffective the TSA’s security measures really are for preventing determined Terrorists from carrying out an attack.

    It’s also amazing how high the level of acceptance is from the general public of meaningless TSA security measures that impinge upon personal freedom..

    That guy sitting next to you on the plane, if he is hell-bent on bringing it down, would never try to board a plane with anything that looked suspicious like a printed circuit board. He’d waltz on with an unchecked unopened package of candy that isn’t really candy…it’s amazing what chemicals can do when mixed together…

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