Everything "unusual" becomes suspicious. See a guy taking photos at an airport? Must be a terrorist! Can't be a photographer and aviation enthusiast, no!
As Bruce says, the CYA angle is also horrific. Landlord sees something, thinks it might be nothing, but just in case, tells the local cops. Cops figure it might be nothing, but just in case, calls the FBI. Branch office figure it might be nothing, but just in case, gets regional / national HQ involved. Somewhere in the chain someone inadvertently gets word to the other 3-letter agencies, and the effect is magnified.
... and every time it's escalated, people figure "well, the people below me wouldn't have escalated unless they had reason to" ... while at the same time thinking, "well, I'm not sure, but I'm also not going to be the scapegoat if I fail to neutralize a potential attack and something does happen."
Everyone in the chain has plenty to lose and little to gain for not escalating to the next level -- nobody wants to be the guy who missed an opportunity to stop / neutralize a threat, especially in the unlikely-but-possible scenario that an attack does occur.
Regarding "if you see something, say something", Rick Moranis had an intelligent take on that at the beginning of his guest column in the NYTimes:
The 'problem' is that all of us - everyone - has a number of ways in which their life is 'unusual'. Aberrant (deviating from the norm) is not inherently suspicious, because everyone is aberrant in some aspects of their life. Nobody is truly 'normal'. In fact, if you thoroughly investigated someone and found nothing that was 'abnormal' in some way, that would be suspicious!
Most people's individual personalities and quirks aren't suspicious if you look at the whole picture, but when someone's entire job is to find evidence of 'abnormal' or 'suspicious' things about someone it means that they can construct a suspicious narrative about anyone, as long as they have the motivation or interest to.
In other words, it simply becomes a game of finding evidence that confirms one's own (or an organization's own) cognitive or systemic biases.
 More than 1 or 2 standard deviations away from the mean, etc.
 CYA is a common 'motivation' in this sense.
I've heard spies are sometimes caught this way. Their life-profile is so deliberately normal that, having no quirks, they actually do stand out as such.
Was sitting on the runway and the cockpit door was open. Saw a really cool view out the window with the pilots and such, so I grabbed my DSLR and snapped a shot (I'm a photo geek).
Stewardess gave me issues about it and started telling me she didn't think it was allowed (it is to my knowledge), but I held my ground and it was fine.
I'm probably on some list now just for wanting a cool shot.
You are a nontechnical person and stumble upon what appear to be plans for a terrorist attack. You talk to the person about it and they say "Don't worry. is computer game".
A great exploration of this is the 30 Rock episode where Tina Fey reports her neighbor for what ends up being a plan to get on the show 'The Amazing Race'.
The problem is, not knowing any better, you feel obligated to report the activity just in case. Let someone much smarter than yourself decide what is really going on. If you say nothing and someone gets hurt, can you forgive yourself?
As a hacker, I would understand this is definitely a game. But can I really expect the same from non-technical people?
No one ends up willing to stick their neck out and say, "this person probably isn't a terrorist"... just in case.
"The airport management considered the message to be "not credible" as a threat, but contacted the police anyway."
They ended up finding something unrelated to actually protecting the public from a terrorist threat that they thought would stick after it got escalated to the point where they couldn't back down. This led to a conviction (eventually overturned on appeal).
"We captured a bunch of people. Some are harmless unfortunate bystanders. Some are dangerous people who are nevertheless not immune to handcuffs. Still, we'd better lock them up in harsh conditions without trial just in case."
"Iraq probably has no nuclear weapons and no means to deliver one, but we'd better invade the country just in case. We don't want to be wrong and end up with a mushroom cloud over Manhattan."
Naturally; the "1% Doctrine" was formulated very shortly after 9/11 and, while the quote articulating it addresses Pakistani scientists aiding al-Qaeda, the significance is that it was a critical framing mindset from the highest levels for the Bush Administration policy on terrorism.
>Shortly after September 11th 2001, I thought to myself, and now someone will turn up minor intelligence warnings of something-or-other, and then the hindsight will begin. Yes, I'm sure they had some minor warnings of an al Qaeda plot, but they probably also had minor warnings of mafia activity, nuclear material for sale, and an invasion from Mars.
>Because we don't see the cost of a general policy, we learn overly specific lessons. After September 11th, the FAA prohibited box-cutters on airplanes—as if the problem had been the failure to take this particular "obvious" precaution. We don't learn the general lesson: the cost of effective caution is very high because you must attend to problems that are not as obvious now as past problems seem in hindsight.
What it should mean is that you should take both probabilities and costs into account when deciding what to do, as it's often worth doing something easy to reduce the risk of something unlikely but catastrophic.
But that doesn't mean you can just avoid thinking about it! "Often" doesn't mean "always". For example, it's worth checking the tire pressure in your car on a regular basis, because incorrect pressure could lead to a blowout at high speeds which can be most unpleasant, and checking it takes little time. But it's not worth checking the car for bombs every time you drive it, at least not for most of us, because the odds of being the victim of a car bomb for most of us are indistinguishable from zero.
A little thought reveals that this case is clearly in the second category, and thus calling the police is just a waste of public resources. But if you're incorrectly using "better safe than sorry" to mean "pick the option that appears to be safe without any analysis", you're not going to apply a little thought.
Sure, and while things like responses to terrorism are rather dramatic examples of that, "zero tolerance policies" in general are also a place where this manifests.
no. It is a way to avoid liability, an insurance of a kind. Property owner would get his property confiscated if he knew or had reason to know about an illegal activity happening on the property. Trying to apply "thought" would expose her/him even to larger liability in case of a mistake. Thus blanket reporting of anything is the best liability minimizing strategy.
> no. It is a way to avoid liability
Its both, and largely the liability involved is the responsibility to apply thought.
Which in the innocuous cases is the option that is least safe:
If you flag everything as suspicious then you waste law enforcement resources investigating nothing that could have been used to investigate something.
Increasing the false positive rate makes it easier for genuine threats to blend into the noise. If you cry wolf for every neighbor's puppy the townspeople soon stop responding.
And then you make enemies out of the communities you're unnecessarily harassing, which leads to "Fuck the Police" culture where people won't even report obvious and serious threats because they don't want to attract a bunch of unthinking jackboots who might just as soon arrest victims and bystanders as the perpetrators.
2. Or, we don't have ICBM's yet. Hoping that part of the plan will work itself out. Step 1: Collect underpants ... Step 3: Profit!
2. Maybe this terrorist is just working from home and trying to understand the larger plan. Or he could be brainstorming for a future powerpoint presentation on the subject.
Just having some fun with the idea.
On the other hand, they could have been SWATed, and it probably cost my city government five digits. I don't have an answer.
It is a good point, but I wonder when it breaks down and turns into something like McCarthyism.
And I sincerely do hope that if such a plan truly exists somewhere, the power that be have better evidences/ discovery than being informed by letting agents.
Humans are -really- bad at intuitively calculating risk, and I have yet to encounter any sort of formal education in the US that teaches us how to properly calculate it.
I got evicted from a property years ago because they did a surprise inspection while I was out (which is, of course, totally illegal), and decided they'd found "mountains of cocaine" on the kitchen counters.
It was fucking Ajax kitchen cleaning powder. Still, they didn't care. The police (who they contacted) thought it was laughable, but couldn't do anything about the fact they were evicting me.
A tenant can only be evicted for rent arrears if they have over 2 months rent due (and bringing the arrears under 2 months at any time invalidates any court action), landlords cannot evict if they have not legally protected the tenants deposit and landlords have no rights to enter a tenanted property unless it is an emergency.
Nearly all letting agents (probably all?) in the UK vet potential tenants and will run various forms of check, including credit checks. They will also ask for previous addresses, and if previously renting, will demand a reference from the previous agency and landlord.
Someone giving you a bad reference, or refusing to give a reference, because you won a legal case against them is generally the kind of thing that could get another legal case started.
But that information alone would be very useful input for my decision on whether to lent to you or not.
As a tenant - a student tenant, no less - your rights are virtually squat.
Might even recommend going to court over it.
In practice the agent or landlord has a lot of leverage but you can often win if you use the law to your advantage. In particular there is a very specific set of steps they have to follow to evict you.
Even in housing association properties, you can have a 2 year "trial" period.
You only have to lightly scratch below the surface these days to find rights eroded left and right.
EDIT: I said "in place of ASTs", but ASTs aren't always appropriate.
This is mainly in the context of house/flat rentals though; I realise that perhaps per-room rentals may have special cases.
"As a tenant - a student tenant, no less - your rights are virtually squat."
This is patently false.
Its sad how sensationalist and afraid we have become.
I think "cautious" is white-washing of the highest caliber.
I wanted to see more of your posts, so trimmed the URL down to "http://henrysmith.org/blog/" and got an error message "Included file 'navbar.html' not found in _includes directory" at the top of your page. Clicking your name in the left directs me to henrysmith.org which doesn't have this problem.
I'm not sure whether he has any legal recourse over this. I doubt it, but he has potentially been materially disadvantaged (if indeed, it goes "up the chain" and he finds visas being denied).
At the very least, he needs to enumerate to his landlord the various ways in which this could seriously affect him, and ask for a rent reduction.
What they don't like is using your rented home as a warehouse or place where customers regularly visit. That kind of thing usually needs some kind of licence from the council.
And anyway - quite wrongly! What if one works from home?
And whatever happened to fostering entrepreneurship, innovation and asking people to take their own lives in their hands by doing things like setting up their own company, all these things that the current UK conservative government claims to want and support?
The law around lettings in the UK is detrimental not just to those who rent in the UK but the country as a whole.
NB for best results, start your contract at the worst time of the year for landlords, usually just after all the students have finished moving. Also, be at least a foot taller than your letting agent.
"As a result of this consultation, we will make it crystal clear to tenants, landlords and their agents that all premium fees, over and above rent and a deposit, are unlawful." - Housing Minister, Keith Brown
I've done this in four out of the five places I've rented over the years (the fifth being a special case as the landlord wanted to sell) and had no problems - although I had to argue the point with one agent who initially insisted I had no choice but to cough up. Pays to know your rights :-)
This guide is great and used to be on the UK government website:
Since superseded by:
which sadly doesn't seem to cover as much detail.
If they attempt that sorts of trick before you've even paid them a penny, that doesn't bode well for the rest of the tenancy in my opinion!
Never actually saw a version of the contract with an updated date, mind you. I am trusting them that it exists.
To be fair using the property for work changes the insurance and tax situation.
Goes to show how dumb people can be.
In my mind the real problem is that there is nothing wrong with "whiteboarding an ICBM launch". Me or me and my friends have every right get wargame 1980 or 2014 global thermonuclear war. Its seems like it would be a fascinating intellectual exercise. For that matter why can't people wargame terrorist plots, apply game theory, etc.
Between first amendment rights and the need for academic freedom, people should and do have every right to do this. In someone saw this can became concerned, they have have every-right to investigate, but in my mind, so long as it doesn't involve anything official or contacting the people involved without tangible evidence.
After all, if I talk about what might happen in a car crash, it doesn't remotely imply I intend to go out and get into one.
Edit: for the guy below me, since I can't reply directly, find me a nuclear missile guidance system that is destination controlled by a freaking mouse clicking on a map in the Pentagon and I'll concede the point.
“A left mouse push fires it. Kinda crazy really. We actually asked for a great big red button, but they wouldn't give us one.” ¹
Though that's in reference to submarine-launched non-nuclear cruise missiles, not ICBMs. ICBMs might still rate a great big red button.
Not that OP's experience is any less silly.
2. How would an average person know that?
As I said, I agree that it is irrational to think the guy was whiteboarding an ICBM launch. (Not to mention while terrorists could conceivably get a dirty bomb, an ICBM seems well out of the question.) But there is nothing in those photos that would lead an average person to believe it was a game.
What is being argued is that it is not out of the question to expect that such a system may or could exist. It's not unreasonable to think that it could.
Occam's Razor. Are all of our nukes controlled solely by systems that do not involve a mouse, or might there be a computer sophisticated enough somewhere in that launch process that it might make use of a mouse?
Someone is going to launch a missile from Russia to the United States.. and this person needs a whiteboard with a crudely drawn line to DC and a blast radius drawing to help him do it?
I don't even have to read any of the text to know this is ridiculous.
How much you want to bet there are whiteboards at NASA with cartoon squiggles of "Earth" --> "Mars" on them?
"Close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and nuclear war"
When you're dealing with high-yield nuclear warheads, anywhere within a few hundred miles of your desired target is probably going to be plenty good enough.
Part of the problem is probably linear extrapolation from Hiroshima to the Tsar Bomba, not realizing that blast radius scales up very much sub-linearly, practical bombs meant to be used in war are way smaller than Tsar Bomba, and Hiroshima was basically constructed out of paper.
If they actually do get anywhere, AFAIK possession of radioactive material is illegal, so that's when you could actually arrest them.
That's the mouse that you put in the nose of a MIRV, and when it starts clicking its teeth because it's damnably chilly in space, it's time to re-enter. Right?
Computers have mice.
Mice are used for things other than playing games.
But the computers which control launch and targeting operations predate mice by decades. Launching is usually an affair involving lots of panels coated in blinkenlights and big clicky buttons, switches under panels, and then, finally, two keys, and a button push.
Fun fact: the soviets designed their launch control rooms in such a fashion that one person could turn both keys.
Here's someone's snapshot of the control room I'm thinking of - which was a standardised design. Got to push the button!
Anyway. Take your point, but it'd still require a pretty high level of general ignorance to mistake this for any variety of authentic threat.
"Guided" sure, "controlled" is a bit ambiguous. Launching them requires more than just a click.
“Except… the person who did the inspection did have some concerns about one thing. There were some… whiteboards? And some… drawings on them?”
“Ah shit! Yeah I totally forgot about those! You mean the nuclear attack thing, right?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“Yeeeeeah…. Sorry! You see…. It’s for this game I was making! It’s like, a web thing and it uses Google Maps to simulate a nuclear war.”
“Ahhh, okay! We kind of thought it had something to do with gaming!”
Apparently somebody was still worried about the idea of a realistic nuclear attack simulation game. Reminds me of the time some kid was arrested for making a Counterstrike map based on his high school.
Nobody seemed to mention this, and I feel quite old saying its, but "Global Thermonuclear War" was the name of the simulation Matthew Broderick's character played in "War Games", which should have been another clue to the authorities or whoever that it's just a game.
This is even more ridiculous. The kid could reasonably obtain weapons and bring them to school. The likelihood of obtaining an ICBM is nil.
In this case, if the police just show up, look at the whiteboard, laugh it off and leave, then I would say no harm done. Whoever called them feels safer, and everyone else has at worst been inconvenienced for a half hour.
Title is "Dont Talk to Police" from 2008. Henry Smith should probably watch it.