... in security

For some there was too little terrorism this Christmas...

26 Dec 2010 | 339 words | journalism netherlands security terrorism

Xmas is almost over and unfortunately (for the news-media) there have been no instances of (attempted) terrorism this year (well that is no terrorism in the west, since bomb attacks in pakistan do not diminish the well being of us westerners). one of the entities suffering from the absence of terrorist activity is the website of the german weekly ‘der spiegel‘.

Instead of reverting to publishing ‘the 10 most … of 2010’ lists spiegel online descended like a vulture on the arrest of 12 somalis that were accused of planning a terrorist attack in the Netherlands. As usual no weapons or explosives were found, which makes you wonder how these people could have possibly been capable of carrying out an attack in the immediate future. My prediction: all of them will be released or turned over to la migra before the end of the year.

While this arrest made headlines on spiegel online (one of those +++ EILMELDUNG +++ boxes) it hardy made it to the top of any news-media here in the Netherlands (for example it is completely absent from geenstijl.nl which usually jumps on anything violent and/or related to migrants). today, a day after the arrest spiegel online is forced to run an article in which it reports that the first 5 of the 12 suspected somalis have been released from custody (surprisingly no evidence has been found for them being terrorists).

Now this would not be spiegel online if they would not use this article to continue making completely baseless insinuations directed at the somali community in the Netherlands. This culminates in the following sentence which runs afoul or pretty much every journalistic principle i am aware of:

DE: Insider rechnen damit, dass einige von ihnen Verbindungen zu Extremisten in der völlig zerrütteten ostafrikanischen Heimat haben könnten. / EN: Insiders expect that some of them [PK: somalis living in NL] could have connections to extremists in their completly torn east-african country.

I really love the combination of unidentified insiders who expect that someone could have connections…

resilience | /ɹə.zɪl.ɪ.əns/

03 Jul 2010 | 384 words | airtravel amsterdam security terrorism

Last week thursday night someone tried to break in to our offices on the fourth floor of a building on the Keizersgracht in Amsterdam. in order to gain access to the office the wannabe-burglar(s) kicked in the door, pushing one of the wooden door panels into the room. it appears that they then waited to see if there was an alarm system and that they quickly left the building without taking anything from the office when the alarm sounded 20 seconds after the door was kicked in.

So while they had more or less unrestricted access to the office they did not take anything: Not one of our apple cinema displays, nor the cash box or even one of the bottles of fine french wine that we keep to entertain our guests. in other words, our system to prevent burglaries worked as intended: someone intended to break into the office but did not do any substantial damage because the alarm system went of and scared the wannabe-burglar(s) away.

Now the strange thing is that when you tell this story to others they react completely different: instead of recognizing this story as and example of something working as intended, people tend to see it as something negative (‘oh that’s terrible!’ is the usual reaction). Of course this reaction does not make any sense because this kind of event is exactly why we have an alarm in the first place.

Unfortunately this cognitive is not limited to smal scale burglary. It is very similar to how the public tends to react to failed terrorist plots like the shoe-bomber or the pants-bomber or the assorted idiots that are not even capable of blowing up their own cars (exhibit 1, exhibit 2). In all of these events the system worked as intended: no harm was done because the wanna-be terrorists did not manage to acquire explosives capable of inflicting actual harm or because they were simply too stupid to carry out their plots.

Instead of looking at these events as proof that open societies actually display a good measure of built in resilience, the public tends to interpret these events as proof that the terrorists are alive and well and the ‘security’ agencies thankfully exploit this cognitive bias to come up with more (and often absurd) ‘security’ measures.

WTF? Area secured by DNA spray

06 Feb 2010 | 348 words | amsterdam cycling netherlands security urbanism

Thursday night when cycling home from the north i spotted this sign on a lamp pole at the beginning of Ferdinad Bol straat close to where i live:

Area secured by DNA-SPRAY – the police

I am not even sure how many things are wrong with this sign, but here are a few that went through my head after i had taken this photo:

  1. how the fuck to you secure an area with a (DNA) spray? does it randomly spray something on people that are deemed to be a threat to security? or do they mix something into the air that makes people behave more securely?
  2. who’s DNA is it that is in they use for this spray? isn’t your DNA private? how come the cops have someone’s DNA to spray around with?
  3. if this is where the DNA spray area starts, where does it end? so far i have not seen any signs that mark the end of the secured area. what if i am not interested in their security and their DNA how can i cycle around the area then?
  4. and most importantly, who the fuck has asked for this? i for one do not want no DNA spray on my daily cycle route to work which as far as i can judge was plenty ‘secure’ even before they started messing with this. and why was there no public discussion of some sorts about this?

After a bit of googling it turns out that the signs are a rather blatant lie. apparently the police and the borough have decided to install spray installations in a few stores that can be used to mark robbers with some kind of substance that is encoded with a unique id of the store. apparently this substance is really hard to get of your body and can be made visible with UV light for a long while. Pretending that this scheme somehow secures ‘the area’ is as much bullshit as calling a spray with an embedded ID ‘DNA spray’. Rather pathetic that the cops get away with this kind of bullshit…

An evidence-based approached to airport security

03 Jan 2010 | 306 words | airtravel beirut lebanon security

It seems that Beirut International Airport has a refreshingly evidence-based approach to flight security. When standing in line for the second security checkpoint (the one between the duty free area and the actual boarding gates) the security guards produced a half liter metal can from the backpack of the passenger two persons ahead in our line. When he failed to get the lid open with his hands, the teenager directly in front of us handed the security guard a pair of scissors, which he used to open the the can, which turned out to contain black powder (the owner stated that it was paint).

Next the security guard used the tip of the scissors to spoon a small amount of the back powder out of the can, produced a lighter and tried to set the small amount of black powder on fire, which did not result in anything and so the security guard pours a larger amount of the powder on an steel table and tries to light it again which still does not result in an explosion of any kind.

Subsequently, the text on the can is studied some more, the lid it put back on it and the can is returned to its owner (and the scissors to the teenager who had been impatiently waiting all along):

Turned out that the guy with the can of paint was actually traveling on our flight to istanbul and while i was sleeping for most of that flight i certainly did not notice any explosions there either.

[p.s: this is the same checkpoint where, back in 2006 instead of confiscating my beloved multitool they put it in a plastic bag, asked me to write my name and gave it back to me requesting to hand it over to the flight crew for the duration of the flight.]

I want one of these [a.s.a.p] ...

28 Sep 2008 | 11 words | art security airtravel

… message plates for x-ray scanners by Evan Roth [via gizmodo.com]:

I want one of these. now!

11 Mar 2008 | 103 words | art security surveillance

CCTV Birdbox – designed by Céine Shenton ‘Big bird is watching you’ is a birdbox that looks like a CCTV camera. It works just like a dummy camera, but on closer inspection, it offers a great refuge for birds in need of a new home. Inside the box is a little camera that films the activities in the nest, so that avid nature watchers can watch the flighty comings and goings.

The CCTV Birdbox it is a competition entry, vote for it here

update [25 May 08]: not as nice as the brid house ones but also quite lovable: CCTV cameras as mirrors.

The Power of Nightmares

29 Jan 2008 | 264 words | movies london imagination terrorism security

Just finished watching the BBC documentary (from 2004) ‘the power of nightmares – the rise of the politics of fear‘ by Adam Curtis. This three part mini series compares the rise of the American Neo-Conservative movement and the radical Islamist movement, making comparisons on their origins and noting strong similarities between the two. Curtis argues that the threat of radical Islamism as a massive, sinister organized force of destruction, specifically in the form of al-Qaeda, is in fact a myth perpetrated by politicians in the west in an attempt to unite and inspire their people.

While i generally agree with this analysis, the series has one central weakness. In part three (‘The Shadows in the Cave’) he describes in detail how none of the 600+ people arrested under the post 9/11 UK anti terrorism legislation until 2004 had any connection with Al Qaeda and how none of them was actually arrested for (planning to) carry out terrorist attacks. While this is factually true it sounds quite different when seen from todays perspective as it merely demonstrates that the UK anti-terrorist organizations failed to recognize the activities of the 7/7 bombers before they carried out their attacks.

However i would still argue that Curtis has a point (which is aptly illustrated by the silliness that the UK security forces have demonstrated in the post 7/7 period (see here, here, here & here) and if you have not seen the power of nightmares yet, you would probably want to download it from a torrent tracker near you.

Still of Sayyid Qutb from The power of Nightmares

Run when you hear the sirens coming

16 Jan 2008 | 281 words | africa south africa security running urbanism

(I suggest to listen to Dizzee Rascals ‘sirens’ while reading this post). so I am in Johannesburg (or some elite gated community called ‘Sandhurst‘ that tries hard not to be part of the rest of the urban fabric) for less than two hours and I am already not used to a lot of things:

Physically i am totally not used to run up and down hills. it’s something we just don’t do in Holland (because of the general flatness of the place). Even worse i am not used to running up hills in the mid day summer heat.

More interestingly though i am totally not used to run in a place like this. Sandhurst is a gated community with only two entrances and even within that fenced-off area every property is individually surrounded by electrical fences, CCTV cameras and armed guards. In fact the only people on the street are either guards or cleaning crews.

As if it was not surreal enough already to run around in this maze of streets that is surrounded by an outer fence and surrounds the inner fences around the individual properties, there are these cars of security companies that patrol the streets and which have the most hideous – straight form the movies – names:

USB marines, Armed Response Unit, SWAT unit (complete with desert camouflage paint job) or – my personal favorite – the jack bauer inspiredtactical team‘ SUV.

Tommy, who is from Croatia and should know such things, consequently calls this place a ‘war zone’ and as far as i am concerned that Dizzee Rascal song mentioned at the beginning of this post provides the perfect soundtrack for running through this madness.

Beirut safer than Berlin...

05 Jan 2007 | 229 words | berlin lebanon beirut security

The German government advises against trips to lebanon unless you have important business or family matters to attend and recommends to stay well clear of political gatherings and the south of the country. It seems a bit exaggerated especially as the ongoing protest by Hezbollah and their allies in downtown is about the most peaceful demonstration i have ever seen. Most dangerous thing that has happened to me was being forced to sit down with a couple of Lebanese teenagers from boston to smoke the narghile and look at their phone screen-savers depicting Nasrallah in x-thousend different poses:

For the rest you need some tolerance towards armed men, as there are soldiers in full battle gear almost everywhere, plus you might want to consider not getting too drunk with all the razor wire on the sideways. At many times the army presence borders the absurd especially when you step out of one of the bars in rue Gourand and are suddenly in the middle of 10 battle ready soldiers patrolling both sidewalks and forcing the party crowd to step into the street risking to be run over by the endless column SUVs crawling down the road. So unless you are a giant pink rabbit or a chick that likes sitting on giant white rabbits you are probably safer in beirut than in berlin:

Berlin, march 2006

Beirut, january 2007

There may have been too much hyperventilating going on ...

29 Aug 2006 | 344 words | airtravel media security terrorism stupidity

Mondays New York Times ran an extensive article about the details released about the british ‘terror’ scam of early August. The article based on statements from five senior British officials pretty much confirms what other sources had admitted immediately after the scare: the whole fuzz was apparently about a couple of kids who did not even know how to blow up planes at all. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the article:

But British officials said the suspects still had a lot of work to do. Two of the suspects did not have passports, but had applied for expedited approval. One official said the people suspected of leading the plot were still recruiting and radicalizing would-be bombers. […]

In fact, two and a half weeks since the inquiry became public, British investigators have still not determined whether there was a target date for the attacks or how many planes were to be involved. They say the estimate of 10 planes was speculative and exaggerated.[…]

Despite the charges, officials said they were still unsure of one critical question: whether any of the suspects was technically capable of assembling and detonating liquid explosives while airborne.

A chemist involved in that part of the inquiry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was sworn to confidentiality, said HMTD, which can be prepared by combining hydrogen peroxide with other chemicals, “in theory is dangerous,” but whether the suspects “had the brights to pull it off remains to be seen.” […]

“In retrospect” said Michael A. Sheehan, the former deputy commissioner of counterterrorism in the New York Police Department, “there may have been too much hyperventilating going on.”

Hyperventilating indeed! now we only need someone to explain how not allowing you to bring lots of stuff on board of a plane, confiscating old ladies moisturizing cream, making you wait in tents on rain-swept airport parking lots, sticking sub-machine guns in your face and generally behaving like arrogant cunts is going to prevent kids who have no clue about blowing up planes from blowing up planes…

meanwhile... is the personal weblog of Paul Keller. I am currently policy director at Open Future and President of the COMMUNIA Association for the Public Domain. This weblog is largely inactive but contains an archive of posts (mixing both work and personal) going back to 2005.

I also maintain a collection of cards from African mediums (which is the reason for the domain name), a collection of photos on flickr and a website collecting my professional writings and appearances.

Other things that i have made online: