When stupid people have power

In January (this year) a man on a Qantas flight was asked to remove his t-shirt because it bore the text:

“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

As I understand it these words somehow disturbed the flight attendants on the plane so much that the passenger should fly without the offending text. Naturally they could not just refer to their perception of his bad taste so they stated that his text unnerved the other passengers.

The whole thing gets even sillier as the text is a quote from the 1987 adventure comedy Princess Bride. The passenger did not have anything else to wear and the whole thing was dropped. He was allowed to continue on his way.

This is just a strange and stupid situation. It’s totally unbelievable. And yet it has happened before and people have been forced off planes. Or not allowed on planes because of silly texts on clothes.

In 2003, John Gilmore was wearing a pin with the words “suspected terrorist” and was asked to remove the pin. Gilmore, a rights activist and a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, refused to remove the pin and was not allowed to continue on his flight. British Airways refused to fly him because they didn’t like his accessories. The pin was part of a campaign to protest the way in which innocent people were being profiled as terrorists.

In 2006, airport security at JFK forced Raed Jarrar to change his t-shirt because it contained the words “We will not be silent” in English and Arabic. Security said it was like “going to a bank with a T-Shirt reading ‘I am a robber.'” – Even their reasoning is faulty.

Texts on t-shirts are not the cause of concern. If fellow passengers are concerned then maybe the crew explain that their paranoia is silly and give them the option to leave. But it is much better to silence the person wearing the text. Its all very sad, and has nothing to do with security, safety or even perceptions of safety.

The problem is that stupid people have power. We cannot argue with these people because they are full of their own power and reason doesn’t work. Arguing would only aggravate the situations.

Children & UK DNA Database

Among the hi-tech tools used by the police in their work is the DNA database. Most countries have or desire one but few have implemented this desire as effectively and frighteningly as Great Britain with their National DNA database.

The Guardian reports that Britain’s National DNA database “is proportionately the biggest in the world and includes the profiles of more than 7% of the population, according to Home Office figures. Almost everyone arrested for a recordable offence is required to provide a DNA sample. Whether or not criminal proceedings follow, DNA records stay on file until the person reaches their 100th birthday.”

Considering the number of innocent (legally not necessarily morally) children stored in the database the 100 year old limit is possibly ageism. The Guardian again:

Genetic information taken from nearly 1.1 million children is now stored on the national DNA database, official figures show, and campaigners believe that as many as half of them have no criminal convictions… The figures show that 1.09 million DNA profiles of people aged under 18 were held on the database with 337,000 under 16.

Of course the police want to keep this tool, and yes the tool is much more effective when more DNA samples are available but maintaining samples of innocent people in this way is, according to the European court of human rights a violation of citizens rights – the courts stated that the methods “…could not be regarded as necessary in a democratic society” (BBC & Privacy International)[1].

Terri Dowty, of Action on Rights for Children, said: “Many children get arrested, have their DNA taken and there is no further action against them or they get a reprimand or final warning. We are collecting massive amounts of data on children, including how likely they are to be criminals, and it runs the risk that we will prejudge them.”

It is more than a little bit scary that despite the protests and criticism the police and politicians in Britain struggle to maintain a system which clearly violates human rights not only of children but even of adults. Since the protesters are now focusing on the negative effects on children it almost feels as if the struggle for innocent adults stored DNA is a losing battle.

[1] European Court Rules DNA Retention Illegal (04/12/2008) Decision of the Court (Doc), Press release from the Court (PDF) & Privacy International amicus brief to the Court (PDF)

Mobiles on planes

Mobile phones are radio transmitters and as such were banned from use in civilian airplanes, for fear such devices could interfere with airplane avionics. So we turned of our phones and stared angrily at those who did not comply – it’s strange how well behaved we are in the air, especially when we are told it was for security purposes. The strange thing is that almost any laptop is packed full of wifi and bluetooth devices but no-one stops us from using a laptop on the plane.

The Telegraph reports that British Airways will be trying out mobile phone technology that will allow passengers to send and receive text messages, emails and access the internet during the flight. British Airways will introduce voice calls if the trails are succesful. I wonder what constitutes a success in this case. British Airways is not the only airline, the Telegraph reports:

Since Emirates introduced the service, on a flight from Dubai to Casablanca, it has begun extending the technology to the rest of its fleet – more than 100 aircraft. So far, 28 planes have been fitted.

Low-cost carrier Ryanair announced last year that it would begin testing the technology – including voice calls – on at least 10 of its aircraft, with the intention of extending the service to its entire fleet.

While the fears surrounding mobile telephones and airplane security seem to have been magically resolved the question remains whether or not we want to be stuck in airline seats while passengers around us invade our privacy and disturbing us speaking loudly about all their crap.

Also, why do only the business class passengers get this service? Is it that we plebs are undeserving or can it be that British Airways is being elitist?

Information control in a connected world

In 1973 in Stockholm a bank robbery went wrong and resulted in a six day hostage situation when the police showed up and the would be robbers withdrew into the vault with four hostages. The police managed to enter the bank and close the vault door. The police then opened a hole in the vault roof in order to communicate with those inside (short piece on Wikipedia). While in the vault the hostages began to fear the police and sympathize with their captors in a psychological process which has come to be known as the Stockholm Syndrome. But I digress.

An interesting factor was the way in which communications took place. The authorities (including the Prime Minister) and criminals communicated via telephone. The robbers inside the vault had no way of monitoring the outside world or communicating with it freely.

Now fast forward to Mumbai last week. According to Gizmondo the terrorists inside the hotel did not rely on traditional communications methods

Commandos were not only surprised to find the devices [BlackBerrys] in the terrorists’ rucksacks, but that they used the internet to look beyond local Indian media for information, watching the global reaction in real-time as well.

There is something shocking, and at the same time predictable, about the authorities naivete about the terrorists use of technology. Why wouldn’t a terrorist be monitoring the outside world for reactions?

In addition to this the way in which the outside world understood what was happening inside the hotel was not a traditional news source controlled and transferred by authorities. In a hallway conversation Martin Börjesson (a colleague) and I exchanged notes about our news uptake from the Mumbai attacks. Naturally we used traditional media – but neither of us believed that they really knew anything. More interestingly we followed news feeds such as twitter and a flock of blogs (or what is the right word?)

Following blogs is something both Martin and I do everyday so we were not surprised by this. What was interesting however was the experience that some online sources were clearly political disinformation attempting to place the blame for what was happening at the door of different states. (Bruce Schneier has some interesting takes on the outside conversations and analysis). Clearly following live feeds is also demands a questioning of sources.

Mumbai has shown that web technology is used: (1) by the terrorists (2) by the world (3) by the media. The result is an amazing mix of rehashing of information, the transmitting of live experiences (from within and from those witnessing) and formal channels. The question is can, and should, the authorities be able to control this information? The first answer is that controlling this information is only possible at a great cost and at a great loss in the ability of others to transmit innocent information. It is doubtful whether a media blackout is at all possible. Should it be possible – not sure. As the BlackBerry’s show the terrorists monitored the outside world and possibly profited from the information, but would the outcome have been much different if they did, or could, not?

Information control is not dead but it is being taken to a new level… to be continued…