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Who, me? [userpic]

August 23rd, 2005 (09:23 am)

AP is reporting that (unspecified) government agencies are saying that terrorists may attempt to pass as "vagrants" in order to conduct surveillance to plan their attacks. The FBI issued a warning to this effect before July 4th of last year.

But wait a minute: who would try to disguise themselves as a homeless person? The homeless get extra police hassles. If you want to be left alone, the thing to do is to conform. Dress as a Solid Citzen: put on good clothes, buy a paper and a cup of Starbucks, and sit down on a bench. Maybe talk on your cellphone--or pretend to, while you're actually having it snap pictures.

Surely the FBI knows this. So why are they making the "vagrants" claim? Could it be that they want to encourage us to fear and resent the homeless?

Comments

Posted by: C. Virtue (cvirtue)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 01:44 pm (UTC)
YUM

It's a lot easier to tremble and mutter than to look put together, though.

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 01:50 pm (UTC)
Not necessarily

It can actually be tricky to tremble and mutter convincingly. Also, someone in an I Am Derelict disguise is going to draw more attention if they start taking notes, or using a camera.

And, if you've got money, you can look put together by walking into Nordstroms and saying, "Dress me".

Posted by: C. Virtue (cvirtue)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 02:59 pm (UTC)
Re: Not necessarily

But people already don't look at the homeless. They don't look at them even more than they don't look at other "normal" people on the street.

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 03:13 pm (UTC)
Re: Not necessarily

(a) Yes, but they see them enough to spot something out of place. There's a homeless woman who's in North Station most mornings and afternoons; when I go by, I see her enough to note whether she's got coffee, say. Not always, of course; but a terrorist posing as a homeless person would have to fool thousands of people. All it takes is one person thinking, "Huh--I've never seen a homeless person writing things down before".

(b) Ordinary people aren't the ones the terrorist most needs to fool. They'd have to escape police notice--and police do look at homeless people.

Posted by: Pat Siobhan (patsmor)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 07:53 pm (UTC)

A thought occurred to me: homeless folks are on the street 24x7; Starbucks aren't open that kind of hours. A homeless person or building squatter can get the whole pattern of a regular week or month for a designated target. But my general comments still hold.

Posted by: goldsquare (goldsquare)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 02:02 pm (UTC)

Knowing someone that works on such security issues - I honestly suggest that you take them at face value.

Posted by: C. Virtue (cvirtue)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 02:58 pm (UTC)

I'm entirely willing to believe that your friend is knowledgable and sincere. I'm not willing to believe it of the whole Homeland Security infrastructure.

Posted by: goldsquare (goldsquare)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 03:12 pm (UTC)

Plus, you can have all the tin foil hats to wear that you like, for free! As the Hat Lady, you have to love that... :-)

Whenever I have questioned anything which I found specious or odd, I've gotten a fair and reasonable explanation. At this point, when I hear hoofbeats, I think horses, not zebras.

Why should we start to think zebras?

Posted by: C. Virtue (cvirtue)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 03:13 pm (UTC)

Because most of what I hear is of the "we'll be safer by taking away your nail clippers" variety. I'm willing to grant that there's reporting bias.

Posted by: goldsquare (goldsquare)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 03:19 pm (UTC)

That's the TSA, not the DHS.

It's OK to be skeptical. At what point does skepticism become paranoia? Let's not find out. :-)

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 03:26 pm (UTC)
Correction

The TSA is part of the DHS.

Posted by: goldsquare (goldsquare)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 03:38 pm (UTC)
Re: Correction

Yes, the TSA at this time reports to the DHS. But they are separately administered.

However, at the time the "nail clippers" regulation was promoted, it was due to a pre-cursor to the TSA, and then the TSA itself, even before DHS was created.

Factually, therefore, the nail clippers thing came from TSA and not DHS.

Posted by: metahacker (metahacker)
Posted at: August 24th, 2005 01:47 am (UTC)
Re: Correction
feet

So why, now that DHS is (indirectly) in control of the whole thing, am I still required to take off my shoes and not carry my nail clippers and pocket knife? Travel has become stressful, as I can no longer take basic hygiene items because some guy tried -- quite unsuccessfully, I might add -- to set fire to his socks.

DHS also does things like tell people to PANIC! PANIC! PANIC! Duct tape your windows and run for your lives or maybe shelter in place! So they're still not getting much but my skepticism.

Posted by: goldsquare (goldsquare)
Posted at: August 24th, 2005 01:55 am (UTC)
Re: Correction

They allow nail clippers now. Knives, sensibly not. Basic hygiene items are allowed - spray aerosols, safety razors. Go look: http://www.tsa.gov/interweb/assetlibrary/Permitted_Prohibited_5_16_2005_v3.pdf

As to "panic panic panic", I didn't try to defend them, just point out some facts. You could check out their web site and see.

Posted by: metahacker (metahacker)
Posted at: August 24th, 2005 02:21 am (UTC)
Re: Correction
feet

Well, we're having an implementation problem. Short of printing out that page and carrying it, I have had a hard time coming up with a way of getting the rank and file employees to actually *follow* it. Most recently, my boss's *tweezers* were confiscated because they were too pointy (note that this does not fall into their categories, being wedged between "pointy-tipped metal scissors" and other toiletries.)

I don't think disallowing knives is sensible -- especially not when the blade of one such knife is 1.2" long and quite flimsy. In any case, they do not disallow (or more importantly, do not block transit of) sharpened credit card-shaped plastics, which have gone through security in my presence and would be more effective in actually cutting someone. Likewise screwdrivers, which are explicitly allowed, and are a better weapon. Perhaps they are worried about people cutting open seats? or doors? Again, tools other than knives are more effective. Knives, of course, are more scary.

This is security against the incompetent, which has its place, but shouldn't be confused with actual security. It's not an easy problem, but their public solutions all seem to be torturously complex and smack of, well, PR moves. Hence my unhappiness.

Posted by: goldsquare (goldsquare)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 03:21 pm (UTC)

Let me throw something into the mix. I know of at least two specific, credible and violent threats to US safety that my friend has been involved in stopping before they happened.

Why has there been so little domestic terrorism? One theory is that we're paranoid about nothing. The other theory is that our domestic security people are pretty good. It turns out that I believe the latter theory, and find that many of their seeming paranoic pronouncements are reality-based.

Posted by: Pat Siobhan (patsmor)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 06:10 pm (UTC)

What he said.

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 03:25 pm (UTC)

Yeah, but the question here is not, "Is this a plausible risk?"; the question is, "Why are they telling us this?". FBI/DHS/etc. are working on plenty of things they could warn us about; they can't publicize them all. Somebody's got to choose, and that somebody is almost certainly a political appointee. When a Republican appointee warns people to fear the homeless, there are good historical reasons to suspect politics. They probably aren't starting on a plan to round up the homeless into Retraining Camps...yet...but it could certainly be a tactic to help free up money currently spent on shelters.

Posted by: goldsquare (goldsquare)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 03:47 pm (UTC)

Spend a minute. Really, ask yourself what real and practical value publicizing this might have....

and there is your answer.

I know the "traffic patterns" of the homeless and bums in my community. There was one lady who begged every day outside the Davis Square T Station. I found it suspicious when she stopped, and when she re-started I asked - she'd been hospitalized for an injury.

We can know suspicious behavior that the police or the government cannot. And we can either dismiss it or we can ask for the police to investigate.

I'm more nervous about Stazi than you are, I'm sure. (How many blood relatives of yours were killed by the Nazis?) But at some point (and I think you are there), it's just paranoia.

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 04:17 pm (UTC)

Really, ask yourself what real and practical value publicizing this might have....

and there is your answer.

But there's a problem of opportunity cost: there could be hundreds of other candidates for publicity. All of them could have real and practical value; why was this one chosen?

Posted by: C. Virtue (cvirtue)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 05:05 pm (UTC)
circuit seablatt

Can you find the TSA or FBI website and see if they have a press release about this, which might have their reasoning?

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 08:04 pm (UTC)

...haven't been able to find it. This report, mind you, is about a warning that was emailed to federal employees; but the previous one was allegedly something official from the FBI--but it doesn't show up on the FBI site.

Posted by: Pat Siobhan (patsmor)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 08:52 pm (UTC)

Lots of things that used to be publicized are now not on the website because of the "puzzle pieces" problem; it's unknown how much can be pieced together from little bits of publicized data.

There are several channels of reports from the FBI that go to police, big businesses, other security firms, etc. Getting on the list is exceptionally difficult, but generally the same info is out within 72 hours on CNN. There is an advantage to letting these leak; some of them, like "watch the patterns of loiterers around you," require more eyes than the government has.

This is also one of those conversations that should happen in all social circles, and the questions should be hitting the congresscritters' offices. Unfortunately, we're not doing that enough. None of us are. That's the answer to your comment about the DHS working for the Exec branch, too.

There are also several more "critcal" data streams. That info is significantly more detailed and needs higher clearance. Those things do not leak but they are taken very seriously.

I feel like one of those people I hate, MG, who stand up & meetings and say "Jane is a bad person, but I got the scoop in confidence and so I can't tell you anything in specific."

Posted by: C. Virtue (cvirtue)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 09:27 pm (UTC)

I got the scoop in confidence and so I can't tell you anything in specific."

Well, on this topic, it's a matter of chains of trustable information.

I do trust you. Which means if you make a statement on a subject I know you've put some time into, I'm going to trust you more than J. Random Gov't Employee.

I really hate it that "national security" means that we can't know if we're being sold an imaginary pig in the poke.

Posted by: C. Virtue (cvirtue)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 04:45 pm (UTC)

I'm more nervous about Stazi than you are, I'm sure.

I'm not sure.

The reason is: I don't understand the whole history-of-Nazism thing. Possibly if I understood it better, I'd be less afraid of it here in the USA.

What I wonder is: how much of my fears were shared by well-meaning sheep of Germany? My own mother, who shares much of my intellectualism and outlook, has told me that worrying about such things is "divisive" and I should shut up. Is she right? Did the people living a couple miles away from the concentration camps get told they were being "divisive" to be worried, and they should go wear tin hats? I read about the commander who dragged the town's citizens to the freed concentration camp, to see what had been going on in their name, and they were horrified. I don't want to be that type of sheep.

I need to educate myself about this. But normal issues of living and raising a family take up most of my time, and I get distracted. Just like the well-meaning sheep of Germany.

Posted by: goldsquare (goldsquare)
Posted at: August 24th, 2005 01:56 am (UTC)

Be sure.

Posted by: Pat Siobhan (patsmor)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 06:16 pm (UTC)

Believe me, I'm astonishingly paranoid about DHS and the new Security Tzar, especially having spent five years working with them. Like M., I'm exceptionally worried about the Stazi.

However:
1) "unspecified" government officials generally leak something stupid and garbled,

2) the press in general does no fact checking and garbles it further (see Jon Stewart)

3) Some of our "alerts" are remarkably dumb, I agree, and I snort at them, too. I don't want to wear aluminum hats, either.

I don't want to be a sheep, either, Cynthia. But I'd watch the executive branch and be an activist there, rather than getting upset by some of these alerts. Rumsfeld and Cheney, and their puppet Dubya, are greater threats than some of the TSA and DHS stuff.

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: August 23rd, 2005 08:07 pm (UTC)

2) the press in general does no fact checking and garbles it further

This is true--and I'm skeptical now that I can't find any primary source.

But I'd watch the executive branch

The DHS is in the Executive Branch, ultimately under Bush's control. And the Bush Administration has repeatedly shown itself to have no compunctions about forcing government agencies to make decisions solely on the basis of its political agenda.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: August 26th, 2005 03:44 am (UTC)
homeless ARE a good choice.

There are very few types of people who stand in the same place all day long:
performers (a good choice)
homeless (more likely to be hassled, but maybe easier to pull off)
public works (easy to verify if they're legit)
taxi driver (this is what *I* would pick if I were that type, but it also requires forging a taxi medallion)

Homeless are a reasonable choice, but probably not the best...

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