Al Jazeera America, Dec. 20, 2013
by Peter Moskowitz @PeterMoskowitz December 20, 2013 6:15AM ET
Evan Booth tests out his Fragguccino bomb, made from a travel mug, lithium batteries and other everyday objects.Evan Booth
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Evan Booth says he’s building bombs as a public service.
The 31-year-old North Carolinian doesn’t like to discuss politics. He’s not anti-government. He says he just wants people to be informed.
And with his videos of explosive devices and other weapons crafted from items available for purchase beyond the security checkpoint in airports making the rounds across the Internet, it seems he’s accomplishing his goal.
Last month Booth posted to YouTube about 10 videos of weapons he made, and they promptly went viral, sparking debates about security at airports on blogs, niche Web forums and even Russian television and British radio.
His most popular video, “Fragguccino,” shows Booth sitting cross-legged in a friend’s backyard in North Carolina, wearing a pair of jeans, a sweatshirt, a jacket and a paintball mask. The video has an embedded timer in the corner to show how quickly he can build a bomb.
With the timer counting upward, Booth disassembles a lithium AA battery and puts the contents in a stainless-steel travel coffee mug. He pours some water in a condom, ties the condom to the inner top of the mug and wraps the contraption in a magazine. As the clock approaches the eight-minute mark, he chucks the coffee mug behind him. It falls to the ground, quietly hisses for about two seconds, then explodes.
The explosion is loud and small, but Booth points out that he used only one AA battery in his tests. With a few more batteries, the explosion could be larger, he said.
The video accumulated 360,051 views before YouTube took it down for violating its policy on depicting harmful activities. That’s frustrating, Booth said, insisting he’s just out to educate the public.
“I consider it research,” he said. “I want to make my research compelling enough to speak for me. People can draw their own conclusions, and I’m going to make it as difficult for you to draw the wrong one as possible.”
While Booth prefers not to say what he thinks of politically charged topics such as post-9/11 security and the role of the government in protecting its citizens, his activities have added to a growing debate about the state of the nation’s security system. He joins a long line of tinkerers, lock pickers, bomb builders, hackers and security experts who have made it their mission to expose what they see as critical flaws in the modus operandi of U.S. agencies like the Transportation Security Administration.
The Blunderbussiness Class break-action shotgun can shoot coins or other projectiles at high speed. Evan Booth
As a kid, Booth built similarly explosive contraptions with his older brother as a distraction from the boredom of a childhood in rural North Carolina. He now lives in a suburb of Greensboro in a nondescript planned community of gray houses and neat backyards. He works as a security consultant sometimes but mostly as a freelance Web developer.
Recently he designed a musical holiday e-card for a travel company.
Booth has learned through his life to make his own entertainment. His weapon building, what he calls Terminal Cornucopia, is his idea of fun.
The Fragguccino is his most popular piece, but there are others also made out of everyday items available on the gate side of security checkpoints.
For example, there’s the Blunderbussiness Class one-time-use gun, made from a Red Bull can, an Axe body spray can, a piece of a hair dryer and a magazine, and the ’Murica, a bludgeon made out of rolled-up magazines, tape, a belt and a Washington Monument pencil sharpener. The weapon is capable of breaking a coconut into several pieces with one hit.
Booth isn’t sure any of his objects would allow someone to seize control of a plane, but for him, that’s not the point.
He said he doesn’t want to criticize the TSA, but he does want people to know that airports and airplanes may be less secure than they think.
With the amount of scrutiny you go through to get
into the terminal, it shouldn’t be easy to make
weapons once you’re in it.
Booth displaying one of his weapons in his house near Greensboro. Evan Booth
After researching online how to build weapons out of everyday objects, Booth took his research into the real world.
He and his friends, as part of a recreational lock-picking collective, travel several times a year to hacking conferences across the country to give presentations and learn from others who have similar hobbies. Booth took the opportunity to study airports. He chose flights with long layovers so he could snap photos of the stores beyond the security checkpoints. He took notes on what was readily available and how much products cost. If items were really expensive, he purchased them later online.
But it wasn’t until after his 30th birthday that he got really serious about building the weapons. He declared the upcoming year a “year of creativity.” He started painting with his wife, Jenni. He wrote a song and some stories. And he started telling people about Terminal Cornucopia.
“We were in Las Vegas for Defcon (a hackers’ conference),” said Matt Block, Booth’s friend and fellow hacker and tinkerer. “We were driving back to the airport, and Evan told me about it. You could tell he’d been mulling it over for a while without vocalizing it. I told him, ‘Just don’t do it until we get home.’”
Booth’s friends like to tease him about his eccentricities, but they take his work seriously.
His friends share his interest in exposing vulnerabilities in systems. Two of them work as hackers who break into bank websites to highlight flaws in their codes. Another is a security engineer. They meet over beers a few times a month to discuss lock picking and computer hacking.
“We all decided in our lives that there should be one thing that we’re unapologetically enthusiastic about,” Booth’s friend Jon Welborn said. “The common thread is that our inner child just wants to do fun stuff.”
In a way, what they’re doing is a form of art.
New York University sociology professor
Booth and his friends are part of a growing community that’s often referred to as hackers. While mainstream media have often represented hackers as Internet-savvy criminals trying to take down governments or corporations, there’s a broader, more innocuous definition as well: people who like to play with systems — electronic or not — and sometimes break into them for fun or to help make them better.
Most of Booth’s colleagues fall into this latter category. Like him, whether they’re sneaking into the back end of websites, picking locks or building weapons, they say they’re doing it because it’s enjoyable and because it can help others make those systems more secure.
“In a way, what they’re doing is a form of art,” said Harvey Molotch, a sociology professor at New York University and the author of a book about security in airports and other public places. “What art does is play with the world as it is and show how it can be different in some way.”
Molotch and others say the kind of work Booth and his fellow hackers do can play an important role in exposing flaws in systems such as those used by the TSA.
Booth is by no means the first to expose the flaws in airport security. Perhaps most famous is Bruce Schneier, who has made something of a habit of carrying prohibited items through security checkpoints in plain sight.
Schneier has called TSA screening “security theater,” designed to make people feel safe but not actually do much about security. Schneier thinks the U.S. can safely roll back its security systems to pre-9/11 levels without much risk.
“The question you might ask is, how do you stay safe? And the answer is, you are safe,” he said. “If we aren’t safe, why aren’t airplanes blowing up left and right? The numbers don’t justify the measures.”
Booth said he tends to agree with Schneier but is more agnostic about the TSA. Unlike some of his hacker counterparts, he doesn’t believe it needs to be abolished. He stays away from arguments about government agencies altogether.
“I’m not a tinfoil-hat guy,” he said. “I get security.”
Booth said he just hopes the TSA and others can find the videos he makes useful.
TSA representative Ross Feinstein told Al Jazeera that the agency is aware of Booth’s videos but wouldn’t say whether the TSA considers them useful.
When asked whether the TSA takes Booth’s experiments seriously enough to think about changing any airport policies, Feinstein replied via email, “The mission of TSA is dedicated to keeping individuals and items that can cause catastrophic damage off planes. Transportation security officers continue to focus their efforts on finding high threat items such as explosives and/or improvised explosive device (IED) components.”
Booth hasn’t had much interaction with the TSA, but he did receive a visit from two FBI agents in June.
They knocked on his door while he was eating breakfast and chatted with him about Terminal Cornucopia for about 45 minutes. He said the agents told him the TSA asked them to stop by and check up on him. The agents did not accept his offer of coffee, but he said they were otherwise friendly.
“I think it was probably just to make sure I’m not crazy and make sure I didn’t build anything while in an airport, which of course I didn’t,” he said. “I did tell them I’d like to, if they would give me permission to. That would be awesome.”
Besides a couple of emails about his videos, Booth said, the June visit was the only contact he’s had with federal officials. He doesn’t know if they take his experiments seriously, but he wants them to. He said if he could make it his full-time job to research security flaws and consult for agencies and companies about how to fix them, he would.
“I asked the FBI if they knew of any grant funding or research funding or funding at all for this type of work,” he said. “It would’ve been nice to have some help with that. They said they didn’t know of anything.”