back to article US sky marshals submit to Heart of Gold randomware

Californian securo-researchers are pleased to announce that America's pistol-packing undercover airline lawmen are considering the use of their cutting-edge unpredictability 'ware. The University of Southern California (USC) calls its security-operations randomness software ARMOR (Assistant for Randomized Monitoring Over …


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  1. Anonymous Coward

    In the UK....

    they throw darts at the flight lists whilst blind folded....same result, for millions £'s less...

  2. Ed Blackshaw Silver badge

    In a world full of stupid security ideas...

    ...surprisingly, this actually makes quite a lot of sense!

  3. John A Fotheringham

    Re; In the UK...

    That'll be why they always get the fat flight Marshal on flight 180 then...

  4. Mr Bear


    So if you are sat on a plane watching someone randomly walk around the cabin while looking at a PDA to see where they should go next, then it's a good chance it's one of those UNDERCOVER air marshalls.

    Mines the one with Undercover Air Marshall written on the back.

  5. Simon.W

    Shoot me down in mid air if I'm wrong but...

    surely the US Sky marshals are those cowboys who ride shotgun on those darned aero-me-thingies in the sky that have an aisle, or perhaps two? And this randomware <quote>can be used to make sure that security guards patrol unpredictably</quote>, up and down the one or two aisles? Right.

    I take it they've not tried flicking a coin, I'm sure a quarter would be cost effective. But I suppose they'd have to nip into the toilet first to make sure no one can see them flicking the coin and exposing themselves - probably a big disadvantage.

  6. Paul Murphy

    All the officers on the same flight ..

    How random would that be? :-)

    I also wonder how long it would be before the software was tweaked to ensure maximum overtime rates but avoiding big football matches and holidays.

    Mines the one with the 20-sided random number generator in the pocket.


  7. Xander

    Re:In the UK

    Are you mad? Health and Safety would throw a fit!

  8. P.Nutt

    Re: In the UK

    The diffrence is that this is the US we are talking about as if they throw darts there is a chance of friendly fire or probably not even being able to hit the target at the best of times,

    Mine is the one with coin in the pocket- Heads I go on flight ABC123 or Tails is flight CBA321 (I am willing to impliment this high tech and expensive system at any US airport for a bargain $2 million)

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    In Italy....

    they search the passenger they fancy most. Poor result, but more fun!

    Paris, 'cos she looks suspicious....

  10. Wize

    Finite probability generators != Random

    "..the kit might feature a Bambleweeny 57 sub-meson brain, sub-atomic vector plotter and a really hot cup of tea..."

  11. Dave
    Dead Vulture

    @'Heart of Gold'

    So where are the infinite monkeys then?

    Or the Whale and the bowl of petunias?

    Me thinks that the bright spark that came up with this hasn't really understood randomness properly, maybe he will get an award for 'extreme cleverness'?

  12. It wasnt me

    You can't have made this up ......

    .... so it must be true.


    Now if I was a member of Al-taleban-quaida-bin-laden-bush-baby i'd currently be wetting myself. I mean what are we doing? What has the world come to? As I type this i'm genuinely questioning whether I dreamt the article... No I didn't....

    Forget different approaches to randomness, for the cost of this shit you could probably put a sky marshall on every flight forthe next 20 years.

    America. The race is on. Who will win first, the terrorists, or the idiots? My money's on the idiots.

    What an entire nation of pond life. There's more intelligence in algae, the really is.

    Oh, and Ed Blackshaw, you're a troll.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Re:In the UK

    "Are you mad? Health and Safety would throw a fit!"

    I doubt it. They would carefully lift a fit, move it across the room, and carefully place it down, whilst ensuring that they bend at the knees, not at the back.

    Also, "fit" is probably banned as being un-PC as you might offend epileptics.

  14. Solomon Grundy

    Keeps the Enemy Guessing

    Probably not. It keeps the over educated tools who design things like this guessing - so they figure that's good enough.

  15. Frumious Bandersnatch

    i ching

    Supposedly Chinese business men (at least enough of them to warrant mentioning it) are apt to consult the I Ching or other fortune tellers when deciding whether or not (or when) to engage in a business deal. On the face of it, it sounds like a crazy thing to do, but after thinking about it several years ago, I realised that the extra randomness introduced into the financial system as a result of this custom should have the result of making their financial system more robust overall, as there'll always be some significant random element acting as a check to the purely follow-my-leader system of valuation of stocks and the attendant crowd-driven boom-and-bust element of stock markets. There are limits to the amount of "noise" that's healthy, and limits to what it can achieve (it's a refinement of the system, and not a replacement for it). But so long as not everyone goes to the same fortune teller, the result should be a more robust system.

    As I said, I realised this years ago, then stumbled upon a few technical articles that seemed to back up the idea over time. Good to see that boffins in the US are waking up to the value of introducing the right kind of "noise" in an area where it can have demonstrable benefits. I do wonder about the source and quality of their RNGs though. Could we see Sky Marshals tossing yarrow stalks or rolling 3d6 and flipping pages in a choose-your-own-adventure style three-ring binder in the near future?

    <-- boffinry icon as, despite appearances, there's actual science to back this idea up

  16. James Pickett


    Can somebody please remind me what is the use of a pistol-packing neanderthal in a pressurised cabin at 30,000 feet against someone with a block of semtex (or even some binary liquids) and a death-wish?

  17. Paul Murphy

    I thought iChing...

    Was the noise that Apple makes when someone buys one of their products.


    hey, look Mum, I told a joke!

  18. Mike Crawshaw

    @ Xander / Tony Chandler "Health & Safety Throwing a Fit"

    The two of you can split the new keyboard cost...!

  19. Tom

    The system in action...

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Misunderstanding randomness AND probability

    The "terrists" don't need to know which flights the marshalls are on. All they need to know is the ratio of flights with marshals to flights without marshalls.

    Given that there are more flights without marshalls than with marshalls, there is a good probability that their target flight will not have a marshall. And the more flights they hijack, the better their odds get of having at least one without a marshall.

    Even Paris could work that one out.

  21. The Other Steve

    @ i ching / @iChing (we all ching, for iching)

    @Frumious Bandersnatch

    That sounds damn fascinating, any chance of a link or reference ?

    @Paul Murphy

    I was ENJOYING that cup of tea, you utter bastard!

  22. D@v3

    not wanting to help the terrorists but.....

    how do said marshals really expect to stop someone from blowing themselves up?

    Air marshal-- " Pleas remove and de-activate that explosive device"

    Terrorist -- " Of course infadel, i will do that at" BOOM!!!!!

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why random...

    The whole point about intelligence and profiling is so that you target your resources against most likely targets. The use of randomness means that you target your resources against everyone - apart from being very PC not sure that it is that logical. Maybe it is an excuse for not being effective. Or maybe they have discovered a fiendish plot by terrorists to also randomise their efforts. Are Al Qaeda at this very moment recruiting yuppie bankers or elderly English church goers as they would never be targeted as part of profiling efforts. Also, the European view was if a flight required an armed guard it should probably not take off!

  24. petebog

    @ Tony Chandler

    Well played sir, well played.

  25. Alain Moran


    Damnit, you beat me to it ... I totally agree finite improbablilty is by it's nature not even remotely random, for that you would need an infinite improbability generator ... if the US govt wants one I know this bloke with two heads who might be able to help, he's a bit unreliable though but that kinda goes with the random territory :D

  26. Francis Vaughan

    Not so easy

    Not to be too much of a spoil sport, but it does require a bit of cleverness to make it work. You can't just give each air marshal a few dice and have them roll for the next flight they will get on. Amongst other things, you need to have them home again at the end of a day's work. And you want to avoid patterns emerging that favour some flights over others due to flight scheduling quirks. So what you want is a scheduling system that provides a good spread across the flights, allows you to weight high risk routes against lower risk ones, and avoid having more than one marshal turn up on an given flight. But also one that sends any given marshal around in a part that gets them home again, whilst still maintaining the probabilistic spread of flights. That isn't so trivial. As you get to a system the size of the daily flight schedule of the entire USA, what might seem like obvious algorithms won't scale.

    The press release is the usual trivialising rubbish. But it masks what is likely to be a less than trivial problem. If one insists that given enough time, every flight has a non-zero chance of getting a marshal, the problem might even reduce to a version of the travelling salesman.

  27. Frumious Bandersnatch

    @The Other Steve

    I'd better preface all of this by saying that I'm not a mathematician, but I think I understand what I'm saying and I think it's a plausible interpretation. Given that, I'm not too bothered if someone proves me wrong. Anyway, one noise-related link first...

    The gist here seems to be that adding noise to the channel can actually (counter-intuitively) increase the signal-to-noise ratio in that channel. That'd be looking at things from the Nyquist/Shannon/information-theoretic point of view. How is it relevant here? Well, assuming that going to the fortune teller introduces the right kinds of noise (white or brown, I think, but I don't know the maths here) into the system, the market as a whole should benefit by having a clearer overall picture of the true value of each stock/commodity/industry segment/whatever. This kind of noise would stand in contrast to another kind of noise that's seen in the markets--that which comes from feedback loops where good/bad news about a company causes sentiment to change which causes an increase/decrease in the stock price, which in turn causes an increase/decrease in sentiment, and so on round and round. I'm just making the argument that having the right amount of noise of the first variety can act as a counter to the second variety, leading to more accurate market valuations, and hence a more robust system overall.

    Another way would be to look at things from a purely systems point of view. In that view, it's not the SNR of the channel that's important, but how susceptible the system is to being knocked out of one state of equilibrium into another (or simply lose the plot and go completely chaotic). That is, its robustness of the system would be measured by how unlikely it is to suffer dramatic readjustment. I did a quick web search along these lines and found this paper which seems to be saying exactly what I was looking for:

    I've only read the abstract, but that seems to support what I'm saying here, at least in the case of one real-world complex system. If you understand what "limit cycles in the phase space" means (assuming we both do) then I don't think I really need to explain further why I think it supports the idea.

    I can think of one other line of argument suggestive of the value of added random noise (of the appropriate kind, amount), this time from computer science... there's a wealth of information out there about using random numbers to solve or approximate various NP-hard problems. For example, using a genetic algorithm to solve a knapsack or bin-sorting problem. By way of analogy, the "solution" the system is trying to converge on would be accurate valuation of stocks, etc., while random mutation (and random selection, to a lesser degree) would take the place of throwing the yarrow stalks. I know that the systems aren't directly comparable, but I think there are enough points of similarity to throw it out there anyway.

    Phew... even after the disclaimer that I'm not a mathematician, I hope I've managed to defend my original post at least passably well?

  28. skeptical i

    My assistant Jim ...

    ... will now attempt to subdue the terrist in the cheap seats using a blowgun, since his tranquilizer gun was seized at the security checkpoint.

    Mine's the one with the pith helmet.

  29. Dr Patrick J R Harkin

    Which flight do we take next?

    Let's see - rulebook says roll 2d6+4 and count down the departure list...

  30. Moss Icely Spaceport
    Black Helicopters

    The button in nmy pocket.

    Hmmm, do I just press the button on my Jihad-o-Matic Bomb or do I stand up announce my evil plans at length and give the cloud-cop a half-chance of stopping me first?

  31. Louis
    Thumb Up

    @ Tony Murphy and Paul Chandler

    YOU BASTARDS! First one made me snort tea out of my nose, then the other made me spit it all over my keyboard JUST after I'd finished clearing up the first lot!

  32. The Other Steve
    Thumb Up

    @Frumious Bandersnatch

    Just caught up with the reply, nice one, much appreciated.

  33. elderlybloke

    Im keeping quiet

    I can't compete with these posts. Too bruised from falling off my chair after reading them.

  34. rick buck

    Even Random...

    Even with random number generation, they are bound to get better results, than they have gotten in the past.

    This makes my brain hurt,

    This is bound to make things better, Ya Think?

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