back to article DHS airport spooks stalk star hacker

Last weekend, as US-based security researcher Moxie Marlinspike snoozed during a layover at the Frankfurt Airport, he awoke to a scene straight out of a Franz Kafka novel. “Some dude shows up with a picture of me on his cell phone, and he's just looking through the crowd at the gate until he finds me,” Marlinspike told The …


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  1. Highlander
    Black Helicopters

    Welcome to the free democratic republic of the United States...

    I love living in a free country where we can look down our noses and sneer at all those dictatorships and totalitarian states where people have to carry their papers everywhere and can only travel if their papers are in order. Yes sir, we'd never have anything like that

    Seriously though, isn't this getting a bit on the fecking stupid side of ridiculous? Here we are in this bastion of the free world. Thanks to the Patriot Act and a series of executive orders starting with 'W' and continuing with Obama, we have successfully curtailed our freedom to move, not only outside our country but within it.

    If you want to fly anywhere in the US you have to be screened, your papers must be in order, and if you refuse to be screened via the body scanner you better brace yourself for a 'pat' down that if performed by me on another member of the public would be cause for my arrest for sexual assault. Oh, people say that it's only air travel, but you know, it's not, not for long. All it takes is some annoying twit to have a brilliant scheme involving a train or a bus and before you know it, we'll be screened there too.

    Oh, but this article shows that the whole sinister secret police thing goes even further. Because now if 'they' are suspicious of you, 'they' can order the TSA to harass you. I mean, what do you call it when people are routinely held and questioned and have their belongings searched even though the officials who are searching don't know what they're looking for or why. Of course the Police actually couldn't perform this kind of deep harassment because they actually have to have grounds to hold you and a search warrant, and of course you are entitled to representation throughout. With the TSA and DHS though, it's a bit of an end run around your rights because as you can tell with the article, there is no attempt to read rights, no attempt to show probable cause for holding the person, or interrogating them, or searching them. It's just a big fishing trip and simple harassment.

    People are still not waking up to this, they still defend this BS in the name of security and protecting us against terror. Tell you what though, back when things were still free, and we could fly without enduring a body cavity search or the near equivalent people would have told you that you were nuts if you said that the American people would put up with this. Better not question this new security though, you might be targeted for being a dissident.

    What price 'freedom'? It seems to me that the price of our 'freedom' has been the loss of that freedom, and that the aims of the terrorists are slowly, but surely, being realized by our own stupidity and desire to be secure. So, I guess we can no longer look down our noses at those totalitarian countries and dictatorships where people's movement is closely monitored and controlled, they might be more free to move than we are.

    1. cmaurand

      I'm about ready to start driving

      You know, it doesn't take much longer to drive than to fly if your distance is under 1,000 miles. I'm about ready to start driving places.

  2. Nagy, Balázs András
    Big Brother

    Land of freedom

    Ah, the land of the free... that is: gov free to harrass anyone any time even without as much as a reason that can be given out.

  3. flyingpenguin

    That's not Kafka

    This sounds far more like a Ryszard Kapuściński report from Iran or Angola than a story by Kafka, although it does have elements of The Trial.

    I mean if the TSA said "I would expect to wake up a cockroach..." then I would agree it is Kafkaesque for certain.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      There's more to Kafka than Gregor Samsa.

      We have "The Trial"

      ""t tells the story of a man arrested and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority, with the nature of his crime never revealed either to him or the reader." [citation needed]

      Of course, I am not suggesting, intimating or otherwise inferring, neither in part or in full, that intimidation, perverted (if not military) justice, kangaroo courts, rampant surveillance and out of control three-letter agencies are a staple of Bomborama's presidency.

      All glory to the Government!

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Big Brother

    Glad we got all this hope and change now that Obama's in office

    ...or else this might be somewhat depressing.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Down

      Hope and change?

      I hope that some change is left.... pocket change, that is.

  5. Anonymous Coward

    Old times ...

    ... at least that's what it seemed like reading that. The good old days when we used to read about how the Soviet Union persecuted its disidents, and how superior we felt because our society didn't behave like that. Funny how things turn out.

  6. Captain TickTock

    Fantasy Island

    Boss! Boss! Deplane! Deplane! what Tattoo says at the beginning of every Fantasy Island episode.

    The word you're after is "disembark".

    1. Zimmer


      If deplane (however awful a word it is) is good enough for Suzi Dent and Rachel (Phwoar!)* Riley, then it is good enough for El Reg comments...

      *I hope the moderatrix has the weekend off... and DEPLANE is still an awful word

  7. IglooDude

    Privacy concerns

    “They had instructions to pick me up and to go through my electronic data,” Marlinspike said. “Their message was pretty confusing. They said, 'You don’t have to worry about your privacy because the data will never leave the room.'”

    And in a truly iconic circumstance, it turned out that he didn't have to worry about his privacy because his data was securely encrypted, not because of any (presumably empty) assurances of government agents.

    1. Tom 260


      Of course, if that had happened in the UK, he'd have been arrested for failing to disclose his encryption keys...

  8. Anonymous Coward

    Welcome to the Union of Soviet American Republics, err... States

    Well, there is an easy solution - move shop somewhere else where democracy is not completely dead and the presumption of innocence is still valid. There are unfortunately not that many places out there where the charter of human rights is still valid and has not been abridged by the authorities. For all practical purposes - the terrorists have won. They have achieved their aim. The society the west wanted to build has failed. We now all live in Stalin's USSR.

    In any case, there is nothing surprising with them being detained. The Stuxnet incident has stirred a hornet's nest in every country. So now everyone in the spooks hierarchy is either trying to prove their importance in the pecking order. Same as even the lowliest Soviet NKVD non-comm tried to stitch article 58 to anyone and everyone as that was the path to career and promotion.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters


    Of course they are interested in him. This guy finds an exploit in secure browser that could allow the thieves and criminals to have a fun time with your online banking. He tells the respective companies, all going well so far. Then he produces a couple of "tools" that make it easier for said attacks to be undertaken. That is aiding and abetting a criminal activity. He needs to get smart very quickly.

    His travel destinations and the company he keeps are of immense interest to "those concerned"

    So really this is not a story of some poor guy getting delayed by the pesky authorities, more like someone who has come to the authorities attention by his own actions.

    1. asdf

      so charge him

      Fine have evidence, take him to trial and go through due process as defined by a millenium of western law. This punishing him and harassing him just because some self important bureaucrat doesn't like him is complete crap. The government should fear the people. Irony it would be the baby boomer peace and love generation that would move us so far right as to make the 1950s look liberal. FUD until the sheep submit.

    2. Graham Marsden

      "make it easier for said attacks to be undertaken"

      "That is aiding and abetting a criminal activity"

      And I've discovered a way to make cars go faster so they can get away from the Police more easily.

      Or perhaps I've released a way to encrypt Hard Drive data so the Authorities can't read it.

      Or maybe I've posted a thread on how to use a VPN to stop the Security Services from intercepting and reading my communications...

      All of these will, of course, make it easier for criminals to evade the law, so anyone who does the same should be harassed whenever they want to travel by air...

      1. Rolf Howarth

        @Graham Marsden

        I know nothing at all about this case but I'm not quite sure what point you're making. Potentially all of those things could get you into trouble, yes. Just as posting instructions on how to make a bomb, posting a list of targets that a terrorist might like to consider, posting that list with the names and addresses of police officers that you happened to find on a memory stick left on a bus, posting child pornography, writing a blog post urging racial or homophobic violence, etc. etc. would all get you into trouble also.

        We have to get away from the idea that just because it's so easy to duplicate and to transmit, information is "special" somehow, and divorced from the consequences of making that information available.

        Why is releasing an easy to use encryption program, say, knowing that more than likely it may be used by terrorists or drug smugglers to evade law enforcement, any less irresponsible than selling a firearm to a neighbourhood drug dealer, knowing it's more than likely going to be used to threaten or murder someone? One's a bunch of bits, the other's a bunch of metal components. By themselves they're nothing, it's how and what they're used for, or could be used for, that matters. And saying "information has to be free, you can't bottle it up" is no excuse for releasing things you shouldn't either, any more than it is to say "but they could have got it from the guy down the road just as easily" when you're caught pushing drugs to schoolkids.

        Free speech yes, but you can't have rights without responsibility.

        1. Graham Marsden

          @Rolf Howarth

          The point I am making is that just because he pointed out flaws in a browser and released tools that could exploit them does *NOT* justify hassling him for wanting to travel on an aeroplane!

          Do the Authorities think that, somehow, he's going to hack into the aircraft's computers and take it over and fly it by remote control?!

          If they think he has committed a criminal offence, fine, arrest him and charge him then test the evidence in a Court of Law. But for the State to harass someone like this for *NO* good reason is a complete abuse of power.

          PS The rest of your arguments read like "OMG won't someone think of the children/ terrorists/ bogeymen who might do bad things with this stuff, so we shouldn't let *anyone* know about these things!!!"

          1. Rolf Howarth

            @Graham Marsden

            We'll probably just have to disagree I'm afraid.

            Let's assume that rather than a browser flaw, someone found a novel new way of picking a commonly used security lock, and set up a business selling lock picking kits. Would you be so up in arms, or particularly surprised, if the authorities hassled them to stop? What if it was your local hardware store selling car lock picking kits to hoodlums off the street and you'd already had your car broken into a couple of times? Would you be out there defending the store's right to sell those kits when the police tried to shut them down? If you say you would, then frankly I don't believe you. If not, then what's the difference?

            1. Anonymous Coward

              But that's not what's happening

              They're not telling him "hey man lay off those browsers okay", they're just being twats. If his actions are a problem then they should come out and say it.

            2. Graham Marsden

              @Rolf Howarth

              You are completely missing the point and your comparisons to hardware stores etc is really not helping your case.

              Imagine you were that hardware store owner and the authorities, instead of asking you to stop selling the lock-picking kits, started having the Police pull you over every few days to check that your car was "road worthy" or you kept getting pulled in for questioning because "someone answering your description had been seen exposing himself to little girls" or whatever? Would *you* consider that to be reasonable?

              Again I point out if someone has committed a *CRIMINAL OFFENCE* then by all means arrest them and charge them and test the evidence in a Court of Law, but to simply harass someone because they're simply doing something you don't like leads us ever further down the path of a Police State.

              1. Rolf Howarth

                @Graham Marsden

                Let me ask you then whether you think providing tools that make it easy to attack web browsers is a responsible thing to do?

                Back to the hardware store example. Supposing it's not illegal to sell lock picking kits, perhaps they're general purpose tools that could have perfectly legal uses but the way they're sold or where they're sold makes it very likely they will be put to illegal uses (probably not many teenage thugs in your neighbourhood who enjoy repairing watches as a hobby, but plenty who might quite enjoy breaking into cars).

                Unfortunately, there are plenty of situations where PROVING somebody has broken the law is far from trivial, but it's still very much in the public interest to discourage them from a particular line of activity. Maybe this guy keeps getting stopped and searched because the authorities are looking for evidence to charge him with, just as someone who the police strongly suspects of being a prolific burglar might find his car being stopped with annoying regularity even though he hasn't broken any traffic laws.

                The real point I'm making is that there's nothing special about information. Just as there are certain physical objects (guns, drugs, lockpicking kits, etc.) that most of us wouldn't want to fall into the wrong hands too easily, exactly the same thing goes for certain types of information.

                1. Graham Marsden
                  Big Brother

                  @Rolf Howarth

                  You really can't let this one go, can you?

                  *Why* FFS do you or anyone else think that harassing this bloke in pointless and vindictive ways is going to make the world a better place? Do you really think that the authorities going on "fishing expeditions" like this in the *hope* that they can find something to convict him of is a reasonable use of their powers?

                  You seem to be in favour of a Police State where anyone who doesn't behave in the "approved manner" can be stopped, questioned, searched and so on "just to teach them a lesson", I, on the other hand, will leave you with the words of Benjamin Franklin:

                  "Those who would give up essential liberties for a little temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security".

                  Please feel free to have the last word.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    duh to you too

    That thing that just passed several feet above your head? That was the point. You missed it.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not too many problems returning

    A lawyer had problems with the jumped up little hitlers:

    The short story is that US border guards have to admit US citizens to the US. No questions asked.

    I was under the impression that the yanks right to bear arms ensured that their govy remained afraid of them, rather than vice versa?

    1. Tempest

      "US border guards have to admit US citizens." Not so, now.

      ONLY if you have specified, acceptable identification will you be admitted. Lost your ID? Then you will have to get temporary ID issued before attempting to depart for the USA - if flying, you will be denied boarding.

      Ditto for Canada - since Ottawa 'harmonised' border controls with US legislation.

  12. Eric Hood

    Government control

    The right to bear arms is there for two purposes, a militia for defence until a regular army could be established and armed citizenry in case the government turned into a dictatorship or other oppressive authoritarian system.

    The tea party movement is a political response to excessive government. You can be assured there will be armed resistance if the government starts arresting citizens because they do not like their politics.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Paris Hilton


      I'd suggest the tea party is a response to the failure of the American people to elect the moron candidate Sarah Palin but that's just how it looks to the rest of the world, perhaps the view is different inside the US?

      Paris, smarter than the average hypocrite helicopter hunting hockey mom presidential candidate

    2. skeptical i

      Unless brown citizens are arrested for looking "illegal" and not carrying their IDs.

      AFAIK the capitol building of the state of Arizona has not been stormed Bastille- style, but I don't catch teevee news that often so I must have missed the coverage.

      Or unless lesbian youth are told to leave the high school prom when they arrive with their girlfriends, despite the fact that the parents of these youth also pay the taxes that pay for the prom. Did I miss that coverage too?

      I'd be more inclined to accept that Tea Party folks believe that repression of even one person for bullshit reasons is unacceptable in "the land of the free", and will fight to end government harassment for ALL citizens, if I saw some Tea Party people at immigrants' rights rallies, at Pride events, or otherwise out and about standing up for equal treatment under law and keeping the gubmint out of people's personal lives.

    3. Dennis 3

      tea party militia versus modern military?

      I fully support the right to bear arms, especially for the concept of holding an abusive government in check.

      Having said that, how many hours do you think the tea party would last in armed conflict against the might of the U.S. government, barring things like rebellion in the government/military ranks mucking things up nicely?

      Mine's the one with the M2 headspace and timing key in my pocket.

      1. No, I will not fix your computer

        The right to bear arms is out dated.

        When the standing army was small and mostly made up of civilians then the ability to overthrow an oppressive government was valid (and more importantly possible).

        If the right to bear arms to enable overthrowing the government was still valid then there would never have been any sedation acts (the Patriot Act is just the newest and most far reaching).

        People like guns;

        1. They are fun for various reasons

        2. They make you feel safe (regardless of whether they make you less safe or not)

        3. Hunting is very primal (we are animals after all)

        4. Shooting well is a skill (like any other sport)

        And of course there's a whole bucket of other reasons like empowerment and collecting but at the end of the day owning a gun it nothing to do with overthrowing the government, given the degree of gun crime in the US and the number of fatalities it's in a different scale to Canada (which has a similar level of gun ownership) so there's probably other reasons that people own guns which is unique in the states.

  13. The Fuzzy Wotnot


    “My boss has told me to come here and look through your stuff, but they're not willing to tell me what I'm supposed to be looking for.”

    This sums up the inner workings of security within government, basically a load of people trying to justify their existence while playing roles in Carry-On Spying!!!

    The guy has my sympathy and it must be a absolute pain the backside, but this catalogue of comedy is just hilarious!

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    If this guy is doing something wrong, he should be arrested. Otherwise leave him alone.

    It would seem that the authorities are using airports like little guantanamos, a way to get around the law.

  15. Anonymous Coward

    Deplane !

    De plane is de big thing on de tarmac

    1. Bill B

      You, sir ...

      owe me a new keyboard

  16. Tempest

    This sounds like The Phil Zimmerman story, deja vu

    Phil Zimmerman, of PGP fame, suffered these indignities years ago.

    " On November 9, 1994, upon his return to the United States from Europe, he was detained in Customs before he could re-enter the country, his luggage was searched, and he was interrogated for half an hour about his itinerary, public speaking activities, prior trips overseas, and possible PGP exports -- all without the benefit of counsel. He was eventually re-admitted to the United States ..." Source: < >.

    Just shows the US is just as anally challenged as ever.

  17. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge

    So Stasi-style basically

    This is the kind of thing that I've read would happen in East Germany under the Stasi. From what I read, it's like you wouldn't be arrested, they certainly didn't send people to the Gulags or kill them off outright like Stalin did. Oh no. They'd just make things very inconvenient. In modern terms, it'd be like if all of a sudden you started getting pulled over by the police all the time for even going 1MPH over the speed limit (or for driving "suspicously" slow if you weren't speeding), the full screening at every check point, you got "randomly" selected for the full-bore tax audit every year, had to provide extra proof (compared to normal) to get your driver's license renewed & got selected to have the full drivers test (then "mysteriously" had trouble getting a time when the driver's test people are available), if you tried to get any gov't assistance (low income, medical care, etc.) would either find them mysteriously slow to process your paperwork, or they'd find an excuse to turn you down, and so on. From what I read, some employers would check credentials and turn this person down for the job straight away; other jobs wouldn't do this check, but it' be hard to hold the job because all those "random" stops would make the employee too frequently late to work. It was apparently pretty effective, since people weren't actually getting tossed in jail or whatever, people knew things was happening but not specifically how far they could go to trigger it, so it really kept people in line.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    On whose side are they?

    This guy does good security work, so harassing him diminishes the US defensive capacity. Isn't that called treason?

  19. duncan campbell

    Same Bunch

    of Luddites who prevented sender authentication crypto being used from the

    get-go in email and hence the original sinners in the Spam Mail industry.

    Second rater's all around.


  20. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Whisper Systems - UnTap your phone

    Hi products -

    RedPhone 0.2 - Encrypted voice for your smartphone.

    TextSecure 0.5 - Encrypted texts for your smartphone.

    Odds-on they're why he's being stopped.

    Either they're very good products,


    NSA's already cracked them,

    and is running a campaign to raise his profile,

    to infer they're a good products, (worthy of terrorist use).

    1. Jon 86


      we want to listen in on those customer conversations, and dude is not giving in to that. So we'll be your paparazzi until you falter.

      Is it good to be good in info security or be good at bad info security? Anyone got a cleaning job offer?

  21. Anonymous Coward


    "But unlike Appelbaum and House, Marlinspike has no obvious ties to WikiLeaks and at times has voiced criticism of the whistle-blowing site."

    It isn't nice to criticize a Mossad/CIA asset. Anything "revealed" by Assange has deferred guilt from NATO forces and Israel to the National authorities - Iraqi and Afghan.

    One notes also that the chap's name is yet obscured by these "news" accounts, which reek of cover for an intel op. At least Assange's name is out there. Are you telling me that his passport declares he is "Moxie Marlinspike"? If so, he has more juice than a certain Prez who lacks a legit birth certificate.

    One notes the "cooperation" of the media in concealing the dude's name.

  22. JaitcH

    TSA: Another American exercise in futility

    "The TSA is reported to have organised several series of tests using undercover agents to put dummy bombs through security scanners at US airports. One such test, in 2007, was said to have resulted in 75% of the fake bomb parts passing through unobserved." Source < >.

    1. Graham Marsden

      Not only that, but...

      ... from the line just before the one you quoted:

      "One leading manufacturer said today that its scanning machines were programmed to generate occasional false positives in order to keep staff alert."

      WTF? Scanners *designed* to create False Positives? And what happens to the poor fecker whose luggage is in the scanner when the machine goes "PING"?

      Maybe he finds himself hustled off to a private room to find someone with a pair of rubber gloves and gets a free listing on a "To Be Watched" list...

      1. Rolf Howarth

        @Graham Marsden

        That happened to me once. I was peering over at the screen while my bag was being x-rayed and imagine my shock when I saw the image of a handgun in my rucksack, clear as anything! The operator just clicked a few buttons and the gun disappeared from the image and my bag went through without them saying a word. Seems like quite a good system if you ask me. Doesn't inconvenience travellers but keeps the operators alert.

  23. Richard Jukes


    You know the chap's in the shit when the custom agents boss's boss phones..... Bend over and take it, one either lives within the system and plays by the rules or one lives outside of the system. I quite like civilisation, so whilst I dont agree with such abuse of power - one is not left with much choice unless I wish to live on a hippy commune and listening to Sun Moon II talk about how one day all the earth will be at peace...

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Good to see it's still live and well in the land of the free.

  25. Jon 86

    Subjects combined reads ...

    Welcome to the free democratic republic of the United States..., Land of freedom, That's not Kafka, There's more to Kafka than Gregor Samsa, Glad we got all this hope and change now that Obama's in office, Hope and change? Old times ..., Fantasy Island, Deplane..Countdown, Privacy concerns, Elsewhere. Welcome to the Union of Soviet American Republics, err... States, duh. So charge him, "make it easier for said attacks to be undertaken", @Graham Marsden, @Rolf Howarth, duh to you too , Not too many problems returning. "US border guards have to admit US citizens." Not so, now., Government control, Yeah.., Unless brown citizens are arrested for looking "illegal" and not carrying their IDs., tea party militia versus modern military?, Hilarious!, Shady, Deplane ! , This sounds like The Phil Zimmerman story, deja vu, So Stasi-style basically. On whose side are they? Same Bunch. Whisper Systems - UnTap your phone, Or... , Well..., TSA: Another American exercise in futility , Erm, McCarthyism

  26. Anonymous Coward

    Most has been said above, except...

    ... where the limit will be to what people are willing to put up with.

    (sarcasm on)

    What I wonder is:

    The US is known to have built much of its cutting edge tech by brain-draining other countries', mostly European, intellectual elite. How long until what is left of any intellectuality will draw the parallels to the 20th and 30th in Europe (especially Germany), or the several times mentioned Soviet Republic from the 60ties to the late 90ties, see the signs and run for it? A "brain-bleed" so to speak...

    But wait, they would have to fly out... Or take ships (similar security scrutiny)... Hmm...

    (sarcasm off)

    I for on will NOT enter the USSA any time soon. I am not consent with what I see, and as this is obviously enough to be subjected to arbitrary harassment and abuse by "the authorities" I will refuse to travel there even if my job depended on it.

    I actually try to avoid flying as much as I can, and changed job for that reason. That coming from a person with several years of >200 flights each!

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