Friday, February 02, 2007

Boston's Aqua Teen Misadventure

Wednesday's news out of Boston, where the city came to a virtual standstill after city officials were notified of some suspicious objects - which later turned out to be "guerilla marketing" signs promoting a cartoon called Aqua Teen Hunger Force - is intriguing for a number of reasons.

First, a few basics of the case. Cartoon Network hired a marketing firm to come up with a "guerilla marketing" promotion for the trendy cartoon. The marketing firm created some light-up signs depicting characters from the cartoon (which looked a lot like Lite-Brite displays), then hired some people in various cities to plant them where they would be seen, such as "train stations, overpasses, 'hip and trendy areas, high traffic areas of high visibility'" (which only makes sense if you're trying to draw attention to your cartoon). The AP reported:

The first device was found at a subway and bus station underneath Interstate 93, forcing the shutdown of the station and the highway.

Later, police said four calls, all around 1 p.m., reported devices at the Boston University Bridge and the Longfellow Bridge, both of which span the Charles River, at a Boston street corner and at the Tufts-New England Medical Center.

The package near the Boston University bridge was found attached to a structure beneath the span, authorities said.

Subway service across the Longfellow Bridge between Boston and Cambridge was briefly suspended, and Storrow Drive was closed as well. A similar device was found Wednesday evening just north of Fenway Park, police spokesman Eddy Chrispin said.
So ... people notice the signs, think they look suspicious, call the police - and all hell breaks loose for the rest of the day.

Meanwhile, the marketing agency - in a truly dumb and irresponsible move - told its people in Boston to remain quiet, even as the city was locking down.
According to an e-mail one friend provided to the Globe, the executive at Interference Inc. told the artist, whom the agency had hired to install the small, battery-powered light screens in Boston, to remain silent, even as dozens of police officers collected the devices and shut down highways, subway lines, and part of the Charles River.

The executive asked Peter Berdovsky to "pretty please keep everything on the dl," slang for down low, or hush-hush, according to the message Berdovsky sent to his friends.
The city virtually shuts down, countless people are inconvenienced, the police and everyone else goes on high alert - and later in the day, the marketing company finally comes clean that it's just a promotion. There's no danger.

But, what's more, the company paid other people in other cities to plant the signs there. And in some cities, the signs had been there for 2-3 weeks - with not a single complaint. No one in New York reported any problems with the 41 signs there:
Not one New York City resident made a 911 emergency call in response to the promotion here Wednesday -- and, unlike Beantown, Manhattan has really been the target of terrorist attacks.
Portland responded "with a yawn," though maybe that had to do with the placement of the signs:
Portlanders have reported finding at least three of the devices that caused a minor panic in Boston, but reacted with a yawn, if that.

They were found in some of the trendier neighborhoods and were not near bridges or other infrastructure.
It's sensible that, if the people in Portland didn't place the signs near any key infrastructure elements, there would be less perception of a threat (unlike Boston). But ... if the placement of the signs were the determining factor, wouldn't you expect that Seattle would have had the same problem as Boston? At least one sign was posted on a bridge there:
Some of the same blinking electronic devices that threw a scare into the city of Boston today (Wednesday) have been found and removed from Seattle and several suburbs.

Police say the removal was low-key in Seattle.

One was found yesterday (Tuesday) by a Woodinville Public Works Department crew working on a rail trestle over State Highway 202.
Hmm ... and there was nothing to report in Atlanta:
Joe Cobb, Atlanta Police Department public information officer, said his department was unaware of the devices and had received no complaints.
In San Francisco it was also a non-event:
San Francisco police say 20 blinking signs advertising a cartoon show were scattered in various city neighborhoods without causing a stir.
Apparently no one had yet gotten around to placing any of the signs in Los Angeles:
None of the devices, which were planned to be placed around the Westside of Los Angeles, including Hollywood, West Hollywood and Santa Monica, had been reported found.
And although all of these cities seemed to shrug it off, the signs raised the ire of public officials in two cities: Philadelphia ...
When city officials learned little devices equipped with circuit boards and batteries were spread across Philadelphia, managing director Pedro Ramos and officials with the Mayor's office began combing the streets.

Ramos said the signs are illegal and those responsible will be punished.
... and Chicago:
They were recovered from elevated stations and storefronts…

And the city may seek monetary reimbursement from the marketing company responsible for planting them, said Supt. Philip Cline.
So ... the signs were considered a huge problem in Boston, a nuisance in Philadelphia and Chicago, and no big deal anywhere else. Philadelphia and Chicago want to be reimbursed for the trouble of finding and removing the signs.

And the prosecutor in Boston has prosecution on his mind - presumably, on charges of launching a full-blown terrorist hoax:
Assistant Attorney General John Grossman said bomb squad members who examined the lighted signs immediately detected three components that suggested the contraptions could be bombs. He said the black signs, about the size of a laptop computer, had what appeared to be a duct-tape wrapped package with a wire running into it and a power source, which would be needed to detonate a bomb.

"The devices looked like bombs" and had an "ominous nature," Grossman said.
While recognizing the fact that public authorities have to respond to any possible threat that's called in, a few questions come to mind:
  1. Even without hearing from the marketing company, why didn't officials in Boston more quickly recognize that these things weren't bombs? It took hours for bomb-squad experts to see these things for what they were? Yes, there were batteries and wires, but these devices really weren't planted like an IED typically would be. Generally speaking, when you're planting an IED, you want it to blend in with its surroundings. You hide it in a backpack, or in a garbage can, or under a pile of garbage. You don't put blinking lights on it and place it in plain sight.
  2. What effect will this have on "See Something, Say Something" efforts? Will people in Boston be as likely to report suspicious items if the result is a shutdown of the city, over something that turned out to be nothing at all?
  3. If the guys in Boston (and here I'm talking about the guys who placed the signs, not the marketing agency who directed them) committed a crime, then what about the people who were hired to plant the signs in other cities? Did they commit the same crime? Or is the crime determined primarily by the degree to which public officials react to it? Did the guys in Boston commit a really serious crime, the guys in Chicago and Philadelphia commit a less serious crime, and the guys in Portland, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, etc., no crime at all?
  4. Are we going to say that putting up signs like this is equivalent to, for instance, filling envelopes with white powder? Is it equivalent to calling in a bomb threat? Where do we draw the line?
  5. How do authorities maintain vigilance without giving the appearance of crying wolf, when something like this happens? Every time that something like this happens, and there turns out to be no threat, people are going to be less and less inclined to respond to future warnings. It really is the "cry wolf" syndrome.
It's an interesting case, and one that indicates that there's a lot of Homeland Insecurity out there.

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