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.
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.”