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War on Inventors

On September 14, Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for having a fake bomb. He never claimed he had a bomb, fake or otherwise. Under stressful interrogation by police, he repeatedly claimed, as he had all along, that the clock was, in fact, a clock. Though the police agreed that the homemade device was indeed a clock, they arrested Ahmed anyway.

Ahmed was handcuffed and suspended from school. His story has a happy ending in that charges were dropped, and many powerful people reached out to him.  By invitation, he’ll be touring FaceBook, Google, and the White House.

While many people have focused on the bigotry angle of Ahmed’s story (would he have been arrested if had not been a Moslem?), there is another aspect that is also troubling. To put it bluntly, many of the people involved in his arrest acted stupidly.  It should have been quite evident very early on that no crime had been committed, and that this 14-year old was no threat at all. Yet, both the school and law enforcement have stubbornly insisted that their actions were appropriate.

Nobody expects police, the judiciary, and teachers to be experts about explosives and dangerous devices. However, it seems obvious that when confronted by a technology of which you are suspicious, one should consult a professional to make an informed assessment. It is also obvious that when one makes a blatant mistake, one should admit it and move on.

Shockingly, Ahmed’s story is not unique. A quick internet searched revealed a surprisingly high number of incidents in which innocent people’s lives were disrupted under similar circumstances.

  • Sixteen-year old Kiera Wilmot did what kids have done since time immemorial: created a volcano experiment at a science fair. After an uneventful, successful demonstration, she was promptly arrested, suspended from school, and charged with 2 felonies, which were later dropped. She is now a sophomore at Florida Polytechnic University.
  • Steve Kurtz, a professor of art, sometimes uses biological materials in his installations. FBI raided his home and charged him with bioterrorism. Despite Commissioner of Public Health for New York State ruling that nothing in his home posed a threat, federal authorities still brought charges. After a grand jury refused to indict him on bioterrorism, he was charged with other felonies. A genetics professor who assisted him with his art projects was also indicted. Four years after the initial charges, a judge ruled that no crime had been committed.
  • Lewis Casey, an 18-year-old university student, built a chemistry lab in his home for his studies. Police arrested him for running a meth lab.  After it became abundantly clear to even the most clueless observer, that Casey’s lab had nothing to do with meth, he was charged with terrorism and bomb making. More than a year after his arrest he worked out a plea deal, paid a fine, will not have a criminal record, and will be able to return to his studies at university.
  • Xi Xiaoxing, the chairman of Temple University’s physics department was arrested for passing secrets to the Chinese. The evidence was a diagram he had sent overseas. The federal authorities claimed it was for a sensitive piece of technology called a pocket heater. Months after he was led away in handcuffs, suspended from his job, stripped of his title of chairman, and had his long-term research disrupted, expert testimony convinced the feds that the suspicious diagram was nothing like the pocket heater. Charges were dropped.

I have other examples. A hydrologist for the National Weather Service was cleared of all spying charges, but still risks losing her job. Even rapper/actor Ice-T was arrested for having a fake bomb, a clock that he had bought at the mall.

Although the spying episodes may seem different than the fake bomb incidents, they share a similar pattern:

  • Authorities see a technology that arouses fear.
  • Without really understanding what they see, they arrest the suspect.
  • They fail to consult experts about what the technology really is.
  • Even when the suspect is cleared of the original charges, authorities will refuse to admit they made a mistake and even sometimes bring further unrelated charges.

If you are alarmed by this, you are not alone. More and more people are becoming concerned about the “Freedom to Tinker.”  Hackers, makers, and other technophiles are frightened that their creativity will be stifled by an authoritarian, permission-based culture. This is not a simple matter in that it impacts copyright law, counterterrorism, patents, and a host of other issues.

The outreach by technological giants to the Texas teenager was motivated by more than simple outrage against an injustice. Some important innovators in the hi-tech world are frightened that the playfulness – the joy – of experimentation by young folks is under attack. This could be significant detriment to technological development. As someone once remarked to me, “The construction of every bridge began with a child playing with blocks.”

I was raised on stories about the great inventors like the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell. I grew up thinking that inventiveness was a core American virtue. I fear that when our current generation listens to the inspiring story of bicycle repairmen from Ohio inventing the first heavier-than-air flying machine, they will inevitably ask, “When were the Wright brothers arrested for building Weapons of Mass Destruction?”

 

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