The Internet has been in an uproar over 25 recent FBI/Department of Justice “Communities Against Terrorism” flyers, which are supposed to encourage citizens to report suspicious activity. The “Internet Cafe” flyer has a long list of suspicious activities, including being “overly concerned about privacy,” shielding your IP address, and looking at transportation maps. Equally as terrifying, the flyer also says it’s suspicious to “download or transfer files with ‘how-to’ content, such as […] information about timers, electronics, or remote transmitters/receivers.”
Sure, the flyer has a standard disclaimer, acknowledging that “some of the activities, taken individually, could be innocent.” But painting all how-to electronics information with the broad, damning brush of “suspicious activity” is exactly the kind of fear-mongering hogwash that keeps people from opening up their devices.
Fear causes people to lash out against things they don’t understand, such as electronics and chemistry—and the people who do understand can get caught in the crossfire.
The disappearance of childhood chemistry sets provides a sobering model for the future of electronics tinkering. In some states, you now need a criminal background check to purchase chemicals that were given to children at Christmas just a few decades ago.
The same sort of fear seems to be governing public response to electronics knowledge: a few years ago, MIT student Star Simpson was arrested for wearing a DIY light-up sweatshirt when she went to pick up a friend at an airport. Not only wasn’t it a bomb, it wasn’t intended to look like a bomb or to scare anyone—she made the shirt to show off her electronics skills for a career day at school. Yet she was charged with “possessing a hoax device.” After a huge media frenzy and a baffling legal battle, the charges were finally dropped a year later (she “only” had to do 50 hours of community service and issue a public apology).
Yes, you need to know how to solder to build a bomb. Yes, knowledge of chemistry can help you create all kinds of horrifying weapons. But at what point does the government regulating that knowledge become censorship?
What kind of discoveries are we missing out on because kids of this generation didn’t have a chance to experiment with real chemistry sets or tinker with electronics? What brilliant woodworkers have never touched a saw because schools no longer offer shop class? Why are we limiting learning in the name of safety? Isn’t society hurt more by stifling knowledge than it is by making that information theoretically available to terrorists?
If we make it a crime to learn about electronics, then the only people opening up their devices will be criminals.
You can help show the world that electronics aren’t something to fear. Make electronics repair mainstream: join repair collectives, wear electronics t-shirts, and tell your friends all about the beautiful insides of the devices you take apart.