Worth the Weight

In the midst of a long New York Times article about the serial theft of offensive cyberweapons from the National Security Agency, there’s a brief but interesting image. “Much of [a core N.S.A. group’s] work is labeled E.C.I., for ‘exceptionally controlled information,’ material so sensitive it was initially stored only in safes,” the article explains. “When the cumulative weight of the safes threatened the integrity of N.S.A.’s engineering building a few years ago, one agency veteran said, the rules were changed to allow locked file cabinets.”

It’s like some undiscovered Italo Calvino short story: an agency physically deformed by the gravitational implications of its secrets, its buildings now bulbous and misshapen as the literal weight of its mission continues to grow.

Infrastructural Voodoo Doll

For the past few months, on various trips out west to Los Angeles, I’ve been working on an exclusive story about a new intelligence-gathering unit at LAX, the Los Angeles International Airport.

To make a long story short, in the summer of 2014 Los Angeles World Airports—the parent organization in control of LAX—hired two intelligence analysts, both with top secret clearance, in order to analyze global threats targeting the airport.

There were many things that brought me to this story, but what particularly stood out was the very idea that a piece of transportation infrastructure could now punch above its weight, taking on the intelligence-gathering and analytical capabilities not just of a city, but of a small nation-state.

It implied a kind of parallel intelligence organization created to protect not a democratic polity but an airfield. This suggested to me that perhaps our models of where power actually lies in the contemporary city are misguided—that, instead of looking to City Hall, for example, we should be focusing on economic structures, ports, sites of logistics, places that wield a different sort of influence and require a new kind of protection and security.

From the article, which is now online at The Atlantic:

Under the moniker of “critical infrastructure protection,” energy-production, transportation-logistics, waste-disposal, and other sites have been transformed from often-overlooked megaprojects on the edge of the metropolis into the heavily fortified, tactical crown jewels of the modern state. Bridges, tunnels, ports, dams, pipelines, and airfields have an emergent geopolitical clout that now rivals democratically elected civic institutions.

For me, this has incredible implications:

It might sound like science fiction, but, in 20 years’ time, it could very well be that LAX has a stronger international-intelligence game than many U.S. allies. LAX field agents could be embedded overseas, cultivating informants, sussing out impending threats. It will be an era of infrastructural intelligence, when airfields, bridges, ports, and tunnels have, in effect, their own internal versions of the CIA—and LAX will be there first.

There are obvious shades here of Keller Easterling’s notion of “extrastatecraft,” where infrastructure has come to assume a peculiar form of political authority.

As such, it also resembles an initiative undertaken by the NYPD in the years immediately following 9/11—a story well told by at least three books, Peter Bergen’s excellent United States of Jihad, Christopher Dickey’s Securing the City, and, more critically, Enemies Within by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman.

However, there is at least one key difference here: the NYPD unit was operating as an urban-scale intelligence apparatus, whereas the L.A. initiative exists at the level of a piece of transportation infrastructure. Imagine the Holland Tunnel, I-90, or the M25 hiring its own in-house intel team, and you can begin to imagine the strange new powers and influence this implies.

In any case, the bulk of the piece is focused on introducing readers to the core group of people behind the program.

There is Anthony McGinty, a former D.C. homicide detective and Marine Reserve veteran, kickstarting a second career on the west coast; there is Michelle Sosa, a trilingual Boston University grad with a background in intelligence analysis; and there is Ethel McGuire, one of the first black female agents in FBI history, who undertook their hiring.

There are, of course, literally thousands of others of people involved, from baggage handlers and the LAX Fire Department to everyday travelers. LAX, after all, is a city in miniature:

At more than five square miles, it is only slightly smaller than Beverly Hills. More than 50,000 badged employees report to work there each day, many with direct access to the airfield—and thus to the vulnerable aircraft waiting upon it. More than 100,000 passenger vehicles use the airport’s roads and parking lots every day, and, in 2015 alone, LAX hosted 75 million passengers in combined departures and arrivals.

LAX is also policed like a city. The airport has its own SWAT team—known as the Emergency Services Unit—and employs roughly 500 sworn police officers, double the number of cops in the well-off city of Pasadena and more than the total number of state police in all of Rhode Island.

However, the actual space of the airport—the built landscape of logistics—is probably the main potential source of interest for BLDGBLOG readers.

For example, at the western edge of the airfield, there is an abandoned suburb called Surfridge, its empty streets and sand dunes now used as a butterfly sanctuary and as a place for police-training simulations. The runways themselves are vast symbolic landscapes painted with geometric signs that have to be read to be navigated. And then there are the terminals, currently undergoing a massive, multibillion dollar renovation campaign.

At one point, I found myself sitting inside the office complex of Gavin de Becker, an anti-assassination security expert who has worked for celebrities, foreign dignitaries, and even U.S. presidents. Protected behind false-front signage, de Becker’s hidden complex houses a full-scale airplane fuselage for emergency training, as well as ballistic dummies and a soundproofed shooting range.

I had a blast working on this piece, and am thrilled that it’s finally online. Check it out, if you get a chance, and don’t miss the speculative “case files” at the end, brief examples of what might be called infrastructural security fiction.

(Thanks to Ross Andersen and Sacha Zimmerman at The Atlantic for the edits. All images in this post from Google Maps, filtered through Instagram).

Glitch City

oil[Images: Via Wired UK].

Sites of urban infrastructure and other industrial facilities integral to municipal management, from fire stations to fuel depots, appear to be the target of deliberate erasure in Baidu’s street maps.

As photographer Jonathan Browning—who noticed odd moments of incomplete blurring, cloning, and other visual camouflage a few years ago—explains to Wired, “I don’t know who does it, if it’s an algorithm that gets GPS co-ordinates for each place and then somehow wipes it, or if an actual person goes to each one and cleans it with Photoshop.”

Either way, he adds, “It would be great to meet these people and see what they think about it. If they wanted to do it, why didn’t they do it properly?”

oil[Images: Via Wired UK].

The effects are, in their own way, actually quite interesting, as if some sort of representational glitch has slipped into the world by way of sites of Chinese infrastructure—a scrambling algorithm crawling out of the depths of digital compression to target all these marginal, back-stage spaces that help a 21st-century city operate.

A wildly applied cloning tool in the top set of images for example, actually creates what appear to be reeds, an emergent landscape of the New Aesthetic breaking through the cracks between pixels.

Read more over at Wired UK.

(Spotted via @samanthaculp and @larsonchristina. Vaguely related: The Hit List).

The Burglar’s Guide Has Arrived

At long last, after more than three years of research and travel, A Burglar’s Guide to the City is finally shipping.

burglarsboxes
It is a book about crime, policing, and the built environment, and how these forces mutually influence one another, from ancient Rome to contemporary Los Angeles, with a specific focus on the spatial peculiarities of breaking and entering.

I’ve already posted about the book at some length here on the blog—with many more posts available under the Burglar’s Guide tag—and there is also a standalone website worth checking out, as well, with links to reviews, book tour information, and some great blurbs.

However, for now, especially if this is the first you’ve heard of it, consider checking out an excerpt from the book over at The New York Times Magazine, an author profile over at the Wall Street Journal, a short segment about burglary and Los Angeles on NPR’s Marketplace, or a great review published in the Los Angeles Times.

There, Annalee Newitz writes that, “Despite its title, Geoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City won’t teach you how to break into houses. It won’t help you outsmart wily cat burglars with ingenious home alarm systems, either. Instead, it explores something a lot weirder and more interesting: Manaugh argues that burglary is built into the fabric of cities and is an inevitable outgrowth of having architecture in the first place.”

Writing for the Barnes & Noble Review, meanwhile, Sarah Weinman—editor of the recent collection Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 1950s—said that, after reading the book, “my worldview is altered a little bit more, and far for the better, as a result.” Patrick Lyons at VICE found the book “an exhilarating, perspective-shifting read,” and the BBC recommended it as one of their “Ten books to read in April,” calling it “a surprising and fascinating true-crime epic.”

Most fun of all was doing an interview with Gastropod—a podcast about food, science, and history cohosted by my wife, Nicola Twilley, and journalist Cynthia Graber—discussing food heists, potato bombs, fast-food burglaries, and much more.

Amazon chose A Burglar’s Guide as one of their “Best Books of April 2016,” adding that it is a “caper of a book.” *Update: I also got to speak about the book with Curbed for their recently launched podcast, on “why panic rooms are going to outlast the pyramids.”

In any case, I’d be over the moon if you picked up a copy, and I would love to discuss the book’s many ideas—and people and tools and scenes and histories—in more detail here. However, I’m also aware that I can’t just post about this book over and over—and over—again, so I’ll also get back to regular blogging soon.

Thanks! And enjoy the book.

Hacked Homes, Gas Attacks, and Panic Room Design

[Image: “How The Burglar Gets Into Your House” (1903), via The Saint Paul Globe].

One unfortunate side-effect of the Greek financial crisis has been a rise in domestic burglaries. This has been inspired not only by a desperate response to bad economic times, but by the fact that many people have withdrawn their cash from banks and are now storing their cash at home.

As The New York Times reported at the end of July, “in the weeks before capital controls were imposed at the end of June, billions of euros fled the Greek banking system. Greeks feared that their euro deposits might be automatically converted to a new currency if Greece left the eurozone and would quickly lose value, or that they would face a ‘haircut’ to their accounts if their bank failed amid the stresses of the crisis.”

This had the effect that, while the rich simply shifted their assets overseas or into Swiss bank accounts, “the middle class has stashed not just cash but gold and jewelry, among other valuables, under the proverbial mattress.” Now, however, those “hidden valuables had become enticing targets for thieves.”

Or, more accurately, for burglars.

Burglary is a spatial crime: its very definition requires architecture. By entering an architectural space, whether it’s a screened-in porch or a megamansion, theft or petty larceny becomes burglary, a spatially defined offense that cannot take place without walls and a roof.

[Image: A street in Athens, via Wikipedia].

In any case, while Greece sees its burglary rate go up and reports of local break-ins rise, home fortification has also picked up pace. “Many apartment doors have sprouted new security locks with heavy metal plates, similar to the locks used in safes,” we read, and razor wire now “bristles from garden gates where there were none last summer.”

This vision of DIY security measures applied to high-rise residential towers and other housing blocks in Athens is a surprising one, considering that, globally, burglary is in such decline that The Economist ran an article a few years ago asking, “Where have all the burglars gone?

As it happens, I’ve been studying burglary for the past few years for many reasons; among those is the fact that burglary offers insights into otherwise overlooked possibilities for reading and navigating urban and architectural space.

Indeed, burglary’s architectural interest comes not from its ubiquity, but from its unexpected, often surprisingly subtle misuse of the built environment. Burglars approach buildings differently, often seeking modes of entry other than doors and approaching buildings—whole cites—as if they’re puzzles waiting to be solved or beaten.

Consider the recent case of Formula 1 driver Jenson Button, whose villa in the south of France was broken into; the burglars allegedly made their entrance after sending anesthetic gas through the home’s air-conditioning system, incapacitating Button and his wife.

Although the BBC reports some convincing skepticism about Button’s claim, Button’s own spokesperson insists that this method of entry is on the rise: “The police have indicated that this has become a growing problem in the region,” the spokesperson said, “with perpetrators going so far as to gas their proposed victims through the air conditioning units before breaking in.”

There are other supposed examples of this sort of attack. Also from the BBC:

Former Arsenal footballer Patrick Vieira said he and his family were knocked out by gas during a 2006 raid on their home in Cannes. And in 2002, British television stars Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine said they were gassed while attending the Cannes Film Festival.

Other accounts, particularly from France, have appeared in the media over the past 15 years or so, describing people waking up groggy to discover they slept through a raid.

It’s worth noting, on the other hand, that actual proof of these home gas attacks is lacking; what’s more, the amount of anesthetic needed to knock out multiple adults in a large architectural space is prohibitively expensive to obtain and also presents a high risk of explosion.

Nonetheless, a security firm called SRX has commented on the matter, saying to the BBC that this is a real risk and even pointing out the specific vulnerability: ventilation intake fans usually found on the perimeter of a property, where they can be visually and acoustically shielded in the landscaping.

Their very inconspicuousness also “makes them ideal for burglars,” however, as homeowners can neither see nor hear if someone is tampering with them; as SRX points out, “we have to try and prevent access to those fans.”

Fortified air-conditioning intake fans. Razor wire defensive cordons on urban balconies. Reinforced front doors like something you’d find on a safe or vault.

[Image: A totally random shot of A/C units, via Wikipedia].

The subject of burglary, break-ins, and home fortification interests me enough that I’ve written an entire book about it—called A Burglar’s Guide to the City, due out next spring from FSG—but it is also something I’ve addressed in an ongoing three-part series about domestic home security for Dwell magazine.

The second of those three articles is on newsstands now in the September 2015 issue, and it looks at the design and installation of safe rooms, more popularly known as panic rooms.

That article is not yet online—I’ll add a link when it’s up—but it includes interviews with safe room design experts on both U.S. coasts, as well as some interesting anecdotes about trends in home fortification, such as installing “lead-lined sheetrock to protect against radioactive attack.” Bullet-proof doors, rocket-propelled grenades, and home biometric security systems all make an unsettling appearance, as well.

Prior to that, in the July/August 2015 issue, I looked at technical vulnerabilities in smart home design. There, among other things, you can read that the “$20,000 smart-home upgrade you just paid for? It can now be nullified for about $400,” using a wallet-size device engineered by Drew Porter of Red Mesa.

Further, you’ll learn how “specific combinations of remote-control children’s toys could be hacked by ambitious burglars to do everything from watching you leave on your next vacation to searching your home for hidden valuables.” That’s all available online.

The final article in that three-part series comes out in the October 2015 issue. Check them all out, if you get a chance, and then don’t forget to pick up a copy of A Burglar’s Guide to the City next spring.

The Electromagnetic Fortification of the Suburbs

[Image: A drone from DJI].

It’s hardly surprising to read that drones can be repurposed as burglars’ tools; at this point, take any activity, add a drone, and you, too, can have a news story (or Kickstarter) dedicated to the result.

“Why not send an inexpensive drone, snoop in your windows, see if you have any pets, see if you have any expensive electronics, maybe find out if you have any jewelry hanging around,” a security expert wonders aloud to Hawaii’s KITV, describing what he sees as the future of burglary. Burglars “can do all that with a drone without ever stepping a foot on your property line.”

“So what’s a homeowner to do?” the TV station asks.

They suggest following the drone back to its owner, who, due both to battery life and signal range, will be nearby; or even installing “new expensive high-tech drone detection systems that claim to detect the sounds of a drone’s propellers.” This is absurd—suggesting that some sort of drone alarm will go off at 3am, driving you out of bed—but it’s such a perfectly surreal vision of the suburbs of tomorrow.

Fortifying our homes against drone incursion will be the next bull market in security: whole subdivisions designed to thwart drone flights, marketed to potential homeowners specifically for that very reason.

You go home for the weekend to visit your parents where, rather than being enlisted to mow the lawn or clean the gutters, you’re sent you out on drone duty, installing perimeter defenses or some sort of jamming blanket, an electromagnetically-active geotextile disguised beneath the mulch. Complex nets and spiderweb-like antennas go on sale at Home Depot, perfect for snaring drone rotors and leading to an explosion in suburban bird deaths.

[Image: A drone from DJI].

This news comes simultaneously with a story in Forbes, where we read that drone manufacturer DJI is implementing a GPS block on its products: they will no longer be able to fly within 15.5 miles of the White House.

The company is issuing “a mandatory firmware update to all Phantom drones that will restrict flight within a 15.5 mile radius centered around downtown Washington D.C. Pilots looking to operate their Phantom drone will not be able to take off or fly within the no-fly-zone.”

Based off a drone’s GPS coordinates, the technology to geo-fence drones from entering a particular airspace, especially around major airports, has been around in Phantoms since early last year. The new update will add more airports to its no-fly-zone database as the 709 no-fly-zones already in the Phantom’s flight controller software will expand to more than 10,000, with additional restrictions added to prevent flight across national borders.

This is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that firmware updates and geography now work together to disable entire classes of products within a given zone or GPS range. Put another way, drones today—but what tomorrow?

Geofencing or “locationized” firearms have already been discussed as a possible future form of gun control, for example, and it would not be at all surprising to see “locationized” smartphones or geofenced cameras becoming a thing in the next few years.

All a government (or criminal syndicate) would have to do is release a (malicious) firmware update, temporarily shutting down certain types of electronics within range of, say, a presidential inauguration (or a bank heist).

[Image: A drone from DJI].

More to the point of this post, however, GPS-based geofencing will also become part of the electromagnetic armature of future residential developments, a new, invisible layer of security for those who are willing to pay for it.

Think, for example, of the extraordinary geographic dazzle effects used by government buildings to camouflage their real-world locations: as Dana Priest and William Arkin wrote for The Washington Post back in 2012, “most people don’t realize when they’re nearing the epicenter of Fort Meade’s, even when the GPS on their car dashboard suddenly begins giving incorrect directions, trapping the driver in a series of U-turns, because the government is jamming all nearby signals.”

If half the point of living in the suburbs is to obtain a certain level of privacy, personal safety, and peace of mind, then it is hardly science fiction to suggest that the electromagnetic fortification of suburbia is on the immediate horizon.

You won’t just turn on a burglar alarm with your handy smartphone app; you’ll also switch on signal-jamming networks hidden in the trees or a location-scrambling geofence camouflaged as a garden gnome at the edge of your well-mown lawn. Drones, dazzled by invisible waves of unpredictable geographic information, will perform U-turns or sudden dives, even racing off to a pre-ordained security cage where they can be pulled from the air and disabled.

The truly high-end residential developments of tomorrow will be electromagnetically fortified, impervious to drones, and, unless you’ve been invited there, impossible for your cars and cellphones even to find.