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Schneier on Security
A blog covering security and security technology.
June 14, 2005
White Powder Anthrax Hoaxes
Earlier this month, there was an anthrax scare at the Indonesian embassy in Australia. Someone sent them some white powder in an envelope, which was scary enough. Then it tested positive for bacillus. The building was decontaminated, and the staff was quarantined for twelve hours. By then, tests came back negative for anthrax.
A lot of thought went into this false alarm. The attackers obviously knew that their white powder would be quickly tested for the presence of a bacterium of the bacillus family (of which anthrax is a member), but that the bacillus would have to be cultured for a couple of days before a more exact identification could be made. So even without any anthrax, they managed to cause two days of terror.
At a guess, this incident had something to do with Schapelle Corby (yet another security related story). Corby was arrested in Bali for smuggling drugs into the country. Her defense, widely believed in Australia, was that she was an unwitting dupe of the real drug smugglers. Supposedly, the smugglers work as airport baggage handlers and slip packages into checked baggage and remove them at the far end before reclaim. In any case, Bali has very strict drug laws and Corby was recently convicted in what Australians consider a miscarriage of justice. There have been news reports saying that there is no connection, but it just seems too obvious.
In an interesting side note, the media have revealed for the first time that 360 "white powder" incidents have taken place since 11 September 2001. This news had been suppressed by the government, which had issued D notices to the media for all such incidents. So there has been one such incident approximately every four days -- an astonishing number, given Australia's otherwise low crime rate.
Is an "incident" the same thing as an attack? I have friends stationed on the US base on Okinawa, and they report that there have been quite a few scares involving bags of salt. Japanese people believe that salt wards off evil influences and often sit baggies of it on the dashboards of their cars, and the entire base goes on high alert when one of them tries to drive in. Perhaps of all those incidents only a select few were deliberate attacks and most were simply misunderstandings.
Posted by: Kacie Landrum at June 14, 2005 04:41 PM
"This news had been suppressed by the government, which had issued D notices to the media for all such incidents. So there has been one such incident approximately every four days -- an astonishing number, given Australia's otherwise low crime rate."
Bruce, how do you know Australia has a low crime rate? The media may be silent on "regular" crime too, being issued "D" notices.
Not as low as I'd like, but I'm very surprised about that 360 number. Surely that isn't for Australia alone, is it?
That being said, I have been partially involved in one "white powder" scare a few years back (white power in an envelope sent to an ex-Prime Minister who had his official office in my work building), so I guess that counts for something (scaringly).
Posted by: Steven Plunkett at June 14, 2005 05:29 PM
"This news had been suppressed by the government, which had issued D notices to the media for all such incidents."
The D notice system in Austrlalia is a purely voluntary one, and is in any case largely defunct. D notices cover subjects, not incidents. There was no "issuing of D notices" and no suppression by the government. Our government is fairly toothless in that respect and relies, like most western governments, on the far more effective properties of spin and FUD.
Neither of the newspaper articles you pointed to at smh.com.au and theage.com.au make any mention of D notices. I suspect these ficticious D notices are a case of you reading the wrong sort of old cheap spy novels.
Regarding white powder scares, this was a global phenomenon in the last quarter of 2001, fuelled by sensationalist media and the propensity of many to panic. When interest in them died down, the rate reduced to near zero.
Looking at crime rates, a quick search on the Internet shows to me that crime rates in New York and in Australia are roughly similar. I see no foundation for the statement about Australia's low crime rate.
Much of this article looks like a few facts were glanced at before wild conclusions were jumped to. 3/10.
Posted by: grahamc at June 14, 2005 05:59 PM
The Schappelle Corby case has stopped the nation here. The media turned the case into a circus, with the verdict covered live on two commercial free-to-air channels, plus Sky News (Australia's less-rabid bersion of Fox). Talkback radio stirred up latent xenophobia in the Australian population by claiming that she'd never get a fair trial, and complaining that the Indonesian system was unjust. The result was that when she was found guilty, there were plenty of people urging a boycott of Bali and a return of post-tsunami aid donations.
John Howard's government likes to use talkback radio as a political tool, though in this instance it got so out of control that it was starting to affect relations between the two countries, so there is a line of thought that this white powder incident was immediately hyped as anthrax in order to quieten down the shock jocks. After all, who wants to be seen to be promoting terrrorism.
If so, it has worked a treat, as the coverage of Ms. Corby's ongoing appeals have been a lot more measured. There has also been a further white powder scare juat last week.
Posted by: donncha at June 14, 2005 06:22 PM
I'm not commenting on whether Australia's crime rate is high or low, but you can check at the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Government agency dedicated to tracking such things. Visit [web.archive.org] and do a search for "crime".
Yep, in Australia, there's been a lot of coverage over Schapelle Corby's case, and a lot of people are drawing connections between the white powder and her case. I hadn't heard the "360 incidents" statistic before, which suggests that there might be less of a connection than presumed. But then, I would guess that there have been a lot of "innocent false alarms" since 9-11 that simply weren't reported before - one of my friends was caught up in these (I know, a lousy statistical sample).
Posted by: Terence Tan at June 14, 2005 06:38 PM
All this talk about "white" powder.
Does this mean that a real attack, disguised with a little food-colouring, will be so much more devastating because no one will think ill of "green" powder?
Bruce, disclosure of such methods without a way to mitigate is irresponsible.
Full disclosure after 30 days may be all well and good in the software world where things can be fixed.
If there is no possible fix then the oxygen of publicity is bad bad bad.
Posted by: Angry at June 14, 2005 07:27 PM
The "fix" is not to overreact.
The attacks at the moment are psychological, not viral. Unreasonable fear of one makes the other succeed.
If you're worried about dying prematurely go to the gym, eat right and get enough sleep. That will do much more to prolong your life than duct tape and tinfoil.
Posted by: Anonymous at June 14, 2005 08:01 PM
What about the other security question raised by the Corby story, namely the argument used by the defense that the marijuana was planted by baggage handlers?
It seems rather scary that items found in a bag, which for a long stretch of time was not under your control, could be used in court as prima facie evidence against you.
Posted by: Chung Leong at June 14, 2005 10:26 PM
Background to the Schappelle Corby story, and Australia's emotional reaction to her plight:
Posted by: Rampo at June 15, 2005 03:52 AM
Whether Corby is guilty or innocent, the plight of the Austrailan media is very interesting.
Corby has a lot of factors against her, including the profiling that the Indonesian custom authorities did on her behaviour that intitated the search and her reaction when been asked to search her bags and her reaction when the drugs were discovered. These are all points mentioned in the more detailed coverage of her trail but not stressed at all in any of the 30 sec grabs.
An interesting by-play is people are now making a lot of money shrink wrapping baggage at Australian airports now.
Posted by: Ash at June 15, 2005 05:58 AM
>>It seems rather scary that items found in a bag, which for a long stretch of time was not under your control, could be used in court as prima facie evidence against you.<<
There is a comparable situation which occurs in US (also elsewhere?) where a package sent to your address containing contraband becomes instant prima facie evidence the moment you sign for a package handed to you by a delivery person (of course you can't find out what's in the package till you sign for it).
Posted by: jayh at June 15, 2005 07:30 AM
Shrinkwrapping has been available at Australian airports before Corby was arrested; there were shrinkwrapping services at Melbourne Airport as early as August of 2004.
As for Corby's guilt or otherwise, what the "Free Schapelle" crowd are missing is that, were the same evidence presented to an Australian court of law (the testimonies of customs officers vs. the prison hearsay about alleged drug-smuggling plots which constituted her defence), she would have been found guilty as well.
Re: D-notices: the Australian government doesn't really need enforceable D-notices, given the lack of media diversity; several proprietors own >90% of the media, which gives them more incentive to develop good relations with the government; hence, purely voluntary schemes suffice.
In our area, it's not white powder, but phone, web or paper threats to schools. In Kent WA recently, 50 officers and a SWAT unit were deployed after such a prank call, causing the school to be locked down for 3 hours, terrifying students, teachers and parents.
Yet there was nothing to be afraid of. Sure, the call required action. But if you arrive on the scene and don't see anything suspicious (and there are no eyewitnesses suggesting anything bad), why continue with the hyper alerts?
Is it really better to be safe than sorry?
How much money is wasted?
How much security was lost when so much manpower was rushed to the scene of a prank?
How much unecessary fear was injected into the lives of children, teachers and parents? Is it okay that children feel unsafe while at school?
How easy is this for a DoS attack on the police, in which a real crime would take place elsewhere after the false alert was over-responded to?
How easy can terrorists use similar tactics to provoke fear -- and why don't they more often considering the ease of doing so (and if you don't use your own phone, it's hard to trace too!)?
Will this result in lowering our guards after X number of false reports end up desensitizing people to a real emergency? People cannot stay at high alert forever.
Posted by: David at June 15, 2005 12:06 PM
I read the link posted by Rampo. What is it with English newspapers thinking that people give a damn about the reporters opinions? Stick to the facts...
Posted by: Nick at June 15, 2005 09:48 PM
Yes my daughter's school had a bomb scare, apparently in the library, so they followed the fire drill, and assembled in the football field next to the Library.
As an ex military person, if there was a bomb, the debris field would have killed many students, standing in the open.
I approached the education department, regarding their policy. Their interest - none.
I personally think if an attack is coming, it would be at infrastructure, ie telecommunications, etc.
The press here lie more than the government.
Posted by: Kevin at June 16, 2005 09:43 AM
@David & Kevin
If you look back through this site to an earlier subject "Universal Surveillance Doesn't Make Us Safer",
I made a fairly long post about why you are seeing the effects you are seeing.
Belive it or not it boils down to the supply of money and resources versus the political imperative.
Currently in the USA it is desirable both for politicians and businesses to have you running around scared, it makes spending your tax dollars oh so much easier. Especially when it is for things that you would normally have real objections to. Unfortunatly if your child does get killed due to wrong security it just makes things eaiser for them to spend on more questionable security.
The more "open" a society is the faster things will return to what is considered normal. It is now questionable just how open the USA is these days (or at least it is from the outside looking in), so it might take many more years for the costs of "Mirage Security" to be openly questioned.
Unfortunatly untill people realy analyse security properly a lot of money and lives will be wasted. But it will be good business if you are in the snake oil industry.
(My appologies if my remarks are offensive they are not designed to be).
Posted by: Clive Robinson at June 16, 2005 12:32 PM
To re-iterate the questionable meaning of the 360 events. During my school days, practical jokes often involved strategically placing talcum power such that an inocent action by the victim would result in them being doused in it. A favorite in Queensland was to cover the top edge of a ceiling fan. When someone returned to the classroom and turned on the fans there was powder everywhere. To return to relevance, one of the earlier white power reactions occured when someone pulled the roll of toilet paper and got covered in powder. My first thought was a prank, and probably set before Sept 11.
Posted by: Dave at June 20, 2005 03:06 AM
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