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Wednesday, 6 July 2016

The Fake Bomb Detector Scandal


A Recent Explosion in Baghdad

As the holy month of Ramadhan ends, and Muslims worldwide begin to celebrate the Eid, there are communities who are grieving for their dead. Last Sunday evening, a car packed with explosives went off in the shopping district of Baghdad, Iraq. Families had gathered to break fast and to do their last minute shopping in preparation for the Eid. Young men had gathered to watch the European football matches. 

The early estimates were about 150 dead. But many of those who were critically injured eventually succumbed to their injuries. The latest death toll is now more than 200. 

After the explosion, people began to gather at the site of the explosion. The crowd could be heard accusing the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider Al-Abadi, of corruption. The charge? The purchase of fake bomb detectors, which were nothing more than cheap, useless plastic toys. The Iraqi government had spent millions buying fake bomb detectors that could not detect explosives, and yet, had continued to use the devices even after they were known to be fake.

Eventually, the Iraqi Prime Minister directed that the fake bomb detectors be removed from checkpoints. But the fake bomb detectors had been in use for many years, suggesting that many lives had been needlessly lost.

The Guardian interviewed an Iraqi officer who said, "This should have happened a long time ago... There isn’t a person in the country who thinks they work." Another was quoted saying, "They are fakes, fakes."

Source: BBC (2014)

The Toy That Became a Fake Bomb Detectors

From the Vanity Fair Hive:
The “bomb detectors” sold to Iraq—and, it would later emerge, the versions bought by security forces in dozens of other countries—were based on a gag gift that had been around for decades. When the group modified the devices to sell them all over the world, they invented technical-sounding names like the A.D.E. 651, the Quadro Tracker, the Positive Molecular Locator, the Alpha 6, and the GT200. But all of them were simply rebranded versions of a hollow, five-ounce plastic toy sold as “Gopher: The Amazing Golf Ball Finder!,” whose packaging claims, limply, that “you may never lose a golf ball again!” Even as a toy, the Gopher is unimpressive. It would barely pass muster as a prop in a fourth grader’s camcorded Star Wars tribute. It consists of a cheap plastic handle with a free-swinging antenna, and the way it works is simple: When you tilt the device to the right, the antenna swings right. When you tilt it to the left, the antenna swings left. If you’ve been primed by the right sales pitch, you believe that the antenna has moved as a result of something called nuclear quadrupole resonance, or electrostatic attraction, or low-frequency radio waves bouncing off the ionosphere—each force supposedly drawing the antenna toward the substance you’re scanning for, such as, in the beginning, “the elements used in all golf balls.” Because the salesman is glib and confident, or because people around you aren’t questioning it, or because your superior has ordered you to use it, you ignore the far more obvious force that has actually moved the antenna: gravity.
So, it was a toy that was originally touted as a means of finding golf balls. But it was given a new name, a new casing, and attractive looks. 
Over the years, the modifications that turned the Gopher into the Advanced Detection Equipment 651 bomb detector were entirely cosmetic. The device was shipped to customers in a ruggedized plastic briefcase with a hard-foam interior, the kind of case used in spy movies to carry disassembled sniper rifles. The container was the most expensive, and impressive, part of the whole unit. The device had a pistol-like grip and a barrel from which sprouted an antenna. It came with a holster and an assortment of laminated cards, each labeled with the substance it would program the device to detect. Depending on which card you put in the holster, you could look for different types of explosives, as well as narcotics, ivory, and other contraband. (Vanity Fair Hive, 2015.)

Source: BBC (2014)

The Vanity Fair Hive article (see link below) described the genesis of the scam, and how it evolved from a simple golf ball finder to a drugs detector, and eventually to an explosives detector. Along the way, a salesman, Jim McCormick, became convinced of the potential of the product and began manufacturing the product at scale. He sold the product under the name of "A.D.E. 651" (A.D.E. being an acronym for Advanced Detection Equipment). It slowly became popular, and he found clients in many countries. His biggest customer was Iraq, where McCormick managed to sell "at least 5,000 devices at a list price of as much as $40,000 apiece". 

Other spin-offs of the device also existed, such as the "GT-200" and the "Alpha 6". All of them were just as useless as the original toy upon which they were based.

But not everyone fell for it

Not everyone that the fraudsters approached fell for the product. Here are some lucky ones who got away. (Most of the stories come from the Vanity Fair article.)
  1. The FBI (USA) tested a sample of the product and found that it didn't work. They sent out a teletype warning to other enforcement agencies.
  2. The UK's Home Office tested a sample of the product and found that it didn't work. They declared it a fraud, but didn't stop its export.
  3. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police sat through a demonstration of the product. They asked how it worked, and McCormick could not explain. They declined to buy.
So how can we learn from the past and not repeat it? The following thoughts come to mind.
  1. Test the product. If it works in a lab, it should work when you need it to.
  2. Check for the patent on the product. If there's no patent, you should wonder why a tech "entrepreneur" is willing to put his product into the hands of people who can easily clone his product?
  3. Check for other patents held by the manufacturer. Even if they do not have the exact patent on the product, they may have filed other patents which are related to the invention at hand.
  4. Trust your gut instinct. Your subconscious may already know that the product is bogus. Your mind is overwhelmed by the excellent salesmanship and the wonderful Powerpoint.

Note

I apologise if this article isn't directly about intellectual property, but it does deal with bogus products, which is interesting. As an inventor, you may find that you need to compete against fraudsters, or competitors who misrepresent their product. You may need to debunk their claims.... look at this story and learn.

References

  1. Washington Post, 4th July 2016. Toll climbs to more than 200 in Islamic State’s worst-ever bomb attack on civilians. By Mustafa Salim and Loveday Morris
  2. BBC, 3rd October 2014. The story of the fake bomb detectors. By Caroline Hawley.
  3. Reuters, 3rd July 2016. Iraq PM Abadi orders police to stop using fake bomb detectors.
  4. Guardian, 4th July 2016. Iraq PM orders removal of British-made fake bomb detectors. By Martin Chulov.
  5. Vanity Fair Hive, 24th June 2015. The $80 Million Fake Bomb-Detector Scam—And The People Behind It. By Jeffrey E. Stern.
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