Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.
— Albert Einstein
I’ve written here from time to time about some of the questionable expenditures made in the name of security; in one case, the US government paid several million dollars for software that, if it ever existed at all, did not produce anything like the promised results. In some cases, I think that the buyers are so focused on the security outcomes that they want that they lose sight of the need to verify extravagant claims for a product, or at least to ensure that the claimed performance is realistically plausible.
I’ve just been reminded of another instance of a large purchase of security snake oil. According to the C-Net news site, a British businessman named James McCormick is on trial at the Old Bailey (the Central Criminal Court) in London, on charges of fraud connected to the sale of supposed bomb-detecting equipment to a variety of government agencies. The prosecution alleges that McCormick sold a large number of his ADE detection devices for use in Iraq, at a price of approximately £ 27,000 [about $41,000] each. Units were also allegedly sold to the governments of Niger and Georgia, the former Soviet republic.
The claims that McCormick is alleged to have made for the devices, which supposedly worked by static electricity, are close to miraculous. According to an article in the Daily Mail,
He produced glossy brochures to trick potential investors into believing the devices could detect tiny amounts of explosive from three miles away, the Old Bailey heard.
He claimed they could detect explosives, drugs and ivory through walls, up to 30ft underground and 100ft underwater, jurors were told. They could also detect fluids and human beings.
Some skepticism has been expressed about these devices before. A 2009 article in the New York Times discusses the use by Iraqi forces of bomb detectors described by the US military as “useless”. According to the article, at least some parts of the Iraqi government paid considerably more than the going rate for these gadgets.
Mr. Turaihi [Inspector General of the Interior Ministry] said Iraqi officials paid up to $60,000 apiece, when the wands could be purchased for as little as $18,500. He said he had begun an investigation into the no-bid contracts with ATSC.
Jim McCormick, the head of ATSC, based in London, did not return calls for comment.
That these devices did not entirely live up the the claims made for them will probably not surprise too many readers. But the aspect of this story that I find really remarkable is the original source of the devices. It appears that they are a slightly modified, and re-badged, version of a product sold in the US as a golf ball finder.
Mr Whittam [Prosecutor Richard Whittam, QC] showed the jury pictures of a golf ball finder and one of the devices the defendant allegedly sold. He told jurors they were practically identical ‘in terms of shape, size, weight and construction’.
He said: ‘In reality, save for the stickers, they were indistinguishable. What that means is that they came from the same mould. The golf ball finder had been rebadged as an ADE 101.’
Now you may well ask yourself how experienced military and security personnel could be taken in by this sort of (seemingly) obvious scam. I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer.
However, I think the most darkly amusing part of the whole story is this: the device, in its original incarnation as a golf ball finder, was pure snake oil. It was, apparently, sold on the Web at
mnglobal.com. That site is no longer around, but the Internet Archive‘s Wayback Machine has a version of the page from 2006. The claims for its abilities in this sphere are also fairly extravagant (the UPPER CASE and spelling is from the original):
IT IS NOT COMUPTER DRIVEN, CONTAINS NO CHIPS OR ELECTRONICS. IT USES YOUR NATIVE ENERGY TO ENERGIZE ITS ACTION. PLEASE DON’T ASK US FOR THE THEORY OF ITS OPERATION THAT’S OUR BUSINESS AND THE MAIN REASON WE HAVE NOT APPLIED FOR PATENTS WHICH WOULD EXPOSE THE TECHNOLOGY.
The page also assures the prospective purchaser that the finder has “no moving parts to wear out”. And (I particularly like this), it “can be used by right or left-handed people.” After all, you wouldn’t want something that could just find right-handed golf balls.
Obviously, P.T. Barnum’s Law of Applied Economics is still in effect. I guess it’s good to know there are some things you can depend on.