How's your luggage handled? Bagcam watches

A mini camera placed by a frequent-flier hacker inside luggage gives a peek behind the curtains of airline security. Surprisingly, the bagcam itself has yet to raise TSA suspicion.

Lots of travelers have their checked luggage abused, but it takes a hacker to find out what really goes on behind closed doors. The first such hacker, who goes by the name "Algormor," is on the case.

In a presentation at the just-concluded hacker conference The Last HOPE, Algormor explained his method and motivation, and offered a glimpse behind the curtain.

No doubt, many can relate to his motivation, which started with one too many "Notice of Baggage Inspection" tags from the Transportation Security Administration. The last straw was when a zipper on his luggage was broken.

Algormor speaking at The Last HOPE conference

Bagcam derived from a perfect storm of circumstances:

  • Algormor travels a lot, referring to himself as an "elite" flier. Among other reasons to frequently travel, he and his girlfriend live a few thousand miles apart.
  • He's a techie, having been employed in IT for 15 years.
  • He holds a private pilot certificate.
  • His luggage has frequently been inspected and (in his estimation) abused.
  • The illogical nature of airport security provided even further motivation.

On the last point, Algormor made it very clear that he is not an expert on aviation security. Still, he referred to it as "security by facade" and compared U.S. security to Europe's which he considers less invasive yet more productive.

This being a hacker conference, Algormor went into the details of how he hacked together a video camera and his luggage. The camera he used, costing about $500, is one solid piece (no moving parts) not much bigger than a hand. The camera supports motion detection to extend the battery life, which maxes out at about 10 hours. Video was recorded at 128x128 and 15 frames per second.

Extracting the video from the camera and converting it to a standard format was a major pain. But I was surprised at how small the hole he cut in the side of his luggage needed to be.

What has he recorded so far? By his own words, nothing damning. The videos he showed were at once fascinating and boring. For the most part, they offered a bag's-eye view of life on a conveyor belt. But there were some shots of TSA employees at work, and there was the expected shot of bags being mercilessly thrown into the cargo hold of a plane. Never pack anything fragile.

Surprisingly, the bagcam itself has yet to raise suspicion. You might think the video recorder would look suspicious to the scanning machines, but it has not yet been detected. What will happen when the TSA opens a bag and finds an active camera inside? An interesting question--and one for which Algormor doesn't have an answer.

Algormor can be reached via e-mail at algormor at gmail. He expects to post the presentation to Algormor.org soon. Could this be the beginning of something big?

Eighty percent of the audience at The Last HOPE also said they found a TSA notice in their luggage. When a bag is mutilated, Algormor said the airline blames the TSA, and the TSA blames the airline.

Frustrated and violated travelers are potential bagcam creators. Maybe someday the spread of bagcams will work like a deterrent. Stranger things have happened.

There are, however, legal issues. Algormor recorded only video, not audio. He strongly advised getting legal advice before constructing your own bagcam, as the rules for surreptitious audio-video recording vary from state to state.

Video of presentations at The Last HOPE conference will be available in the future. Exactly how, when, and where, I don't know, but watch the conference Web site and Hackerdvds.com.

See a summary of all my Defensive Computing postings.

About the author

    Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

    He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.

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