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Tinkering Isn’t a Crime—But It’s Not Only Officials in Irving Acting Like it Is

DEEPLINKS BLOG
September 17, 2015

Tinkering Isn’t a Crime—But It’s Not Only Officials in Irving Acting Like it Is

It made me feel like I wasn’t human. It made me feel like a criminal.

Those are the words of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, a smart young student who is also Muslim, and who was arrested just for bringing a home made clock to school to show to his teachers.

EFF has said before, and we will say it again: innovation is not a crime. Perhaps we need to clarify that for anyone who wants to follow the example of Irving, Texas: innovation is not a crime—no matter what your religion or skin color. And it’s not a crime just because law enforcement or even teachers don’t understand technology.

The concern was, what was this thing built for? Do we take him into custody?

That’s how police spokesman James McLellan justified pulling Ahmed out of class, interrogating him, parading him through his school hallways in handcuffs, and booking him for possession of a “hoax bomb.”

You don’t have to be a technologist or hacker to understand why Ahmed soldered together a home-made gadget and brought it to school to show his engineering teacher. As his father Ahmed Elhassan Mohamed said:

 He just wants to invent good things for mankind . . .But because his name is Mohamed and because of Sept. 11, I think my son got mistreated.

Ahmed himself explains what he did in a way anyone who has ever had the pleasure of building or fixing something themselves can empathize with: “I built a clock. It was really easy. I wanted to show [my teacher] something small at first.” He did it because he could. He did it because he was proud of his work. He did it because he’s smart and curious. In other words, he did it for the same reason hackers and makers across the globe explore and create.

We are among the many who believe that what happened that what happened to Ahmed was the direct result of his skin color and name. That’s reinforced by the fact that the mayor of Irving, Beth Van Duyne, is well known for spreading outrageous fears about the so-called spread of Shariah law. We’re happy to hear that Ahmed has a lawyer (the details of his detention and interrogation without a lawyer are concerning, to say the least) and that he’s working with the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Texas.  

But there’s also more than racism here. As Marcus Wohlson at Wired put it, this was “[a] perfect shitstorm of Islamophobia and technophobia.” Those who do not understand Islam vilify and fear it. And those who do not understand technology fear it as well.

The picture the police released shows of Ahmed's clock—made of a metal box with a tiger hologram on it, a circuit board, and a battery wired to an LED that had an hour and minute digital display—was a simple, unassuming device. But when Ahmed showed it to his engineering teacher, his teacher’s response was “That’s really nice. I would advise you not to show any other teachers.” Perhaps the engineering teacher foresaw the incredibly closed-minded attitude of the police:

 We live in an age where you can’t take things like that to school. Of course we’ve seen across our country horrific things happen, so we have to err on the side of caution.

What the police spokesman is saying here is truly alarming. He is saying that fear and panic should trump common sense and innovation. He’s saying that schools should not encourage experimentation. He’s saying that we should expect to live in a world where students have to question everything they do, or face what Ahmed faced—especially if they are racial or religious minorities. 

Unfortunately, he’s not the only one. And while we hope Ahmed is determined to keep tinkering, this is perhaps not the last challenge he is likely to face. Law enforcement’s unjust targeting of Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians doesn’t appear to be subsiding. And laws restricting use of technology, intellectual property, and experimentation have become more prevalent, and have been used more often to prosecute researchers.  EFF and MIT are teaming up to present the Freedom to Innovate Summit in October to combat this trend:

The risks for students and researchers are numerous and real. Innovators are often afraid to publish their results, interact with certain technologies, or even consider investigating certain fields as a result of legal restrictions. Those who overcome the chilling effects of these laws must brace themselves for legal action, which can be costly in both time and money. Currently there are few ways to support these students, researchers, or other innovators should they be threatened with legal action.

That’s a conversation Ahmed should be a part of. Attendees at the Summit will “discuss ways universities and government can protect and promote informal innovation.” His perspective on how these challenges intersect with others innovators may face, like Islamophobia, is incredibly important. What’s more, we’ve heard Ahmed has plans to attend MIT. We hope he’ll consider taking the Freedom to Innovate Summit as a chance to visit MIT—And we’re saving a seat for him.  

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