The laptop ban puzzle


The US has banned the bringing of laptop computers into the cabins of aircraft arriving in the US from Turkey, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and requires that they be placed in checked luggage. There were reports that the ban may be expanded to include flights arriving from Europe as well but after initially rejecting that plan, just yesterday, the head of the Department of Homeland Security John Kelly said that they were considering extending the ban to all flights entering and leaving the US, irrespective of the other country.

As I understand it, these moves are being considered in the wake of reports that terrorists have acquired the ability to insert explosives into the battery compartment of laptops and that these are hard to detect. That is indeed alarming. But surely if that is the case, then shouldn’t the laptop ban cover all flights domestic and international, and even include checked luggage? After all, isn’t an explosion in the cargo hold as dangerous as one in the passenger cabin? One suggested explanation for the exclusion only from carry-on luggage is that checked luggage undergoes more powerful radiation checks.

Banning laptops on domestic US flights, even on just carry-on luggage, would cause a huge outcry. Business travelers especially do not check their luggage and use their computers on flights. They will not be happy with such a restriction.

Can anyone think of a rationale for restricting the scope of the ban in narrow ways if there is a real threat that bombs can be placed in laptop battery compartments? As yet, I have not heard of any plausible reason.

Comments

  1. says

    Can anyone think of a rationale for restricting the scope of the ban in narrow ways if there is a real threat that bombs can be placed in laptop battery compartments?

    There are probably intercepts regarding someone researching how to do it, or possibly even beginning assembling a loaded laptop. Then, when the first ban went in, there may have been more intercepts along the lines of “now we need to get the parts to London and then we can make the bomb there.”

    It sounds like they are chasing a credible threat-model or are being trolled (imagine the freakout you could cause if you knew you were being watched and decided to appear to be making a laptop bomb that you appeared to be planning to ship by boat to an accomplice in London) One of the reasons ISIS is causing so much trouble for the US and its allies is because they’re actually not stupid and actually have pretty good trade-craft, including doing disinformation ops. Since the US surveillance state has stretched its antennae so far and wide, and made them so sensitive, it is easier to disinform or overload.

    Bombs like the one that brought down the Russian plane (the schweppes bomb) are not extremely powerful; they need to be planted near someplace where they are going to do catastrophic damage (e.g.: near the wing, which is full of fuel) – a bomb in checked luggage is going to be unpredictably located, which means it’d have to be a lot more powerful to work, which means larger, and more likely to show up in the nitrate-sniffers or X-ray scanners.

    Just wait for the shitstorm when some of the ATGM that they’re handing out like candy in Syria come home to Europe. As a frequent flier, I don’t like any of this, not one little bit.

  2. says

    They will not be happy with such a restriction.

    They’ll be even less happy if 400 of them wind up in flaming chunks all over Boston.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    I thought they had heard of this prospect, and (thought they) guarded against it, when years ago TSA started demanding travelers boot up their laptops to prove they had working batteries (& motherboards).

    Has the world-renowned ISIS Battery Miniaturization Engineering Division found a way to run a laptop for a few minutes and bust open a fuselage, all in a few cubic inches? Elon Musk may have to open a Tesla hiring office in Syria.

  4. Mano Singham says

    I have never been asked to boot up my laptop. Was this policy ever implemented or just considered?

  5. Chiroptera says

    Mano Singham, #4:

    I vaguely recall having had to boot up my laptop once at airport security. It must have been the first time I ever traveled with one, maybe 2009?

    I’ve been surprised that I’ve never had to do it again after that.

    Now I forgot all about it until reading these comments.

  6. says

    Mano Singham@#4:
    Was this policy ever implemented or just considered?

    It’s a pretty old thing; they were actually doing it pre-9/11, post Lockerbie, for a while.

    I remember hating it because in those days I ran BSDi on my laptop, and it ate the batteries up if I had to do file system checks. I actually thought it was a reasonable concern because – do you remember laptops in those days? You could fit a small child inside one of those things.

  7. DonDueed says

    The smaller size of laptops today is one factor. The other is universal adoption of Xray scanning of all carryon items. Until now, that was enough to ensure that no explosive of concern could be concealed in a laptop.
    I’m not sure what has changed. Perhaps there have been new formulations of explosives that mimic the appearance of a laptop battery on the scanners? Or are simply more powerful?
    I suppose it’s the usual back-and-forth as the bad guys try to outsmart the scanner technology, and the scanners adapt to the latest threat. It may just be that the bad guys have the edge at the moment.

  8. says

    DonDueed@#7:
    I’m not sure what has changed. Perhaps there have been new formulations of explosives that mimic the appearance of a laptop battery on the scanners? Or are simply more powerful?

    More powerful explosives are pretty exotic to produce (dissolving RDX in concentrated nitric acid, etc) and are generally avoided by terrorists. Commercial explosives are manufactured with limited lifespan so that they won’t find their way into the wrong places over the years.

    I think it’s a legitimate concern. 200g of PETN is about the size of a laptop battery and, if it was shaped properly, it’d make a hole in a pressure hull. For that sort of thing someone would have to hold it in the right place.. The problem with all this stuff is it’s always obvious in hindsight.

  9. komarov says

    Re: Marcus Ranum (#1):

    Bombs like the one that brought down the Russian plane (the schweppes bomb) are not extremely powerful; they need to be planted near someplace where they are going to do catastrophic damage (e.g.: near the wing, which is full of fuel) – a bomb in checked luggage is going to be unpredictably located, which means it’d have to be a lot more powerful to work, which means larger, and more likely to show up in the nitrate-sniffers or X-ray scanners.

    Why assume the plane has to crash in order for the plot to be ‘successful’? An explosive in the cargo hold could still cause disruptions on a huge scale even if the plane still landed safely. Possible outcomes might be:

    1) It is quickly realised this was an actual bomb still resulting in security panic.
    2) It is believed to be accidental, blame is shifted on some device, appliance or other ‘third party item’, causing safety panic
    3) It is blamed on the aircraft and can, in extreme cases, result in entire fleets being grounded, resulting in economic chaos

    Eventually an investigation would probably still figure out that it was an attack, so (2) and (3) would transform into (1) before long. While some people might think, ‘Whew, close call’, the defining reaction would still be, ‘Bomb on an airplane!!’ Safe landings won’t make much of a difference if this sort of thing kept on happening.

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