What if the laptop ban is imposed on all flights?

Dan Gillmor suggests various things you can do if the Trump administration decides to implement a plan where laptops are banned from carry on luggage on all flights and that may be extended to tablets and cameras as well. One of the things that needs to be overcome is the fact that as soon as your laptop leaves your possession, it can be damaged and its contents vulnerable to theft.

So what should you do in the event of wider ban on cabin electronics? I asked some security experts for advice. “There is no good advice,” says one of them, Bruce Schneier. “It’s just crazy. Truly crazy.”

But some options for travelers may a bit less bad than others.

Let’s start, first, with the assumption that the government won’t impose an outright ban of laptops and larger electronics on all flights — in carry-ons and checked luggage — to and from the United States. (If it did, the ban would almost certainly be extended to all domestic flights, as well.) That would be a recipe for havoc on an epic scale. So as long as electronics can still be stowed in checked luggage, which is more than bad enough, the priority will be to discourage tampering and mitigate the risks associated with theft.

He proceeds to provide various suggestions. Cory Doctorow suggests some other things that you can do to ensure that your laptop has not been tampered with.

Dan misses a couple tricks: first, you could use a flush-sitting USB drive as your bootable disk rather than a sticky-outie one that’s easy to knock out. Second, you could remove your hard-drive prior to takeoff and fly with it in your carry-on to prevent data-theft and give you a bootable option when you land, even if your laptop is smashed or stolen (just buy another machine and swap in the drive). This works very well with most modern GNU/Linuxes, which are graceful about handling being booted into a new hardware environment (I’ve done this while touring, after dumping a cup of coffee in my machine and then swapping over to a different model I was able to buy in a computer store).

For the very paranoid: remove your USB ports (or fill them with superglue). Put tamper-evident tape over the screws on your laptop after you remove your laptop (or, if you’ve got 15 minutes, paint over them with glitter nailpolish and take photos of the glitter patterns after it hardens, then compare again before you put your drive back into your machine).

Needless to say, all these are all a major pain to implement. For business travellers, I foresee a dramatic rise in online meetings and presentations to avoid flying, especially if there is a ban on laptops anywhere on a plane, including the hold.


  1. AndrewD says

    I can see several ways round the ban, all of which involve not taking a laptop with you.

    1 If you are visiting an overseas site of your company, they should have access to the companies information systems, so use their computers to access your work.

    2 If traveling to a customer, buy a cheap Chrome-book on arrival and access your data via Google or something similar. Then dump the chrome-book on departure(it doesn’t need to be a Chrome-book any laptop would do if bought at the destination)

    3 Hotels could rent out laptops to guests-this is better for leisure travellers-again using Google.

    4 Ship a sealed brand new computer from a supplier(who would fit any specialised software) via fedex for collection on arrival.

  2. KG says

    For business travellers, I foresee a dramatic rise in online meetings and presentations to avoid flying, especially if there is a ban on laptops anywhere on a plane, including the hold.

    Well, that would be an excellent result! I’m all in favour of this policy being introduced a.s.a.p!

  3. says

    There are some countries I travel to, where I just carry an elementary school composition book and some pens. The US is becoming one of those.

    I wonder if Fedex cooked up this idea.

    It might be funny to check a laptop with a hard drive of random data. Uh, maybe not.

  4. says

    Anyone who is not mounting all their data in encrypted volumes is a fool. The bell tolls for thee and has been tolling louder and louder since 2001.

  5. Mano Singham says


    I think that when using other people’s computers you run the risk of your passwords being accessed.

  6. says

    How about this? For every flight, there are two planes. One for the passengers who board naked and are placed into individual safety cocoons, and the other an unmanned drone that carries all clothing and other items.

    I think I just solved the problem.

  7. says

    Tabby Lavalamp@#6:
    How about this? For every flight, there are two planes.

    You mean FEDEX?

    In my 2002 flop of a book on homeland security, I suggested that airlines not allow any carry on luggage aside from what you can hold in one hand, and that everyone simply ship things to hotels and airports in advance of their trips. I was trying to be funny and I failed badly.

    By the way, another option I’ve seen done: stage all your stuff out in an AWS instance, then access the instance from a guest terminal or wipeable device using RDP or VNC. That doesn’t work if you’re behind the “great firewall of China” though (which is why the GFWOC works the way it does)

    Hmmmm… we have the GFWOC and the Great Network Sniffer Of America (GNSOA)

  8. lanir says

    There are problems with some of these workarounds.

    Shipping: Wasn’t there a government program to intercept packages with electronics and tamper with them before sending them on?
    Cloud: Uh… cloud is less under your control than if you ship your stuff. You’d have to encrypt your data and then copy it locally before decrypting before it would be remotely secure.
    Loaner Laptops: I can almost guarantee the company you got these from would care less about your security than you do. It would be looked at as a marketing gimmick and security would be even less of a consideration than what font to use when announcing it.
    Teleconferencing: Gets around the problems in the environments above but introduces a whole slew of new openings for security and inappropriate surveillance issues.

    On another note, has anyone noticed how we keep hearing that the president has this huge right to privacy but the general public had better reveal all just to board a plane? At what point do the requirements to board a commercial flight intersect with the information one is required to reveal to be the guest of honor on airforce one?

  9. hyphenman says

    Good morning all,

    Here’s a tip for the truly paranoid:

    1. Go to your local toy store and buy an Airsoft pistol of your choosing.
    2. Remove the orange (toy) tip, if installed, from the pistol.
    3. Go to your local gun shop and buy a lockable carry case suitable for your Airsoft pistol.
    4. When you pack your checked baggage place the locked case in your luggage.
    5. When you check in, tell the nice person behind the counter than you have an unloaded pistol (no need to say it’s a toy) without ammunition, in a locked case in your luggage. I haven’t checked for a few years, but post 9/11 this was still perfectly legal.
    6. What happens next is important. The nice person behind the counter will place special tags and tape on your luggage to prevent ANY tampering (and possible theft) of the contents--i.e. the Airsoft pistol--of your luggage.

    There is, of course, an initial cost, but if you want to ensure the contents, this is the way to go. Sadly, state and federal law enforcement can, if they wish, ignore the tape and tags and riffle through you luggage using whatever justification they wish.

    Gawd, I’m glad I don’t fly anymore.


    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

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