Extending the Airplane Laptop Ban

The Department of Homeland Security is rumored to be considering extending the current travel ban on large electronics for Middle Eastern flights to European ones as well. The likely reaction of airlines will be to implement new traveler programs, effectively allowing wealthier and more frequent fliers to bring their computers with them. This will only exacerbate the divide between the haves and the have-nots -- all without making us any safer.

In March, both the United States and the United Kingdom required that passengers from 10 Muslim countries give up their laptop computers and larger tablets, and put them in checked baggage. The new measure was based on reports that terrorists would try to smuggle bombs onto planes concealed in these larger electronic devices.

The security measure made no sense for two reasons. First, moving these computers into the baggage holds doesn't keep them off planes. Yes, it is easier to detonate a bomb that's in your hands than to remotely trigger it in the cargo hold. But it's also more effective to screen laptops at security checkpoints than it is to place them in checked baggage. TSA already does this kind of screening randomly and occasionally: making passengers turn laptops on to ensure that they're functional computers and not just bomb-filled cases, and running chemical tests on their surface to detect explosive material.

And, two, banning laptops on selected flights just forces terrorists to buy more roundabout itineraries. It doesn't take much creativity to fly Doha-Amsterdam-New York instead of direct. Adding Amsterdam to the list of affected airports makes the terrorist add yet another itinerary change; it doesn't remove the threat.

Which brings up another question: If this is truly a threat, why aren't domestic flights included in this ban? Remember that anyone boarding a plane to the United States from these Muslim countries has already received a visa to enter the country. This isn't perfect security -- the infamous underwear bomber had a visa, after all -- but anyone who could detonate a laptop bomb on his international flight could do it on his domestic connection.

I don't have access to classified intelligence, and I can't comment on whether explosive-filled laptops are truly a threat. But, if they are, TSA can set up additional security screenings at the gates of US-bound flights worldwide and screen every laptop coming onto the plane. It wouldn't be the first time we've had additional security screening at the gate. And they should require all laptops to go through this screening, prohibiting them from being stashed in checked baggage.

This measure is nothing more than security theater against what appears to be a movie-plot threat.

Banishing laptops to the cargo holds brings with it a host of other threats. Passengers run the risk of their electronics being stolen from their checked baggage -- something that has happened in the past. And, depending on the country, passengers also have to worry about border control officials intercepting checked laptops and making copies of what's on their hard drives.

Safety is another concern. We're already worried about large lithium-ion batteries catching fire in airplane baggage holds; adding a few hundred of these devices will considerably exacerbate the risk. Both FedEx and UPS no longer accept bulk shipments of these batteries after two jets crashed in 2010 and 2011 due to combustion.

Of course, passengers will rebel against this rule. Having access to a computer on these long transatlantic flights is a must for many travelers, especially the high-revenue business-class travelers. They also won't accept the delays and confusion this rule will cause as it's rolled out. Unhappy passengers fly less, or fly other routes on other airlines without these restrictions.

I don't know how many passengers are choosing to fly to the Middle East via Toronto to avoid the current laptop ban, but I suspect there may be some. If Europe is included in the new ban, many more may consider adding Canada to their itineraries, as well as choosing European hubs that remain unaffected.

As passengers voice their disapproval with their wallets, airlines will rebel. Already Emirates has a program to loan laptops to their premium travelers. I can imagine US airlines doing the same, although probably for an extra fee. We might learn how to make this work: keeping our data in the cloud or on portable memory sticks and using unfamiliar computers for the length of the flight.

A more likely response will be comparable to what happened after the US increased passenger screening post-9/11. In the months and years that followed, we saw different ways for high-revenue travelers to avoid the lines: faster first-class lanes, and then the extra-cost trusted traveler programs that allow people to bypass the long lines, keep their shoes on their feet and leave their laptops and liquids in their bags. It's a bad security idea, but it keeps both frequent fliers and airlines happy. It would be just another step to allow these people to keep their electronics with them on their flight.

The problem with this response is that it solves the problem for frequent fliers, while leaving everyone else to suffer. This is already the case; those of us enrolled in a trusted traveler program forget what it's like to go through "normal" security screening. And since frequent fliers -- likely to be more wealthy -- no longer see the problem, they don't have any incentive to fix it.

Dividing security checks into haves and have-nots is bad social policy, and we should actively fight any expansion of it. If the TSA implements this security procedure, it should implement it for every flight. And there should be no exceptions. Force every politically connected flier, from members of Congress to the lobbyists that influence them, to do without their laptops on planes. Let the TSA explain to them why they can't work on their flights to and from D.C.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

EDITED TO ADD: US officials are backing down.

Posted on May 22, 2017 at 6:06 AM • 48 Comments


Brent LongboroughMay 22, 2017 6:22 AM

Bruce, you nailed it once again.

Just one suggestion: isn't it time to replace the identifier "Security Theatre" with "Security Circus"? I.e. a similar set of illusions, but with (possibly Evli) Clowns?

Mervyn BickerdykeMay 22, 2017 6:25 AM

I don't have access to classified intelligence, and I can't comment on whether explosive-filled laptops are truly a threat. But, if they are, TSA can set up additional security screenings at the gates of US-bound flights worldwide and screen every laptop coming onto the plane.

If they are a thread, that information should be shared internationally so that other countries also can set up necessary additional screenings.

It's not like other countries planes would be immune to exploding laptops.

This is a threat or it isn't. Airline or destination should make as little difference as money should. (and mentioned by Bruce)

XavierMay 22, 2017 6:52 AM

And, depending on the country, passengers also have to worry about border control officials intercepting checked laptops and making copies of what's on their hard drives.

I wonder if this is not the goal altogether : to be able to "borrow" laptop en route to copy/infect them.

Next time I have to fly to the US, I will bring neither computer or phone and get both at the office. Just need to buy a small music player to replace my phone and some books to have something to do at the airport waiting for a miserable experience.

AlexMay 22, 2017 6:52 AM

News reports claimed that the sensitive intelligence President Trump shared with the Russians was about plans to put explosives in laptops and tablets.

That doesn't impact the arguments that Bruce made about all of the ways attackers could get around the proposed restrictions, but it does show that there is something real that officials are trying to respond to.

In addition, I think about what would happen if we were hit by a major terror attack now, in this political climate. Again, that doesn't diminish the arguments that Bruce made, but it does remind us that the stakes are very high.

Paul SSMay 22, 2017 7:01 AM

I left Las Vegas in early March. TSA had everyone (TSA Pre-check included) going through the same line. In addition to the laptop removal, everyone had to remove their tablets (large phones, iPads, Kindles, etc.) and scan them separately. One of the agents mentioned that there was a new threat and that they were beta testing the new procedures and expected them in all US airports at some point.

It would be interesting to find out why they are banning them on the International flights as opposed to forcing them to be scanned separately, which as you point out, makes more sense.

TSMay 22, 2017 7:18 AM

Official: Can you turn the laptop on?
(due to odd showings on the scanner)
Shady: Sure,. *shows laptop booting, mouse moving, starting ms word*
Official: Ok, move along.

Meanwhile, the laptop wasn't an actual laptop.
It was a stripped HP/compaq, with the internals replaced with a small raspberry pi, windows 10 installed, and all the spare space replaced with whatever you like.

Just turning a laptop on or off nowadays is not enough.
Hence, holding it in your hands, or banning it to the cargo wouldn't be enough either.
Any timed, or wifi/bluetooth controlled device would just as easily be a threat.

It'll take more work surely, but heck, if you can bring bottles of water onto the airplane (sold after customs),. so many things are possible.

Next thing you know we'll be doing forced background checks on any person flying into or out of the USA/Eu...

TSMay 22, 2017 7:23 AM

Personally i'd say ban laptops off commercial flights.
If you're rich enough, you either got your own plane, or the location you are traveling to has a loan model.
Or ship a laptop over ahead of time.
Batteries must/should be placed separately in a fireproof / special container.

Ipads / tablet pcs should be possible just find as well - laptops are getting smaller and smaller over time, and can hook up with a bluetooth keyboard to allow on board working.

Just,.. no note 7

TomMay 22, 2017 7:23 AM

Whenever I have flown out of Z├╝rich to Tel Aviv on El Al they have always had a special scanner for lap tops in the waiting room. No ban necessary.

MindrakerMay 22, 2017 7:33 AM

Tel Aviv, yeah. Security over there is not bullshit like over here. But you're dealing with a lot fewer flights and a lot fewer passengers.

BardiMay 22, 2017 7:44 AM

"the sensitive intelligence President Trump shared with the Russians was about plans to put explosives in laptops and tablets."


"but it does show that there is something real that officials are trying to respond to."

Using an example concerning Trump as a way to determine whether something is real or not is like watching WWE and thinking the well-scripted show is an honest competition.

BTW, I wonder if the Israeli contact Trump burned is still alive.

Nigel WhalenMay 22, 2017 7:44 AM

We MUST do this because if we don't it would be socialism and the terrorists will have won. Done. Argument won. NEXT....!

ScottMay 22, 2017 7:55 AM

How likely do you think the Evil Maid attack is on computers placed in the hold?

Said another way, what is the increased likelihood of a keylogger being installed on an unattended laptop in an airplane cargo spaces versus the likelihood of a keylogger installed on an unattended laptop in a hotel?

NickMay 22, 2017 8:26 AM

Well re: the Evil Maid attack, I don't leave my laptop in hotel rooms when I travel for business.

MarkMay 22, 2017 8:31 AM

Most of your points are valid. However, looking at the history of airliner bombings, attempted bombings, and known bombing plots, all but two of them over the last 25 years have been cabin-based bombing plans or attempts, with the exception of the Egypt to Russia Metrojet Flight 9268, which is believed to be a cargo hold bomb (Metrojet 9268 departed an airport with poor security), and the cargo airline/package (toner cartridge) plot.

My guess is these terrorist organizations believe a small, passenger activated bomb has a higher success rate than a suitcase based bomb. Why do they believe that, given the difficulty of making a bomb that can be smuggled through security? My guess is there are security measures against suitcase bombs which are stronger than we believe exist.

But the risk is we socially engineer ourselves into a weakness. If today our security is concerned with laptops in checked luggage, and investigates them, if suddenly there are hundreds of laptops in checked luggage, it will not investigate them. This opens an avenue for terrorists to develop a suitcase bomb disguised as a laptop.

Regarding trusted traveler programs, those seem riddled with holes. When I upgraded me and my wife to more legroom economy for an international trip, we got moved to the TSA Pre line. Also non-US nationals (using foreign passports) were in the TSA Pre line. This meant no naked scanner, and instead a simple metal detector for personal scanning. If anyone buying an extra legroom economy or business class seat gets to bypass stronger security, it is pointless.

Auld KrankMay 22, 2017 8:53 AM

The idea of wealthier passengers permitted to carry large devices, for a fee no doubt, while the poor are banned fits my view air flight is reverting to it's roots when only the very most wealthy could or would fly.

If indeed criminals have a plan to use large devices for bombs then the world needs to find and eliminate those criminals and their associates. Also, profile screening would help, if creating such a crimianl profile is possible. I certainly think it is.

I would think any device screening would focus on some certain part or parts that standout as an explosive device. For example, a certain shaped spring, connector, etc.

Meanwhile, as I adjust my tinfoil hat, forcing devices in the baggage department creates a fine opportunity for theft, but also diversion to government specialists who can download hard drive data, add loggers and assorted trackers or just disappear them.

Frankly, I would be willing to refuse travel to places harboring criminals and/or criminal organizations altogether. Yes, I am saying lay siege to those places and people until they shape up.

Or of course, we can just harass the bejesus out of the 99.9% innocent and honest travelers.

TSMay 22, 2017 8:57 AM

@Scott - i'd say the luggage loading/unloading team is more likely than the airplane hold.

Clive RobinsonMay 22, 2017 9:06 AM

@ Bruce,

This measure is nothing more than security theater against what appears to be a movie-plot threat.

I think that may be the excuse.

As you note there are various classes of travelers from those with private jets down to what is best described as "cattle class".

For airlines there is actually little or no difference in cost of flying a passengers "mass" thus the profit has to be sought elsewhere. There is a truism about "first class" fares in that they are only set as high as they are to make the ludicrously priced "business class" fares look reasonable. Comparing what you get in business -v- economy shows relatively little difference[1] in terms of actual "real value" compared to massive price hike.

Thus we need to consider the points of "evil maid" attacks rather more than we do terrorism. But we also realy need to consider the airline buy-in to "the status game" which is what the frequent flyer / loyalty rip-offs are all about. Which includes the "upgrade game" which can go badly wrong when airlines muck it up as we recently got to find out about with airport rent-a-goon security staff throwing a passenger of the plane for no good reason.

What this laptop ban will do as it gets erroded by various pre-register security bypassing is widen the status gap of passengers, so that mear possesion of a laptop on a flight will grant a highly visable status symbol. This will be a gold mine for airlines and others to profit by.

Thus I would expect quite a lot of buy-in from the airlines for this mainly pointless excercise.

Oh one last point I think most readers here and most business travelers could have worked out,

1, It's terrorist intel related.
2, What area / actors it arose from.
3, That all Governments could work that out.
4, That there was also a significant US political bias involved from previous failed/chalenged attempts.

Thus all the noise about President Trump telling the Russian delegation was contrary to what many got on their high horses about was merely a courtesy, not a handing over of state secrets etc etc etc. With all the "pointless rhetoric" bouncing around in "their vacuous heads" of the complainers. I for one just wish they would "just get over themselves", "grow up" and apply their painfully obvious limited capacities to the job they are actually paid to do by the tax payers...

[1] Before people talk about bigger seats / legroom, you need to consider that most western businessmen are actually physically bigger --as stature gets you promotion faster than it's lack-- depending on which Western nation hight wise they are between 10 and 15 percent taller with normall body shape giving similar width issues. I for instance could not get into British Airways seats due to the stupid "head wings" on seats, with similar problems on other airlines. Thus to get businessmen to actually fly the seats and legroom actually have to pe commensurately larger.

Jack BootheMay 22, 2017 9:42 AM

A couple of points. First, the screening of checked baggage at most airports is done by systems akin to CAT scans and MRIs. Screening of checked baggage is done by X-rays. If you are looking for a tumor in you body what do you want an MRI or an X-ray? Second, this could be a windfall of profits for the airline industry if the ban is extended to all flights as it surely will be. Now everyone will have to pay the high checked luggage fees even if they are going on a business day trip (e.g., NYC to DC and back) because you will have to store your laptop as checked baggage.

e8271fa299a2332c6c40c1953b798b634b0812bc535965ce0a50331e48e68c83May 22, 2017 9:49 AM

Why aren't laptops or laptop batteries required to go in a fireproof container or special hold in the baggage compartment, if they have led to baggage hold fires before? Also, why is there oxygen in the baggage hold?

albertMay 22, 2017 10:02 AM

Lithium batteries will burn in a vacuum.
Because they are pressurized (and heated) (for sensitive cargo).
. .. . .. --- ....

bigmacbearMay 22, 2017 10:18 AM

@e..., @albert: Sensitive cargo includes live animals. Pets too large to fit in a carrier under a seat go in the baggage hold. A TSO (TSA Officer) of my acquaintance once was assigned the Oversize Baggage checkpoint, which he referred to as "puppies and guns".

JohnMay 22, 2017 10:48 AM

I wonder what politicians will say when the number of laptops stolen by TSA rises exponentially as a result. Yes, I know these are for international inbound flights but many involve US transit (e.g. Vancouver to Boston via Seattle) which presents TSA a prime opportunity for theft. I have been a victim of theft/damage from TSA opening my luggage and absolutely hate traveling to the US by air (I'm from Canada). It'll be funny if one of the victims ends up being a government agent with classified info on the missing laptop.

Also, bombs in the luggage hold can do a lot of damage. Remember Pan Am 103 aka the Lockerbie bombing? That bomb was the size of a small consumer radio and it punched a hole in the fuselage of a 747, causing rapid decompression that ripped the plane apart.

albertMay 22, 2017 10:52 AM

@Clive, etc.

Money can always motivate. If that's the bottom line, then I can acknowledge it, but never accept it.

Trump/Russia thingy: Tiresome BS. Does anyone with half a brain seriously think that Trump was giving away secrets to the Russians? What can the US tell Russia, China, etc. that they don't already know?

Trump: We have evidence of bombs in laptops!
Putin: Really? That never occurred to us. Thanks!

Does all this mean that we waited for someone to try putting a bomb in a laptop before ramping up security?

What's the best way to divert attention from non-airline targets? Target the airlines!

What's the best way to divert attention from laptop bombs? targets? Target the laptops!

In the past decades, the airline industry has successfully fought the FAA, at great loss of life. Now they are fighting the TSA.

. .. . .. --- ....

QnJ1Y2UMay 22, 2017 11:08 AM

Shaped charges.

Can't find where I read it, but the argument was that someone had designed a shaped charge for a laptop. The device could then be placed against the inside wall of the fuselage and detonated. The same explosive in a cargo hold wouldn't do as much damage.

There is something to this threat - see the 2004 Mythbusters episode where they use a shaped charge to take out much of an airplane wall. But, that doesn't make these proposed responses very useful. As noted above, there are a lot of ways around the various bans, and the dangers from batteries in the cargo hold are very real.

And if this really is the issue, keeping the basis a secret is even worse. Passengers need to know that someone holding their laptop against the wall of the airplane is not just weird, but actually dangerous.

albertMay 22, 2017 12:16 PM

As I recall, the 'radio' was actually thought to be (what we call in the USA) a "boom box"*. Sorry.

I forgot about animals. It must be terrifying for them. Now that I think about it, animals can be trained to do amazingly complex tasks.....

It's not necessary to physically take down the aircraft. There are so many sensitive areas that require little effort to subvert. (Mythbusters was a great show.)

* they can be quite large.
. .. . .. --- ....

Dr. HapgoodMay 22, 2017 12:34 PM

There's another troubling aspect to this security theatre. It's (unintentionally?) telling terrorists they can easily inflict serious damage to United States without the risk and expense of completing an actual plot. They need merely create a sufficiently plausible threat of a plot involving items that travelers commonly carry, and let the TSA inflict the actual damage in its inimitable fashion.

Today it's laptops. But tomorrow the TSA might ban tablets, cameras, or even smartphones. And the next day, perhaps even food and arbitrary clothing items. Since just about anything can be a threat, the potential for burdening travel and travelers is unlimited. Given the way the TSA reacts to threats, all it would take is a plot that is remotely plausible, even if the plotter's only intent is to provoke the TSA into a reaction that wastes even more time and money for travelers.

Admittedly, this approach lacks the awe-inspiring spectacle of a demolished skyscraper or a plane full of infidels falling from the sky. But if the goal is to damage the American economy, there's probably nothing more effective than a series of false plots sufficiently plausible to provoke the TSA into doing the damage. The TSA, of course, have no idea that their approach to "security" actually encourages terrorists by magnifying the impact of even unsuccessful plots.

keinerMay 22, 2017 12:58 PM


"Now that I think about it, animals can be trained to do amazingly complex tasks....."

...especially after injection of an adequate dose of a benzodiazepine... ;-)

Clive RobinsonMay 22, 2017 1:29 PM

@ QnJ1Y2U,

Can't find where I read it, but the argument was that someone had designed a shaped charge for a laptop.

You can look up the basic maths or work it out with a piece of graphpaper, but simple shaped charges are generaly made by indenting an explosive such that as the explosive goes high order the Forces combine as a vector. Often this indentation will be lined with an appropriate metal that becomes part of the plasma (and will kind of act in the way you would like from a Statwars Light saber ;-)

The result is a bolt of molten metal that will cut through plate steel/armor to quite a depth. However the thickness of an ordinary laptop would not give much in the way depth to form the plasma into an effective form.

However there are other ways to achive foucusing action, with explosive lenses. Developed for the WWII nuclear implosion bomb you use two --or more-- diferent types of explosive with different burn rates. You in effect turn a convex wave originating from a detonator into a concave one. If you combine that with other lense techniques --think of the compact lenses originally developed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel for lighthouses-- you might be able to make a flat focused charge.

But I suspect the skills required are a little beyond most people.

albertMay 22, 2017 4:08 PM

@Clive, @Qnj,
Long, thin, shaped charges are use in building demolition for cutting steel beams. Let's see, what else is long and thin?

IIRC, they have a V-shaped metal piece that runs the length of the device, but the point of the V faces the charge, which seem counter-intuitive. Remember, physically destroying the plane isn't the point; it's damaging the control systems and let gravity do the rest.

@Dr. Hapgood,
Indeed. The threat of terrorism is better than actual terrorism. It's cheaper, less complicated, and doesn't induce knee-jerk wars. There's a whole system based on this: "Soft fascism". Troublemakers are marginalized, ridiculed, or die in accidents. Fear become inconvenience. Propaganda consists of mostly facts, with implications instead of lies. And so on.

I'm looking for a source of metal-free USB sticks.


. .. . .. --- ....

Clive RobinsonMay 22, 2017 6:33 PM

@ Albert,

IIRC, they have a V-shaped metal piece that runs the length of the device, but the point of the V faces the charge

Yup they are cutting charges, they are designed to have a different profile to the traditional conical shaped charge. They are designed to work "in direct contact" and the metal core be a lot less energised than the cone of copper turned into plasma of the traditional conical charge that is often three to five cone hights away from the target piece. The profile on a cutting charge is such that various secondary effects are minimized. That is you want to cut the beam, but not have bits of it flying around doing other damage, one of which would be metal flakes spining around like bullets etc

Comparing a cutting charge with the traditional conical shaped charge is kind of like comparing a saw and a drill.

The last time I got involved with this sort of thing was more than a couple of decades ago and I kind of snoozed through that part of the lectures as I was realy only interested in what would be needed to design a firing circuit for the range / types of detonators. Turns out that in practice they almost always use the same type of detonator (No8 from the likes of Nobel) because it works with most of the types of explosive they use and the timing criteria for demolition is not as critical as some applications.

KorayMay 22, 2017 6:52 PM

There's some rumor on the Internet that the ban is a reaction to the theft of an X-ray device somewhere in the Middle East. The fear is that the terrorists are now experimenting with methods of smuggling explosives past this device in their possession: https://professional-troublemaker.com/2017/05/22/exclusive-laptop-ban-reaction-to-x-ray-equipment-stolen-by-isis/

If this is true, as Dr. Hapgood wrote above, the very act of stealing the device is enough to harm air travel even if they fail to find a weakness in it.

PeterMay 22, 2017 8:29 PM

One consequence of the ban is likely to be a reduction in the number of people flying to/from those countries. As Bruce points out this will not be a major problem for determined attackers but it will impact the go/stay decision of the general business traveler.
Given the attitudes of the current government, it is possible (but, I think not probable) that this consequence is intentional.

VMay 22, 2017 10:14 PM

A side effect may be a reduction in the number of devices customs agents can force passengers to unlock. Certainly someone traveling to a remote branch of corporation xyz could arrange a duplicate laptop ready upon arrival - tunnel the active files through the company network.

I predict demands for better in flight movies and more stiff drinks. If you can't work on that report you might as well take some "me" time.

tyrMay 22, 2017 10:25 PM


A lot of shape charge design is very similar
to designing antenna patterns for transmission.

Most have an inherent problem in that the
shape you use and the charge backing have
a distinct shape. Whether TSA folk can
reliably ID it is another unanswered problem.

You can crank one out in your garage but
making one that can get by chemical sniffers
and vigilant X-ray detectors exceeds that
kind of homemade tech.

The trouble with living in an industrialized
society is that there is enough material in
legitimate use to create far too many bad
possibilities. Short of going back to hunter
gatherer levels of tech there won't be any
absolute safety.

I have never been happy about the trends in
global society that are trying to shift the
gaussian demographics for bad actions away
from the fringe tail back towards the middle.
It wouldn't take much to create total havoc
in any country once those on the edge of the
curve realize their society has lost the mandate
of heaven. The idea that the elite could escape
this by moving to an island or outer space is
pure horse manure. Everybodys eggs are in the
same basket.

Clive RobinsonMay 23, 2017 5:45 AM

@ tyr,

A lot of shape charge design is very similar to designing antenna patterns for transmission.

Hence my comment about using graphpaper. But due to the power of PCs both the antenna and hydrocode techniques have become a lot rasier to use, to the point that little formal education is required.

But due to increasing numbers of bands and their increasing bandwidths the design of mobile communications antennas has jumped to using fractal design techniques. This leaves the question of what would happen if somebody applied the same idea to explosives. I suspect that work along those lines has already started with nukes, thus giving more design freedom in the "physics package" as some like to call it.

It also would get around the "distinct shape" problem. Though terrorists have got around the Chemical Agent Monitor (CAM) issue in the past by using much less stable primary explosives rather than the more stable explosives that are often based around nitrates. There was also the problem of "false positives" with CAMs detecting nitrates, nitrates popup all over the place from cured meat, the nitrocellulose compounds used as varnishes for card/paper, plastics used for cuttlery handles, piano keys, film stock, etc etc. Thus the sensitivity of the CAM had to be consequently altered.

The thing is if the likes of the TSA have entered a "cat and mouse" game it will become just like the old ECM / ECCM / ECCCM game which has a similar eveloutionary path to the sabertooth tiger... What will happen is at some point one side will jump out onto a different path...

On of which the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation has been warning about for some time which is biological weapons.

The main problem with non kinetic weapons has always been the delivery mechanism, and as far as I'm aware the only attempt by terrorists in the western world to use nerve agents was the sarin attack in Tokyo by a very well funded death cult, that had also tried biological weapons as well and it was not the making but delivery of the weapons they failed at.

Spring forward to 2017 and by far the biggest biological killer still is Malaria with millions a year succumbing to it. Drug companies have put little effort into it compared to other much rarer diseases because it's mainly not a "western affliction" however as heat maps of the disease shows climate change is effecting it's range...

Thus research is starting to turn to investigate it more thoroughly. When you view the problem it has three parts infected humans, the infecting parasite and the mosquito which is a rather effective delivery mechanism. We see similar models with "bluetongue" in cattle which is spreading relentlessly north through Europe[1] again due in part to climate change.

In both cases the delivery mechanism is a biological one of a blood sucking mosquito or midge that can fly significant distances.

One way to limit the spread is to kill the vector which has in the past caused issues such a the use of DDT etc. So scientists are looking at genetic manipulation of the vector in various ways.

One such idea is to geneticaly modify the vector and put in a dominant gene that would get passed down through breeding. This gene would also act to stop it being able to be a vector in some way. In the case of malaria one idea is to make it incapable of carrying the parasite. That way the disease would die out naturally.

Now imagine if you will what would happen if instead somebody changed the mosquito such that it could survive in colder climates?

[1] https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/topics/topic/bluetongue

VIJAY DMay 23, 2017 6:55 AM

When you're a hammer every problem looks like a nail. Intelligence agencies first banned box cutters, then swiss army knives, then shoes, then liquids and now laptops. S

Clive RobinsonMay 23, 2017 9:41 AM

@ ALL,

Last night a suicide bomber set off a nailbomb in the Foyer of the Manchester Arena (second largest concert venue in Europe) killing atleast 29 and seriously injuring 59 others.

As a number of posters have postulated in the past the point to attack with aircraft is nolonger the aircraft but the areas where people que prior to the security checkpoints.

Last nights attacker appears to have used this idea but at the equivelent of the other end of the journey in the luggage claim area / exit, where security is generaly the lowest.

From what has been said so far the attacker waited for the concert to finish then like parents of many of the children/teenagers attending at the concert moved into the foyer that had hundreds of people leaving then detonated the improvised explosive device.

It is likely that the security was at a low point because not only were people wanting to leave the concert to get to public transport etc to get home, but by far the majority attending were teenage and younger girls who's parents were there to pick them up and thus the crowds would have been quite dense and milling around making security very much more difficult and impossible to carry out.

RandyMay 23, 2017 11:57 PM

Assuming there is a threat of explosives hidden in laptops and hard to detect in typical X-ray, why wouldn't the threat be valid for other metal objects? E.g., a metal suitcase? A carry-on suitcase is much larger than a laptop, so could do a lot more damage. More prevalent sniffs for explosive residue seems a more plausible countermeasure than banning laptops.

tyrMay 24, 2017 2:31 AM


That Manchester bombing was an ugly one
and the kind of thing that creates more
problems than it poses.

The intersection of nanotech and bio has
horrible implications built-in. What has
limited their usage is the unpredictable
nature. You can hit an enemy with a bio
weapon and have it come back to haunt you
later. I seem to recall that the UK lost
an entire island to habitability to an
anthrax test. There used to be a joke about
the mosquito being the state bird of Alaska
so they can survive some cold climates by
overwintering. Malaria is nasty stuff that
can come back to haunt you later even if
you didn't have a detectable case when you
caught it the first time. I worry about the
loss of antibiotics and urban densities.
Some of the ancient problems may re-occur
and we are far more crowded these days.
A 1918 influenza type would pose a level
of horror moderns can't conceive of.

What I particularly dislike is the modern
erosion of trust implicit in all of these
activities. There has to be some level of
that for any society to function. Pushed
to total paranoia nothing will work at all.

As long as you realize that the so-called
security measures are just verification
it becomes less onerous than the current
suspect everyone model of shoe sniffings
and fear of nail clippers.

FiremanMay 24, 2017 3:28 AM

@Bruce: "Already Emirates has a program to loan laptops to their premium travelers. I can imagine US airlines doing the same, although probably for an extra fee."

Then all a terrorrist would have to do is to damage the battery of that loaned laptop, to set fire to the flight. Unless that loaned laptop does not have a battery, with wall sockets in premium comparment of the plane.

Clive RobinsonMay 24, 2017 5:10 AM

@ tyr,

The UK government did finally clean up the island at vast expense, so in theory it is habitable now...

Yes in Scotland they have jokes about the "clegs" with the latin name of "Haematopota pluvialis" which means "bloodsuckers in the rain" if you ever see a close up photo of one it makes many a Dr Who monster look tame. And as is often the case it's only the femails that put the bite on you. Such is their reputation a husband of a waspish or shrewish woman may refere to her as "the cleg indoors" or similar. Apparently the persistent rumours that they either bite arms off or carry away unattended babies is not true, but all to believable if you've been attacked by them in sensitive places.

The history of "marsh ague" in the late 1500's shows that the maleria carrying mosquito can live in southern England in places like Essex and Kent under the right conditions. Testing has shown that it is likely to be back within a decade.

Thus the question of what level of genetic change would get the mosquito to go as far north as the arctic circle where there are many species of mosquito currently.

Of interest with regards the Manchester bombing is the comments by the head of the UK Parliamentary Select Committee for intelligence and security Dominic Grieve QC MP on TV yesterday. They are basicaly the opposite of the normal US 'technology will save us' rhetoric / response. He pushed the inteligence led view point and made clear that no technical security especially that which effects basic freedoms will ever be effective at totally preventing such attacks. Not the sort of comment the MIC likes to hear so it will be interesting to see what transpires, the UK Press noticeably have not reported his comments so far.

MarmosetMay 25, 2017 9:29 AM

Agree on the security theater and increased hazard of lithium-ion batteries in the hold.

But regarding commentary about only high-net-worth and frequent flyers having access to express security lanes, that's not really the case. It's fairly painless and not terribly expensive to sign up for the US Global Entry program, which includes TSA Pre-Check. Judging by the way the Pre-Check lines have lengthened, many people are doing this. It gets one out of the laptop check, shoes off, and backscatter scanner. I don't fly often but Pre-Check gets me out of the pat-down, as I don't go through backscatter or millimeter wave scanners.

SkepticalMay 26, 2017 8:16 AM

Without knowing more about the precise nature of the threat and the purpose of the restrictions, one does not have sufficient evidence to call this security theatre.

First, the tactical efficacy of the weapon may require it to be used in the passenger cabin of the aircraft - anyone with imagination can think of several possible ways in which this might be true.

Second, the nature of the weapon may be such that the knowledge and skill requisite to creating it are not widespread, that any such weapons currently extant are likely within given areas, with declining orders of probability beyond those areas, and that operations are underway to extinguish the source(s) of the weapon design and proper use, and to identify and destroy instances of such weapons.

Such operations may require some time before they can confidently be assessed as successful. In the meantime, discouraging those who possess it by preventing them from carrying it into the environment where it can be effectively used seems wise. Furthermore, the travel restrictions may simply discourage those with limited resources and time from investing further in this line, and to focus on other things instead.

Third, if some are correct that such measures contain obvious holes that could prove to encourage the use of the weapon, then one must consider the possibility that this could be theatre in a different sense than that intended - a non-pejorative sense.

Michael McHenryMay 28, 2017 1:27 PM

I agree this is largely security theater - more Trump administration efforts to distract us from the chaos. Meanwhile, the airlines, which made $3.3 billion in luggage fees last year, are going to see that pure profit income stream double. Up to a five day trip overseas, I fly with carry on only. Now you're going to force me to check my bag - are the airlines going to drop their fees to accommodate this HS requirement? Of course not.

QnJ1Y2UMay 28, 2017 7:33 PM


Without knowing more about the precise nature of the threat ...

That's a large part of the problem here. Other bombing attempts have been thwarted by passengers (see Richard Reid), but keeping the issue secret means that most passengers won't know what to look for. It also means that citizens don't have information to evaluate the decisions that their government officials are making.

The net result from the lack of disclosure is something that looks a lot like 'security through obscurity'. As this blog has amply documented, that seldom works well.

harmanMay 29, 2017 10:01 AM

As for why this is not then applicable for domestic flights within US, my opinion is that the cost would be prohibitive for everyone to check in their baggage (most people travel with just a carry-on which includes a laptop), and that within US there is perhaps more surveillance and intelligence for the security establishment to have advance knowledge of a specific threat.

EricJune 4, 2017 9:32 AM

I see here we are in early June and reports indicate DHS is still considering a cabin laptop ban on US to Europe flights, an outcome that must warm the hearts of Air Canada executives as a connecting flight from Montreal or Toronto is easy. The terrorists must be laughing themselves silly. We have now spent literally trillions on attempts to wipe out "terror," inconvenienced millions, and react to every rumor the terrorists put out there about possible ways to bring down a plane. In the meantime, they would appear to have changed their focus once again to local bombings, stabbings, car rammings, etc. that are virtually impossible to protect against. Timothy McVeigh killed hundreds with fertilizer and the IRA terrorized London and Ireland with impunity for years using the lowest of tech. But do we sanction Saudi Arabia where the 9/11 attackers originated? Not to mention the radical Wahhabi sect continues to inflame thousands. The US security apparatus has become an hugely expensive joke.

nick rothwellJune 7, 2017 7:05 AM

I just flew Air Canada to Montreal from Europe. Their checkin procedure states: "Portable electronic devices and spare batteries must be carried in the cabin."

Leave a comment

Allowed HTML: <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre>

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of IBM Resilient.