Everyone—except those who like peace and quiet—thinks it’s a good idea to allow cell phone calls on airplanes, and are working out the technical details. But the U.S. government is worried that terrorists might make telephone calls from airplanes.
If the mobile phone ban were lifted, law enforcement authorities worry an attacker could use the device to coordinate with accomplices on the ground, on another flight or seated elsewhere on the same plane.
If mobile phone calls are to be allowed during flights, the law enforcement agencies urged that users be required to register their location on a plane before placing a call and that officials have fast access to call identification data.
“There is a short window of opportunity in which action can be taken to thwart a suicidal terrorist hijacking or remedy other crisis situations on board an aircraft,” the agencies said.
This is beyond idiotic. Again and again, we hear the argument that a particular technology can be used for bad things, so we have to ban or control it. The problem is that when we ban or control a technology, we also deny ourselves some of the good things it can be used for. Security is always a trade-off. Almost all technologies can be used for both good and evil; in Beyond Fear, I call them “dual use” technologies. Most of the time, the good uses far outweigh the evil uses, and we’re much better off as a society embracing the good uses and dealing with the evil uses some other way.
We don’t ban cars because bank robbers can use them to get away faster. We don’t ban cell phones because drug dealers use them to arrange sales. We don’t ban money because kidnappers use it. And finally, we don’t ban cryptography because the bad guys it to keep their communications secret. In all of these cases, the benefit to society of having the technology is much greater than the benefit to society of controlling, crippling, or banning the technology.
And, of course, security countermeasures that force the attackers to make a minor modification in their tactics aren’t very good trade-offs. Banning cell phones on airplanes only makes sense if the terrorists are planning to use cell phones on airplanes, and will give up and not bother with their attack because they can’t. If their plan doesn’t involve air-to-ground communications, or if it doesn’t involve air travel at all, then the security measure is a waste. And even worse, we denied ourselves all the good uses of the technology in the process.
Security officials are also worried that personal phone use could increase the risk that remotely-controlled bomb will be used to down an airliner. But they acknowledged simple radio-controlled explosive devices have been used in the past on planes and the first line of defence was security checks at airports.
Still, they said that “the departments believe that the new possibilities generated by airborne passenger connectivity must be recognized.”
That last sentence got it right. New possibilities, both good and bad.
Posted on June 8, 2005 at 2:40 PM •