Emirates is one of many airlines affected by the DHS ban on certain devices on America-bound planes from eight majority-Muslim countries. They have 96 hours to impose the ban. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
Aviation security experts are looking agog at the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to ban a range of electronic devices larger than a cellphone from being taken on U.S.-bound flight cabins from 10 Middle East airports. They told Forbes it makes little-to-no sense in terms of how it will protect travellers and may well have adverse effects.
Human rights activists are concerned as well, given the regions it targets are majority-Muslim, including airports in Cairo, Istanbul, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Indeed, it’s hard to disassociate the ban from the Trump administration’s recent executive orders designed to prevent immigrants from entering America, said Anthony Glees, director at the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies in the U.K.
“Frankly, I’m amazed by this measure,” he said. “To me it makes no sense whatsoever in security terms; my guess is that its significance is wholly political… What countries need to keep them safe is security-informed activity, not politics-informed activity.”
Glees’ ultimate assessment is that the ban could well work against America’s security services. “It’s not good for the security of the U.S. if terrorists get the idea that the administration does not know what it is doing, and that the U.S. intelligence community is rubbish. That’s a really big danger, to all of us in the West.”
Terrorists come from Europe too…
Implementing a ban on certain countries makes little sense, given individuals responsible for most notable terrorist attacks on planes came from or travelled from nations not on the list. Some of the 9/11 terrorists came from Hamburg, for instance, while the “shoe bomber” incident in 2001 took place on a flight from Paris and the failed attempt was perpetrated by a British citizen. The “underwear bomber” who attempted to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit in 2009 was a Nigerian studying in London.
Dr Pere Suau-Sanchez, lecturer in air transport management at the University of Cranfield in the U.K., wondered how the DHS policy would stop terrorists who could simply navigate travel around the policy. “Singling out specific countries ignores the fact that terrorist cells are spread through the world and that airlines provide connectivity indirectly via hubs,” said Suau-Sanchez.
“Tickets can be bought separately, so a traveller would not appear as a connecting passenger. Hence a potential terrorist could start their trip in one of the banned countries, connect in an airport located in a third country and arrive at the US with the electronic device.”
Why not smartphones?
To ban devices larger than cellphones perplexed security experts too. Smartphones can still be used to trigger an explosion. Many airlines demanded travellers with the Samsung Note 7 that contained a dangerous, exploding lithium-ion battery, turn the device off when in the air.
“I could understand a ban on all electronic devices, including mobile phones, because (in theory) there is nothing in a laptop that isn’t in a smartphone and as a means of providing an electric spark that could trigger an explosion, anything with a battery and particularly with a flash can do the trick so smartphones are a particular problem.”
Passenger profiling is smarter
It may be that having devices on a person may mean they’re open to more thorough searches and profiling. Advances in aviation security are actually shifting to avoid removing devices from individuals, said Suau-Sanchez. This should increase the speed of the screening process, he said. “In other words, the future of aviation security is passenger profiling and pre-screening.”
“Passenger profiling allows to identify the potential risk and thread of individual passengers. In this regard, systems like with Israeli airport security, which is centred around the human factor and preliminary checkpoints, have been more successful than traditional systems.”
Bombs in the cargo a may present a ‘bigger threat’
In its reasoning behind the ban, the DHS cited the case of a Metrojet airliner that was downed over Egypt in 2015 as well as a failed attempt to bring down a Somali plane in 2016 with a laptop containing explosives. While the latter may provide a good example of the threat, the first was a bizarre choice, given most reports of that incident found a soda can packed with explosives was placed in the plane’s cargo hold by an insider at the airport.
Clearly, that’s not something that the new policy would prevent, said Evan Hill, a writer and researcher in the Middle East. “Presumably, dedicated terrorists could also still plot an attack on an airplane heading to the United States – using a laptop or any other device – from a number of other international locations not subject to this policy.”
Glees said Whilst cabin baggage can be more thoroughly X-rayed than individuals, “the chances of getting a bomb on a plane via baggage and into the hold are surely greater than on a person.”
A danger to privacy
There’s a privacy risk too. Hill noted on his Twitter feed that the policy would separate devices containing sensitive data away from travellers, such as journalists or activists hoping to expose abuses in countries they’re leaving.
The “Muslim laptop ban” will also separate journalists, activists and everyone else from their personal data and put it into unknown hands
— Evan Hill (@evanchill) March 21, 2017
He offered some advice for anyone worried about this aspect of the ban: “Anyone with data they’d like to protect should practice a few fairly simple security habits: put anything truly sensitive in an encrypted external drive, encrypt your computer, use strong and varied passwords, use two-factor authentication, and put everything you don’t need in your hands in the cloud.”
Traveling with a Chromebook can be a good alternative, ensuring that it doesn’t contain any sensitive data when moving through customs and then downloading all the required encrypted data when within the U.S.
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