A European electronics ban is being considered by Homeland Security
It’s been reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is seriously considering a European electronics ban. The Middle Eastern ban prevents passengers from bringing electronic devices larger than smartphones into commercial aircraft cabins on direct flights to the U.S. from ten airports in eight Muslim-majority nations.
Many expected the European electronics ban to be announced on Thursday, last week. It wasn’t, and now there are reports that the announcement may be weeks away. The delay could mean DHS is rethinking the expansion or possibly planning a more extensive expansion of the ban.
According to U.S. officials, the European electronics ban is in response to the threat and growing capability of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Al Shabaab, to bring down passenger planes. Reportedly, they can smuggle explosive devices into aircraft by secreting them in electronic devices, in batteries, battery compartments and other spaces in the devices.
I have no doubt that these terrorist groups have been working on ways to smuggle explosives onto planes to blow them out of the sky. I’m sure DHS Secretary, John Kelly, really meant it when he told CNN’s Jake Tapper about potentially expanding the ban,
“We’re constantly looking, constantly listening, constantly trying to figure out what they’re [terrorists] doing and I would have no hesitation to expand the limitation on carrying electronic devices on airplanes bound for the United States, if the threat and my evaluation of that threat brought me to that point, no hesitation at all.”
While the DHS electronics ban may be well intentioned, it isn’t well designed.
The European electronics ban does nothing to stop terrorists from bringing explosives into planes to crash them. It also makes air travelers potentially less safe because it forces passengers to put their electronic devices, powered by lithium-ion batteries, in their checked luggage, which is stowed in the plane’s cargo hold.
The European electronics ban isn’t really a ban. It doesn’t actually keep electronic devices, with potentially secreted explosives in them, out of any plane. The ban merely relocates the electronics, which could potentially be bombs, from commercial aircraft cabins to their cargo holds.
Think about that for a moment.
The European electronics ban doesn’t keep laptops, tablets, cameras, games and other devices containing secreted explosives off commercial planes. It merely requires the explosives to be packed in checked luggage instead of carry-ons.
Can that make air travelers safer?
If the bombs in the electronic devices required a physical switch, a Bluetooth connection, a key or button pressed, or something similar to activate the bomb, the relocation to the hold might be worthwhile as activating the bomb would be made more difficult. Unfortunately, terrorist groups, with increased capability as described by U.S. security officials, should have no problem setting off explosives in electronics with timing devices, RF signals, altitude sensors, etc.
If a bomb in the cargo hold, instead of the plane’s cabin, would be significantly less dangerous, that could justify the ban, but technology experts say bombs in the hold or cabin are equally dangerous. For example, Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “If you assume the attacker is interested in turning a laptop into a bomb, it would work just as well in the cargo hold.”
So, relocating the electronic devices to the cargo hold won’t prevent a bomb secreted in them from crashing the plane.
Is it true that putting electronic devices in the cargo hold will likely make passengers less safe?
Putting more and more electronic devices with their lithium-ion batteries into commercial planes’ cargo holds is contrary to the directives of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA has placed significant restrictions on air travelers’ packing lithium-ion batteries because of their serious fire, smoke and explosion potential. Spare and large lithium-based batteries are banned from checked luggage for good reason. Since 1991 through 2016, there have been 138 aircraft and airport lithium battery incidents. Flight crews have successfully handled lithium-ion battery incidents in the cabin as they can get right to the fires and use multiple fire extinguishers to put them out.
In February 2015, the FAA ran a test to see how well a Halon fire suppression system, the kind used in commercial aircraft cargo holds in the case of fire or explosion, would handle a lithium-ion battery-based fire or explosion. Prior to the test, the FAA believed a high concentration of Halon would put out any fire. After the test with lithium-ion batteries, that’s no longer the case.
So, it’s true that putting more electronic devices powered by lithium-ion batteries in planes’ cargo holds does make the planes less safe.
Moreover, the disruption, significant corporate losses and the decrease of inflight fire and explosion safety, due to the ban, plays right into the goals of terrorists.
Corporate losses due to the ban are beginning to be realized. For example, travelers who have normally traveled to and through affected countries are staying away. Emirates, the Dubai-based airline, has reported profits for the airline dropped 82 percent or $1.5 billion over the past fiscal year, which the airline, in large part, attributes to Trump Administration Middle East travel restrictions including the ban.
What Secretary Kelly needs to do is rescind the ban immediately and instead work with nations across the globe to have passengers submit their electronic devices to a more rigorous inspection to prevent devices containing explosives from being carried aboard commercial aircraft. That can make air travel safer.
(Image: Dell laptop computer, image courtesy Dell Inc.)