With a ban on laptops in US-bound airplanes (read our coverage) cabins possibly expanding to Europe, there is a lot of traveler anxiety because putting laptops in checked-in luggage will probably lead to a tsunami of thefts and damages for one of the most expensive piece of electronics we own and need. What is the technical+security logic behind such a ban? Here’s an overview. [photo credit FreeGreatPictures.com]
The goal: prevent a catastrophic plane crash due to a small bomb detonation
The goal is to prevent the detonation of an explosive in the cabin, especially while the plane it at the highest altitude and speed, which is the worst-case scenario. Even if the plane does not crash, a plane explosive decompression can lead to severe injuries.
There are at least two documented instances in which small bomb in the cabin did significant damages that in certain conditions, brought down the plane.
- Russian Metrojet flight 9268 in Egypt (2015): A soda-can bomb brought the plane down, killing all 217 passengers on board. Arguably this could have the power of a hand-grenade.
- Daallo Airlines flight 159 in Somalia (2016). A suspected laptop bomb detonated, creating a gaping hole in the fuselage. The plane was not high enough to sustain a catastrophic failure and was able to do an emergency landing. The attacker was the only fatality. Here’s the damage below:
Why ban laptops and not phones?
This question is often asked. After all phone batteries can “explode” as well, and it is possible to make phone-bombs using the same techniques as laptop-bombs.
First of all, all explosions are not equal. The explosive force coming from a faulty battery is much less than the same volume of high-explosive material which is designed and synthetically created to provoke the largest possible explosion for demolition or military purposes.
Secondly, the more explosive there is, and the bigger the explosion. The amount of explosives is the very basic reason why a laptop bomb is much more dangerous than a phone bomb.
Why make bombs that look like electronic devices?
The main reason why bombs disguised as electronics are more common is that X-Ray security scanners are not able to distinguish Explosive material (like Semtex) from Battery material. At least, they are visually similar enough that there are many instances in which they passed the X-Ray machine test.
This is one of the reasons why a few years ago, security agents could ask you to turn ON your devices to prove that there was a real battery inside.
The PETN explosive is often used by terrorists because it is hard to detect because it doesn’t vaporize in the air, which makes it more likely to go undetected by dogs. In 2010 the magazine American Scientific published an article about how Al Qaeda planned to use PETN to bring down planes. This has been a long time focus of terrorists.
Why would laptops in the luggage compartment be less dangerous?
Historically, bombs have been planted in the luggage compartment, and have used a timer or a remote detonator. A famous example is the Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland which was brought down by an explosive hidden in a cassette player in luggage.
Since then, many efforts into equipment and processes have been made to avoid that kind of threat. As a result, luggage screening is more suited to bomb detection because security services can spend more time and use bigger equipment, without having to worry about passenger frustration. In reality, this job is also extremely difficult, and I recommend reading this Wired article titled “Confession of a Baggage Screener” if you are really curious about it. The TSA Instagram account also shows all kinds of crazy things that are caught during inspection.
Also, if a timer or a remote detonator is required, there are more chances that it would fail due to error, damages (luggage can be treated very roughly), jamming, etc. It is simply easier for the attacker if he/she has the device on hand. Jeffrey Price from the Denver Metropolitan State University said as much in prior interviews.
Additionally, the luggage is often placed in metallic containers that are loaded/unloaded from the plane. The bomb could also find itself in the middle of other luggage, and all this makes it less likely that the fuselage would be critically damaged by a small explosion – although the risk of fire is also bad, but that is yet another problem.
In the cabin, the bomb can be placed directly against the thin fuselage (window seat) and would do the intended damage.
That said, having battery in the luggage compartment does increase the risk of fire, which is why they tend to be banned in luggage pieces and why researchers try to add flame retardants to their designs.
Why block specific airports/countries?
This is a controversial question that security services would need to answer, but here are likely reasons that would come up:
Security personnel vetting standards might be an issue in many places. According to the Guardian, the bomb in the Daallo Airlines flight 159 attack was given to the attacker by airport employees. The Somalian government confirmed this after watching the security footage.
Security screening procedures and equipment can also vary a lot from place to place. If you travel enough, you can tell that different airports have different procedures, which may lead to different security outcome. U.S authorities can decide that measures are not thorough enough.
There’s always a trade-off between risks and convenience, and without additional information, it is difficult to assess if these decisions “make sense”, or not. If the risk is high enough, then people’s safety take precedence. However, is it high enough? We just don’t know, and we may all have a different threshold for risk (and an opinion).
What we do know is that if passengers are required to check-in laptops, it would probably lead to a spike in damage and theft to levels unseen in the consumer electronics world. Without a doubt, it would also make people avoid travel whenever they can if the risk of loss is high enough. Some airlines have made a separate check-in process for laptops that would negate the theft this issue.
At the very least, you should start taking a new look at computer security measures to prevent your data from being stolen or have backups for every trip. Evaluating insurance and replacement options could also be a smart thing to do. What’s for sure is that a small number of attackers costs everyone billions in security, productivity and opportunity.