This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2014-07-14 at 10:00 a.m.
The permanent URL for this article is: http://tidbits.com/article/14911
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Charge Your Electronics Before Flying, or Risk Losing Them

by Steve McCabe

Keeping up with technology is hard; keeping up with the regulations surrounding technology is much, much harder.

The latest development for the travelling techie is the news that the American Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will start requiring, at some overseas airports, that electronic devices flying into the U.S. must be capable of being turned on. “Powerless devices will not be permitted onboard the aircraft,” the TSA’s announcement [1] states, adding that some travellers may be subjected to “additional screening.”

The logic behind this announcement is that a cell phone or laptop that can be powered up during a security screening must, therefore, be so utterly chock-full of electronics and batteries that there simply would be no room left for an explosive. NBC News reports [2] that the new measures come as a response to fears that western fighters in the Syrian civil war might try to smuggle small-but-powerful bombs onto U.S. aircraft. The enhanced security measures [3] are apparently being implemented in airports in Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa, and are being applied to passengers on flights headed directly for American destinations. Details remain sketchy at the moment — the TSA, in characteristically mysterious fashion, are releasing few details of the new measures. According to NBC, the enhanced screenings are taking place at airports in London, Frankfurt, and Paris, but the TSA are not specifying which other ports may be included.

The United States government cannot enforce its own new security procedures outside American territory; the new requirements are being enacted by the aviation security services of countries out of which flights for the United States leave, partly because any country that fails to do so will likely see the American Department of Homeland Security canceling flights from those countries in the future.

One country that seems unlikely to face such non-compliance actions is the United Kingdom. The TSA’s announcement was made on July 7th; on July 8th, the British government’s Department for Transport announced [4] that they would be taking similar steps, screening passengers both entering and leaving the UK. The BBC reports [5] that the new requirement is now in place at Heathrow Airport. But while passengers now face the possibility that they may not be able to take their electronic devices on board if they aren’t demonstrably charged up and working, an informal survey by the BBC at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 reported a number of unused electrical outlets in a cafe there.

It remains unclear exactly how the TSA and their overseas counterparts will conclusively judge that an electronic device is sufficiently functional that it can be brought on board. The “if it lights up, it’s safe” criterion does seem a little flawed, but at least the new rules bring a little consistency to a previously randomly applied policy [6] that saw laptops being pulled out of bags to be X-rayed, but not netbooks, or, possibly, tablets.

But the question of the efficacy of the new system must be raised. If a cell phone is large enough that if one could, if hollowed out, contain enough explosive to do significant damage, then how hard would it be to fit that much explosive inside a laptop and still make it sufficiently functional to pass this test? Remove the hard drive from a MacBook Pro, for example, replace it with something worryingly bangy, and when you push the power button, the thing will chime, the screen will light up and there’ll be a flashing question mark on the screen. Will a TSA agent have the specialised knowledge to know the significance of this? Will the same agent have the breadth of specialised knowledge to recognise similar red flags on other platforms?

Perhaps a few standard chargers — an Apple MagSafe connector, a Lightning connector for new iOS devices, a micro USB cable, or even a legacy Dock connector — might be installed at security checkpoints to allow people to prove that, even if they’re dead, their devices are still benign. Certainly, some form of last-resort charging system might not be a bad idea — now that we’re allowed to use our devices throughout flights [7], we’re likely to see an increasing number of passengers bringing them, and while we’re resigned to having tubes of toothpaste confiscated at the security checkpoint, it’s less likely that passengers will be so sanguine if the man in the blue shirt tries to take an iPhone away.

[1]: http://www.tsa.gov/press/releases/2014/07/06/enhanced-security-measures-certain-airports-overseas
[2]: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/u-s-tightens-security-electronics-overseas-airports-n149186
[3]: http://www.dhs.gov/news/2014/07/02/statement-secretary-johnson
[4]: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/aviation-security-update
[5]: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-28223150
[6]: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/08/travel/the-mystery-of-the-flying-laptop.html?ref=mattrichtel
[7]: http://www.faa.gov/news/press_releases/news_story.cfm?cid=TW189&newsId=15254