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Charge Your Electronics Before Flying, or Risk Losing Them

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 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 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 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 that they would be taking similar steps, screening passengers both entering and leaving the UK. The BBC reports 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 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, 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.


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Comments about Charge Your Electronics Before Flying, or Risk Losing Them
(Comments are closed.)

puffin  2014-07-14 12:09
This is not new. When TSA airport screening first began in the US after 9/11, I remember having to power on my laptop before passing through security. I thought they discontinued this measure because it took so long to wait for everyone's laptops to boot up. Today they randomly screen laptops using a device that does not require the laptop to be powered on.
Eolake Stobblehouse   2014-07-14 14:50
I remember reading in a book by David Pogue, I think this was even before 2001, that the security folk would sometimes check a laptop before allowing it on a flight. David wrote with his characteristically subtle sarcasm: "How do they determine that it works? It has to show text on the screen".

That's not wildly stupid then. To make a working laptop and a creditable bomb in the same laptop case is at least not for the casual amateur.
Scott Chase  2014-07-14 23:45
What about electrical devices that don't use batteries and require mains power? My (non-Apple) laptop currently doesn't work on battery power (the cost for repair would be prohibitive), and there's no way I would ever consider putting it in my checked luggage. I can imagine other types of mains-only devices that one would not want to leave at the mercy of the baggage system. Electrical outlets at security would allow such equipment to be powered up.
I also suspect that whatever is implemented will vary considerably from airport to airport world-wide, making it difficult for travellers who can't meet what appear to be very restrictive requirements.
Utterly ridiculous.

What they are essentially saying is that despite decades of time to develop and test systems, and despite more than a decade since 9/11 they still cannot efficiently detect common explosives.

If an iPhone shell filled with explosives is a serious threat, how come a book isn't? That same book could be filled with C4 just the same. It's bigger, too. And TSA just admitted to us they can't detect if the iPhone or book is full of explosives unless they manually inspect it.

Alas, the flying public has only itself to blame. We should have put our foot down a long time ago. But instead we were afraid, hysterical, and remained silent, complacent, and obedient while W installed this Potemkin security charade. So now we're being pushed around and harassed by a bunch of underachievers who have done absolutely nothing for our safety while costing billions of tax Dollars. Great new world.
Kenneth Simon  2014-07-21 11:34
I agree 100%. There's going to be a groundswell of popular anger because it's inevitable that people will lose expensive equipment all because the battery ran down. That probably won't change anything, but I wonder if the policy will be rolled back as soon as some VIP finds his phone or laptop confiscated.
Kenneth Simon  2014-07-21 11:34
...and I don't just agree with you because of your excellent name. :)