Carry-On X-Ray
Carry-On X-Ray Equipment.  Courtesy: Narita Airport

On March 21st, 2017, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ordered airlines flying to the U.S. out of 10 airports, mostly in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, to refuse to transport any electronic devices of iPad size or greater in their passenger compartments.  This effective ban on in-flight laptop usage on these flights, all of which would be between 6 and 12 hours in duration, assuredly caused any airline who uses those airports as a hub to face massive losses as travelers rush to connect through Europe instead.  For the last several weeks, DHS has allegedly been considering expanding the ban to all airports in Europe as well, a move which European officials seem to have talked our government down from.

What has been missing from the story is, “Why?”  Authorities have only disclosed a generalized fear that laptops could be used to conceal explosives, and have expressly denied a specific threat.  But laptops have been around for decades, and as surely any sophisticated terrorist has heard of timers, why does it matter if you ban them from the passenger cabin if you allow them in the cargo hold?

A commercial aviation security official that I have verified but will not publicly name has explained the rationale to me: x-ray equipment of the variety commonly used for screening carry-on baggage disappeared a few months ago from a location in the Middle East, and it is suspected (perhaps even recently confirmed, given the desire to expand the ban) that ISIS members have stolen the equipment such that they can study how to properly conceal an explosive.  Given that a bomb smuggled in a laptop exploded at an airport security checkpoint in Somalia on March 6th, 2017, it appears DHS has concluded that the theft was related and laptops were the concealment method of choice.

X-rayed Laptop
An x-rayed laptop. The battery is in the lower right.

It’s not bad reasoning since lithium batteries are completely opaque to x-rays, and therefore a battery-sized metal box filled with explosives would look exactly the same [Edit – This is not true for the newest technology x-rays… read more…].  But, there’s three problems with the reaction that make the laptop ban the wrong idea:

  1. Once the laptop ban was put in place, anyone who planned to use a laptop to conceal a bomb was tipped off and will simply try another approach.  This is reminiscent of the failed “toner cartridge bomb,” after which the U.S banned toner cartridges from flights.  But obviously, a toner cartridge is only what they chose that day… a stereo, Xbox, or, well, laptop, would have worked just as well.  Likewise, just because they’re doing it in carry-ons now does not mean they won’t switch to checked baggage next.
  2. A laptop battery actually holds similar energy to a small bomb.  While it’s not easy to make a laptop battery release that energy all at once in an explosion, a fire in the cargo hold created by batteries malfunctioning (not Galaxy S7!) resulted in at least 2 deaths by plane crash so far (all-cargo, not passenger, flight, thankfully).  By forcing all these batteries into the cargo hold where a fire cannot be rapidly detected and contained, DHS would be countering any deceased risk of terror with an increased risk of fire.
  3. It is simply not economically viable.  Taking away what would surely amount to millions of man-hours of productivity every year is simply not the solution (exactly $1.1B of loss, industry group IATA estimates, quite conservatively in my opinion).  It would be far less economically impactful to swab every laptop that comes through the checkpoint for explosive trace residue.

So why was the stolen x-ray equipment kept a secret?  I asked my source if there was some security reason for keeping the stolen x-ray equipment from the public, and was told, unequivocally, no.  “It’s because the mom from the midwest planning to fly her kids to Disney would freak out.  They are worried that people would stop flying if they knew.”

My thought would be that the public would be much more understanding if the government was more forthcoming.  But apparently the U.S. government feels that you can’t handle the truth and therefore hides behind secrecy laws to withhold the full story.  This hiding is, of course, illegal, since, with exceptions not relevant, to withhold information as “sensitive security information” (SSI) requires that the release of the information would be “detrimental to the security of transportation,” not detrimental to mom’s willingness to go on vacation (49 C.F.R. § 1520.5(a)(3)).  The TSA, a sub-component of DHS, is well-known for using the · SSI designation in an · “inconsistent and arbitrary” nature, as well as merely to avoid embarrassment, so it is not particularly surprising when the parent agency does so as well.  [I have reached out to the DHS press office, which has declined to comment on this story.]

(Note that my source did not specify whether this information was SSI, classified, or otherwise protected, but I assume it is presently SSI and not classified given my source’s role and reports that U.S. authorities have discussed the situation with airline officials, which would not be done for classified information.)

Putting together one more piece of the puzzle, it seems to me that the classified information leaked by President Trump to the Russians earlier this month was very likely the details (beyond that which are reported here and beyond my knowledge) about the how the government was able to infiltrate ISIS to investigate the use of the stolen x-ray machines.  Most news organizations did not report the nature of Trump’s disclosure other than that it related to “a plot by Islamic State,” although the Washington Post actually did describe it as laptop-ban related.   So at the same time as the American people are mislead about the risks of flying, the Russians were given more information than the airlines and airport operators who are responsible for actually keeping bombs off of planes.

So, to recap: the government lied to us when they said there wasn’t a specific threat, they withheld information from us because they thought we’d be scared, and they implemented a laptop ban that will be ineffective and expensive at best, dangerous (as a result of increased fire risk) at worst.  Business as usual.


“Jon Corbett is a civil rights advocate known for filing the first lawsuit against the deployment of TSA nude body scanners, as well as defeating the body scanners live in ‘How to Get ANYTHING Through TSA Nude Body Scanners.’  Presently a law student, he continues to advocate for travel and privacy rights.  Twitter: @_JonCorbett, Web: https://professional-troublemaker.com/

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