Laptop ban creates skepticism about U.S. credibility—and that’s a dangerous threat

Trump administration’s barring of electronic devices on planes raises more questions than answers

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As Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump con­tin­ues to tweet things that strain creduli­ty, the warn­ing we’ve heard from sen­si­ble peo­ple is this: Who will believe the U.S. gov­ern­ment when it has some­thing impor­tant to say?

Bob Sul­li­van, jour­nal­ist and one of the found­ing mem­bers of

It didn’t take long to test this the­o­ry. When the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty announced it was ban­ning lap­tops in air­line pas­sen­ger cab­ins Mon­day night on planes com­ing from cer­tain coun­tries, I heard loud and clear from sev­er­al friends: It’s a Mus­lim lap­top ban! Just like the trav­el ban from Trump’s first days in office.

It’s an under­stand­able leap, giv­en the list of lap­top-banned air­ports, main­ly in Mid­dle East­ern countries.

Relat­ed sto­ry: In-flight Wi-Fi might open hatch to com­mer­cial air­craft hackers

The ban, while ter­rif­i­cal­ly annoy­ing to trav­el­ers, is quite defen­si­ble, how­ev­er. Con­sid­er the jet­lin­er that made an emer­gency land­ing last year in Mogadishu, Soma­lia, with a hole in its fuse­lage and one pas­sen­ger miss­ing. Author­i­ties blamed a Soma­li ter­ror­ist who explod­ed a lap­top bomb at 11,000 feet. It’s believed the bomb had been meant for a Turk­ish Air­lines flight that was canceled.

Lap­top dan­gers in air­planes are real. They’ve been dis­cussed for at least 10 years. Lithi­um-ion bat­ter­ies, which are in near­ly all elec­tron­ic gad­gets, are volatile. Dam­aged units can catch fire on their own, or with some prod­ding. For­tu­nate­ly, air­line inte­ri­ors are made of incred­i­bly fire-resis­tant mate­ri­als. Still, even a rel­a­tive­ly small smoke inci­dent at high alti­tude can be a seri­ous problem.

Or worse. Bat­ter­ies in the car­go area of the miss­ing MH370 Malaysian Air­lines flight are one sus­pect­ed cause of that flight’s demise. The FAA backed a ban on com­mer­cial ship­ments of bat­ter­ies back in 2015.

Also, a lap­top case is a con­ve­nient dis­guise for a dan­ger­ous device. Enough said.

Today’s fliers rely on laptops

So the issues are real. But so are the has­sles. Lap­tops make unbear­ably long flights slight­ly less unbear­able. I, like you, am ter­ri­fied of the day that lap­top use won’t be allowed on planes at all. I’m also ter­ri­fied of putting my lap­top in bag­gage, as the odds of theft cer­tain­ly will rise.

Now comes today’s news. The Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty said in very, very uncer­tain terms that it had good rea­son to ban cab­in lap­tops from the air­ports in its list.

We have rea­son to be con­cerned about attempts by ter­ror­ist groups to cir­cum­vent avi­a­tion secu­ri­ty, and ter­ror­ist groups con­tin­ue to tar­get avi­a­tion inter­ests. Imple­ment­ing addi­tion­al secu­ri­ty mea­sures enhances our abil­i­ty to mit­i­gate fur­ther attempts against the over­seas avi­a­tion indus­try,” it said.

Real­i­ty of threat unknown

It’s entire­ly believ­able that the ban could be the direct result of inter­cept­ed com­mu­ni­ca­tions sug­gest­ing a spe­cif­ic and cred­i­ble threat. If so, great work DHS. Way to pro­tect against a real threat.

In a larg­er sense, if Amer­i­cans, and our allies, see the DHS as above pol­i­tics, such orders can be imple­ment­ed in a much more … order­ly fash­ion. We would all trust that it’s nec­es­sary, and will be in effect only as long as needed.

Ban could backfire

How­ev­er, if the order comes from an admin­is­tra­tion that appears bent on mak­ing life hard­er for Mus­lims try­ing to vis­it Amer­i­ca, things get much more dif­fi­cult. Instead of com­ply­ing in good spir­it, pas­sen­gers won’t take the ban seri­ous­ly. They’ll try to evade it, slow­ing every­one down. They’ll side with pas­sen­gers over secu­ri­ty, and thus be less like­ly to “see something/say some­thing.” There will be undue polit­i­cal pres­sure to lift the ban. Most of all, crit­i­cal time that should be spent look­ing for ter­ror­ists will instead be wast­ed has­sling busi­ness trav­el­ers try­ing to get their work done.

I believe this lap­top cab­in threat is real. For one, the air­ports cov­ered by it include “friend­ly” locales in Sau­di Ara­bia and Qatar. Also, accord­ing to the BBC, the Unit­ed King­dom has fol­lowed suit and Cana­da might do so as well. But I ful­ly under­stand the eye-rolling this ban was met with, thanks to the Trump administration’s pre­vi­ous bans.

When it comes to fight­ing ter­ror­ism, cred­i­bil­i­ty can help as much as intel­li­gence. America’s cred­i­bil­i­ty is tak­ing hits dai­ly right now. That’s mak­ing every­one less safe, not safer. Amer­i­ca, to lead, can­not be the coun­try that cries wolf. That’s the biggest secu­ri­ty risk of all.

More sto­ries relat­ed to air­line security:
Recent ‘glitch­es’ show air­lines unusu­al­ly vul­ner­a­ble to cyber attacks
Does your air­line real­ly under­stand and pro­vide data security?

Posted in Cybersecurity, Featured Story