Aviation security expert on the electronics ban
Border security expert John Coyne explains the pros and cons of the US and UK ban on electronic devices on flights from certain countries and airports. Vision courtesy: ABC News 24
The United States and the United Kingdom have both banned electronic devices larger than a mobile phone from cabins on flights from some Middle Eastern and North African countries.
While the measures - enacted in response to an "unspecified security concern" - should not stop passengers on direct flights to and from Australia bringing laptops, e-readers and other devices on board, there could be flow-on effects that will make travelling to America or the UK more of a hassle.
As for Australia, a spokeswoman for Minister for Infrastructure Darren Chester said on Wednesday that his department, which regulates air safety, had no current plans to implement similar bans for flights heading here.
Luckily for Australian travellers, British authorities have not followed their US counterparts in applying the ban to flights that originate or stop over in the big Middle Eastern hubs of the UAE (including Dubai and Abu Dhabi) and Qatar.
If the UK did, passengers flying from Australia to London on Qantas, Emirates, Etihad (and its code share partner Virgin Australia) and Qatar Airways would have to leave their laptops in their checked baggage.
Most Australians heading to the US travel across the Pacific, so they aren't affected either.
Which countries are affected?
The US has banned large electronic devices on flights from airports in the following countries:
- Saudi Arabia
- the United Arab Emirates
The UK's ban, announced overnight, is less restrictive and only applies to flights from the following countries:
- Saudi Arabia
Brace for longer queues
While most Australians don't travel to the US via the Middle East, an exception are passengers from Perth, many of whom choose to fly to the US via the Middle East rather than connecting through Sydney or Melbourne.
"They find it's not much difference in time for them to hop on a flight from Perth to Abu Dhabi with Etihad, to Dubai with Emirates or to Doha with Qatar, and then they can bounce back to the US from there," David Flynn, editor of Australian Business Traveller told Fairfax Media.
"Those people will now not be able to have their laptop or their iPad or their camera or their Kindle or electronic games in the cabin with them."
Australians can also expect to be hit with delays when transferring through Middle Eastern airports, Mr Flynn said, caused by US-bound passengers being stopped at security screenings because they have brought electronics with them from connecting flights.
"I would be prepared for much longer queues and for much more irate passengers in those queues," he said.
Do these devices pose a greater threat than mobile phones?
Only physically, not technologically.
A computer or a tablet is larger than a smartphone, which would theoretically provide more room for terrorists to cram in components like bomb parts or weapons, said Bill Marczak, a senior fellow at the Citizen Lab, a research group that follows technology and policy.
Multiple terrorists could then each take a computer on a plane containing an explosive component and, hypothetically, put it together in the cabin, he said.
Yet a smartphone may also pose threats. As Samsung demonstrated last year with its Galaxy Note 7, smartphones - and anything with a lithium-ion battery - are capable of exploding and causing safety hazards.
Technologically, a smartphone is a miniature computer that is just as powerful as a laptop. There is also a risk that a terrorist could use a smartphone to remotely detonate a bomb that is hidden inside a computer checked in as cargo, said Nick Feamster, a computer science professor at Princeton University.
So why ban computers and tablets?
Other than preventing terrorists from smuggling components onto planes, the device ban may create additional surveillance opportunities. It is common for airport security officials to search checked luggage. In theory, if a computer is checked, airport officials can do more thorough searches, including a data frisk.
"Who, if anyone, takes control of your device while it's not in your sight or possession?" Feamster said. "A search of your device is not outside the realm of possibility."
What should I do?
If you are flying on an affected airline and concerned about your privacy, consider protecting your data while crossing the border.
For one, you could encrypt your files with an app like BitLocker or FileVault. That way, if someone did try to gain access to your data, a passphrase would be needed to decrypt the files, Marczak of the Citizen Lab said.
In addition, travellers could seal laptops in a tamper-evident bag, Marczak said. Once you reach your destination, you can see if anyone tampered with the laptop by inserting a physical surveillance device into it, for example.
You could also consider travelling with an inexpensive computer that lacks any of your sensitive data, Feamster added. And you could back up your data to the cloud and purge it from the inexpensive computer before checking it in with your luggage.
If he were travelling to those countries now, Feamster said, "I wouldn't even bother taking my main laptop. I'd take my clean laptop that doesn't have any data on it."
- with New York Times