Experts criticize US electronic devices ban on some flights from Middle East

Technologists say new rules against electronics ‘larger than a cellphone’ on flights from 10 airports seem illogical and at odds with basic computer science

A TSA checkpoint at John F Kennedy International Airport in New York City.

A TSA checkpoint at John F Kennedy International Airport in New York City.
Photograph: Michael Nagle/Getty Images

The US government’s unexpected ban on laptops, iPads and other electronics “larger than a cellphone” on certain flights has sparked criticisms from technology experts, who say the new rules appear to be at odds with basic computer science.

Following the distribution of a “confidential” edict from the US transportation safety administration (TSA), authorities confirmed that the US will now require flights from specific Middle Eastern airports to prohibit passengers from carrying certain electronics.

Senior Trump administration officials cited “evaluated intelligence” that terrorists favored “smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items” in a hastily convened press briefing on Monday night, hours after news broke of the planned prohibition on in-cabin devices.

The ban, which allows the devices to be stowed in checked in baggage, affects flights from ten airports in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, according to the US department of homeland security (DHS).

While DHS officials claimed the rules would help prevent terrorist attacks on commercial airlines, tech experts questioned the safety implications of the ban. If there are concerns about laptops on board being used as explosives, those same risks could exist in checked baggage, they said. Additionally, many smartphones, which are not banned, have the same capabilities as larger devices.

“It’s weird, because it doesn’t match a conventional threat model,” said Nicholas Weaver, researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. “If you assume the attacker is interested in turning a laptop into a bomb, it would work just as well in the cargo hold.”

He added: “If you’re worried about hacking, a cell phone is a computer.”

Some experts, and even the Federal Aviation Administration, have also increasingly raised concerns that the shipment of lithium batteries in airplane cargo, poses a serious fire risk.

During the press call, numerous questions about the meaning of “larger than a cell phone” did not provide clarity.

“To be honest, guys, there’s a pretty universal understanding of where we’re at,” said one exasperated official after repeated questions on how large a phone could be before it qualified as a tablet and was banned. Requirements appear to be at the discretion of the airlines.

Passengers must submit to the ban “regardless of status and pre-clearance”, according to DHS officials.

A state department official referred reporters to “several terrorist events on airplanes in the last year”, all outside the US. When pressed, a Homeland Security official said only one incident involved a bomb smuggled into the cabin – an explosion resulting in a single fatality on a Somali carrier called Daallo that does not fly to the US.

Bruce Schneier, a security technologist, called the new rules an “onerous travel restriction”.

“From a technological perspective, nothing has changed between the last dozen years and today. That is, there are no new technological breakthroughs that make this threat any more serious today,” he said in an email. “And there is certainly nothing technological that would limit this newfound threat to a handful of Middle Eastern airlines.”

Paul Schwartz, professor at the University of California, Berkeley law school, also noted that the 9/11 hijackers had a cell in Hamburg, Germany: “One potential problem with this approach where you single out countries is that you ignore the extent to which the terrorist threat is kind of state-less. The terrorists have cells throughout the entire world.”

Efforts to more broadly restrict laptops on planes would likely face widespread resistance, said Chris Hoofnagle, professor of law at the University of California. “It’s a massive inconvenience to have to check a laptop, and you can imagine that such a demand is met with resistance by air carriers, who are powerful lobbies.”

Airlines have also lobbied the Trump administration to intervene on behalf of American carriers in the Persian Gulf, where they have contended for years that the investments in three rapidly expanding airlines in the area – Etihad Airways, Qatar, and Emirates – constitute unfair government subsidies with which Delta, American and United cannot compete.

All three Middle Eastern airlines are among the carriers affected by the electronics ban.

Asked if the new order was an excuse to rifle through passengers’ hard drives, a DHS official said: “This has absolutely nothing to do with the data in passengers’ baggage.”