New York Times: “US Limits Devices for Passengers on Foreign Airlines From Eight Countries”

by Joseph McKeown

The US government has barred passengers on foreign airlines headed to the United States from ten airports in eight majority-Muslim countries from carrying “personal electronic devices (PEDs) larger than a cell phone or smart phone” under a new flight restriction enacted by the Trump administration. Claiming that “intelligence indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items,” the new policy states that items including laptop computers, tablets, cameras, travel printers, and games bigger than a phone must be placed in checked baggage and are not permitted in the cabin. As to the definition of “larger than a cell phone,” DHS explains: “The size and shape of smart phones varies by brand. Smartphones are commonly available around the world and their size is well understood by most passengers who fly internationally. Please check with your airline if you are not sure whether your smartphone is impacted.”

The new policy took effect today, Tuesday, March 21, at 3am EDT. Airlines must comply within ninety-six hours. The ban affects airlines flying to the US from airports in Amman, Jordan; Cairo; Istanbul; Jidda and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia; Kuwait City; Casablanca, Morocco; Doha, Qatar; and Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. None of these countries were included in President Trump’s revised travel ban, which has been blocked by federal court; rather, all these countries are close US allies. Following the US’s lead, the United Kingdom will also ban passengers from having electronics larger than a cellphone in the cabin on UK-bound flights from certain countries, including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia, a UK government spokesperson says.

The US device ban only applies to flights on foreign carriers, and not American-operated airlines, and some have noted that the ban may financially benefit US airlines. Cornell political scientist Tom Pepinsky notes that business travelers will be very reluctant to give up their laptops on these long-haul, direct flights to the US. He says: “Winners here are US legacy carriers and their European alliance partners. Now have to fly to, say, Istanbul via Frankfurt, London, or Paris[.]” US airlines have long lobbied for US government intervention in the Persian Gulf, where they say that government subsidies for such airlines as Etihad Airways, Qatar, and Emirates, make it impossible for US airlines to compete. All three Middle Eastern airlines are among the carriers affected by the electronics ban.

Officials estimate fifty flights each day into the US would be affected by the device ban, and officials did not specify how long the ban would remain in place or if other airports would be added. The new restrictions come after the implementation of enhanced pat-down searches for passengers at US airports in response to what the TSA said were weaknesses in airport screening measures. Under the new rules, passengers can no longer choose what type of searches they undergo in security lines. The agency said the measures were needed to improve the ability of screeners to detect explosives or other banned items after a series of tests showed fake weapons and explosives got past security screeners ninety-five percent of the time, according a classified report. 

The electronics ban has sparked criticism from technology experts, who say the new rules don’t fit with basic computer science. If there are credible concerns about laptops being used as explosives, putting them in checked baggage would still be a risk. Moreover, many smartphones have the same capabilities as larger devices. “It’s weird, because it doesn’t match a conventional threat model,” Nicholas Weaver, researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, tells the Guardian. “If you assume the attacker is interested in turning a laptop into a bomb, it would work just as well in the cargo hold. If you’re worried about hacking, a cellphone is a computer.”  

A State Department official referred reporters to “several terrorist events on airplanes in the last year,” all outside the US. When questioned, a DHS official admitted only one incident involved a bomb smuggled into the cabin, causing 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, says the new rules are an “onerous travel restriction.” He notes: “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. And there is certainly nothing technological that would limit this newfound threat to a handful of Middle Eastern airlines.”

UPDATE JULY 10, 2017: Emirates, the Middle East's largest long-haul airline, said in a statement last week that the ban for larger electronic devices in the cabin was lifted "effective immediately" on US-bound Emirates' flights from Dubai International Airport. Additionally, Turkish Airlines said the ban is no longer in place for its travelers leaving from the Istanbul Ataturk Airport for American destinations, and Etihad Airlines similarly announced they had been cleared for US-bound flights from Abu Dhabi International. This news comes after the three airports met updated security standards set by American officials. Additionally Kuwait Airways and Royal Jordanian said that after security improvements the ban had been lifted, and Saudi Arabian Airlines also announced that they believe the ban would be lifted shortly for their US-bound flights.

While in June the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had raised the possibility of expanding the laptop ban to flights from Europe, instead they announced new security standards at airports with US-bound commercial flights. The standards include improved screening equipment to better explosive-detecting dogs, for example, and international airports that do not meet the new standards could be subject to other restrictions or a suspension of US-bound flights. John Kelly, the secretary of the DHS, says: “Together, we have the opportunity to raise the baseline on aviation security globally, and we can do it in a manner that will not inconvenience the flying public.”