This past week it became widely known that the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had begun a new security measure to be implemented at a number of overseas airports requiring passenger power up their electronics before boarding flights bound for the United States.
The TSA’s new security procedure, to be carried out by foreign aviation security agencies, as the TSA does not operate in foreign airports, was in response to a credible threat that certain terrorist groups had devised a way for portable electronics, including mobile phones, laptops, tablets, to be used as explosive devices. As such these devices would need to be switched on and shown to be fully functional before being allowed to pass through security. Devices that could not be powered on would not be allowed to fly and passengers would be required to undergo additional screening.
The threat of electronic devices being used as a weapon is not a new threat, given that Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up by a bomb made of Semtex hidden inside of a Toshiba cassette radio, back on December 21st 1988, over Lockerbie Scotland.
While the TSA has flatly denied that they are requiring passengers to power up their electronics, citing no credible threat within the United States as recently as the evening of July 8th, the agency actually implemented a change to “The Playbook” that went into effect on July 7th, under Operations Directive 400.5.
As per OD 400.5, which is currently in effect from July 7th through July 28th 2014, TSA Transportation Security Officers (TSO) are to require Selectees to power up their electronics. If a selectee passenger cannot power the device up they are instructed to exit screening, charge the device and try again. If the device fails to power up the selectee passenger can leave to place it in their vehicle or give the device to someone who may be with them, but not traveling with them. A selectee passenger may also choose to surrender it the TSO , who is required to place the device in the HazMat bucket.
The requirement that electronics be powered up is not for all passengers, only “selectees,” however it is now implemented domestically despite the agency’s statements that is not in effect within the United States.
The kicker to all this is experts at the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Transportation Security Laboratory, under the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), in Atlantic City, NJ, have been able to successfully navigate around all the new security procedures, proving that switching on and utilizing electronic devices does not prevent them from being detonated.
Items such as netbooks, certain tablets or larger “phablets” can be packed with explosives, or have DetCord hidden inside of them and fully function, then only detonated in a specific manner. If the TSA believes there is a real credible threat other options exist for screening electronics … such as secondary x-ray screening with better trained screeners and a more thorough explosives trace detection (ETD) swabbing. DHS S&T indicates these are far more effective ways of detecting if an explosive has been packed inside a personal electronic device.
The upside, most mobile phones and tablets have minimal room to pack explosives within them and still function, and as such would cause minimal damage if detonated. An airliner could not be taken down by an iPhone packed with Semtex or C4.