Another setback

06 Sep 2006
00:00

Last month's foiled terrorist plot in the UK to blow up airplanes using liquid explosives spawned, among other things, speculation in the media over the future of carry-on consumer electronics. Because the plot involved using an electronic device like an iPod or cellphone to trigger the explosives, the UK and US airport authorities - sensibly, in my view - temporarily banned all cellphones, laptops and MP3 players from carry-on.

The question being raised now is how 'temporary' this arrangement will be - at least for flights from and to the US, where the Transportation Security Administration has a tendency to leave bans in place for years at a time.

Cellphone bans aren't that big a deal at the moment because you can't use them in the cabin anyway. But laptops and MP3 players are crucial tools for frequent travelers who know just how boring air travel can be if you do it often enough. Even if you don't use them that much during the flight, most laptop owners cringe at the very idea of their expensive laptop being tossed around the average airport baggage system.

However, the device ban raises another question: what does this mean for inflight communications services like Wi-Fi and cellular‾

It's a question worth asking. This came up a year ago, when the US Justice Department expressed grave concern over the launch of inflight broadband and plans to enable inflight cellular service, as well as the ability of terrorists to use these services to carry out attacks. They brought this up mainly to demand the authority to spy on passenger communications without warrants (a demand that, in light of recent news on the NSA's huge collection of phone records, sounds even less appealing now than it did then), but they also cited the possibility that laptops and cellphones could also be used to trigger bombs - even in the baggage compartment.
It's a fair bet that this is going to come up again in DOJ memos. And unlike last time, the DOJ can point to a specific plot and say, 'See‾ We TOLD you this would happen!'

But does that mean the end of inflight broadband and cellular‾

I doubt it. Cynical as it sounds, there are simply too many corporate lobby interests involved - from airlines and telecoms companies to device manufacturers - for a ban on such services to hold up.

Even discounting that, the argument that technology should be restricted because it could be used to harm people has never washed with me. The idea of using cellphones to trigger bombs is nothing new.

Benefits vs risk

The Bali bombings in October 2002 were carried out that way. And yet cellphones are still legal in Bali resorts. Why‾ Because the benefits of easy, affordable mobile communications - particularly for locals whose cellphones are their chief (if not only) telecoms device - outweigh the risk of another terrorist attack using that particular method of detonation.

Admittedly, this hasn't stopped some governments from blocking cellular services for security purposes. Pakistan and Nepal frequently shut off cellular services to prevent terrorists or insurgents from using them. But such bans typically never last for a simple reason: the benefits outweigh the risks.

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