Will recent "parcelbomb" threat block inflight WiFi and cellphone use?

[Image: Bricked Sky, submitted to the Boing Boing Flickr Pool by Cameron Russell]

Over at New Scientist, Paul Marks speculates that "the long-awaited ability to use a cellphone or Wi-Fi connection on an aircraft might become a casualty of the latest aviation security threat."

It is not yet known whether the cellphones in the printer bombs were intended to be triggered remotely. They may have been intended simply as timers, as in the 2004 Madrid train bombings. But future devices could take advantage of wireless communication.

In-flight Wi-Fi "gives a bomber lots of options for contacting a device on an aircraft", Alford says. Even if ordinary cellphone connections are blocked, it would allow a voice-over-internet connection to reach a handset.

"If it were to be possible to transmit directly from the ground to a plane over the sea, that would be scary," says Alford's colleague, company founder Sidney Alford. "Or if a passenger could use a cellphone to transmit to the hold of the aeroplane he is in, he could become a very effective suicide bomber."

Aircraft bomb finds may spell end for in-flight Wi-Fi (New Scientist)


  1. Pretty soon flying will be akin to being wrapped in a body bag and shipped via US Mail or something. Sheesh

  2. Well, at the risk of annoying the tech-savvy. . .

    If the (admittedly paranoid and deeply-unpopular-for-good-reason) TSA bans in-flight Wi-Fi, they shall receive nary a complaint from me.

    People working on laptops or watching personal movies with headphones: no problem there.

    But sitting next to some ~so special~ fool who feels ~so clever~ that he can Skype on the plane and blahblahblah about whocareswhat with no avenue of escape for myself except headphones or silent blinding rage? I could care less about the terrorist threat: banning cell phones and the like WILL save lives. . .the lives of their rude and clueless users.

  3. I’ve had enough of this terrorism bullshit. Let’s re-establish the Soviet Union so we can at least have an enemy that plays fair.

  4. This is really no threat at all. A simple keyfob with a remote car starter type device can easily transmit to an aircraft cargo hold if that is what someone wants to do. The only thing it would allow is remote detonation control, which is irrelevant since a timer works just fine too.

    1. That’s exactly what I was thinking. Sure cell phones are common enough and make it past security easily, but it’s not as if there aren’t many other ways of transmitting a detonation signal from passenger compartment to cargo hold. And if they’re not keyfobs they could just as easily be disguised as cell phones.

      WiFi might make things easier, but every one of these plane wifi systems has a log-on that prevents random devices from connecting. I’m sure some clever people could overcome that too, but it’s not as if one could just leave an iPad attached to a bomb in the cargo hold and then IM it to detonate.

      And, as Beelsebuddy points out, timers and tracking are probably a lot more reliable and effective anyway. So if we’re going to get bombed, we’re fucked already. WiFi and cellular connections on planes aren’t going to make us any more fucked.

      1. I think it would be a decent challenge to smuggle a packet bomb aboard a passenger plane AND have someone with a detonator in said plane. But if so, you’re absolutely right and it would be a lot easier just to bring along your own RF-control or else.

        Even if “Terrorists” (and I’m not sure who that really is, those muslim or christian fanatics) infected every suitable device of every traveller at every airport with a virus sending out a detonation signal on wifi, or enabling the bomb to connect through said device, banning inflight wifi would be useless – especially in the first case.

        If i was a terrorist trying to blow up a plane with a packet bomb, I could think of several ways to trigger it. Ban Wifi and everything else? Fine, my bomb will listen for the absence of cell coverage and Wifi and detonate half an hour later. Establish a fake WiFi? Fine, my bomb will measure the temperature, and if it gets really really cold, like in a cargo bay up in the sky… the possibilities are endless, just give me some time and I’ll eventually come up with something that works.

  5. There’s nothing here. You could rig up something that looks like your car fob, or your garage door fob. Takes no wi-fi, cellular tech or anything special at all. Let’s not create more unnecessary things to fear.

  6. God damn it New Scientist, why do you always do this to me? You’re the Good Morning America of science reporting, do you know that?

    What really makes my head hurt with stories like this: not only can I think of multiple better ways to do the same thing, but the plan given here wouldn’t even work.

    Say you have a malicious package. Either you mail it, in which case you can already make a fairly reasonable guess as to where it will be at any given time (and, in fact, you can buy a freaking tracking number for it if you want), or you bring it yourself, in which case you’ve got any number of options, including timers, good old-fashioned remote triggers and using your computer to set up an ah hoc network.

    But the airline’s wireless? The thing that’s only available half the time, and that you have to sign up for (with CC# and all that foolishness) in a slightly different way every flight? Scanning the article, for the life of me I can’t tell whether or not the author thinks you needs a vocal signal to have a remote effect. Like if the bomb can’t yell “Allhallu Ackbar” beforehand, it just won’t be motivated enough to go through with it when the time comes.

  7. I think we’re getting to the point where there are only two options left for securing the airways:

    a) we stop flying planes.
    b) we fly completely nude with no luggage.

    1. And as a side benefit, flying nude would solve a lot of other problems like underwear bombers, shoe bombers, and that whole TSA screening issue.

      Flying nude might cause a little fuss at first, but the masses are already willing to be preflightfondled and pornoscanned, this won’t be an issue.

      1. And as a side benefit, flying nude would solve a lot of other problems like underwear bombers, shoe bombers, and that whole TSA screening issue

        Not. Don’t forget rectal bombs or even thighbone bombs. Or other internal bit bombs. As long as it is allowed to transport materials and creatures from one place to another there will be some way to include a bomb in the payload.

    2. Are you willing to submit to internal cavity searches? Just ask prison guards where criminals hide their weapons and drugs…

      Also, you will need to be T-rayed, X-rayed, and whatever-rayed in addition in case any potential terrorists swallow something in a condom, a la drug smugglers.

      …Maybe it’s better just not to fly.

    3. > b) we fly completely nude with no luggage.

      xzzy, I am interested in your idea and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

  8. As a regular user of Gogo in-flight wireless, I’m willing to bet the annoying captive portal system with mandatory per-connection captcha test (even for repeat customers) is probably designed to prevent exactly this.

    Not exactly sure what “voice-over-internet” has to do with anything. Automated devices would be best controlled with commands, not voice.

    Who writes this garbage?

  9. Only offer services that require authentication, only give out the passwords to passengers who actually boarded, when they boarded.
    Also: afaik, those parcel bombs weren’t meant to detonate on the planes, but however.

  10. Freight is transported inside aluminum containers (aluminium for the British). This should create a faraday cage that no wireless signal will pass through. End of story.

    Dear terrorists, use timers for the win – and time them right.

  11. Jeez, why don’t we all just stay home?

    Hasn’t it become obvious to everyone now that just as the technological advances in Reverse Genie Bottle-Stuffing lag behind Genie Extractions, and as every passing day puts more wide-ranging techno-communicative and thus destructive power into the hands of the common low-buck earthling whether or not he or she may have some axe to grind that could very well end in bloodshed, it might be more cost-effective in both the short and long terms to just, I dunno, be nice to each other?

    No matter how draconian the ever-tightening rules get, it’s never gonna be enough to completely remove the risk of destruction by a sufficiently aggrieved actor. When will we learn that?

    Not until long after we’ve surrendered our mobility and expression and communication in order to keep ourselves from being blown up by people who stubbornly refuse to accept that our ways are always perfectly legitimate and deserving of respect and admiration, no matter the cost to environment or other peoples who might not be blessed enough to dwell ‘neath our star-spangled umbrella.

    So the idea that the only way to guarantee a reasonably safe population in the long run is to promote a profound and widespread embrace of (it pains me to have to say it) Peace, Love and Harmony that is extended to all people and all nations… this idea will only be mocked into oblivion as the most ingenuous Pollyannaish moonbattery, even (perhaps especially) by some of those who profess to follow the Book wherein we find Matthew 5:43-48.


  12. god. this reminds me of the chemist / physicist jokes from yesterday

    Physicist: assume a spherical horse in a vacuum

    Insecurity Journalist: Assume an explosive that can only be triggered by 802.1B

  13. Someone could also use an altimeter, temperature sensor, kitchen timer, accelerometer, digital watch, clapper, and about 1,000 other devices to activate an explosive in the cargo hold of a plane. This rhetoric is absurd.

    1. Don’t worry, it won’t get approved at the App store. Giving us something else to complain about.

  14. Banning cell-phones and wlan leaves satellite phones and old-fashioned analogue radio for remote detonation. But if you are not fussy about exact timing you could use any number of different triggers.

    You could use a GPS device as detonator (assuming adequate reception). I don’t know if passenger planes have pressurised cargo compartments, but if they don’t a simple air pressure sensor could be used as a trigger. The simplest method would probably be to use the acceleration sensor in any smart phone.

  15. Wouldn’t it make more sense for someone who wanted to blow up a plane to use a self-contained bomb that didn’t need to be activated by a passenger? It would be possible to use a gps device, altimeter, or timer to activate it.

  16. Why does a terrorist need to stay in touch with a bomb? Why not use a timer? Or an air-pressure sensor? Or a light sensor? Or a motion sensor? Staying in touch with a bomb would only help authorities track the bomb back to you.

    Perhaps all technology everywhere needs to be banned.

  17. The scientific press should be illuminating issues. If that’s what New Scientist aspires to be, it should not be content with hypothesizing how uninformed politicians might respond to another reality. There are numerous smuggle-able ways of getting a signal across an aircraft, as pointed out in other comments; discussing whether this particular device was intended as a timer or a phone, is inane reportage.

  18. What, is BoingBoing pulling an “Engadget” and stripping every last hyphen out of ‘Wi-Fi’ in your stories?

    I can’t figure that out. Maybe it’s a fad that I’m missing?

    Sure, the name stands for nothing, but the Wi-Fi Alliance keeps its branding consistent on their site (never mind their logo).

    1. Hey yeah….

      Now that you mention it, BB was also stripping the hyphen out of “Boo-berry”, and calling him “Boo Berry” (as if he was some kind of baseball player!), in an article posted a few days ago…perhaps anti-hyphenism is rearing its ever-ugly head hear at Boing-Boing!

      I hope not, though.

      1. Movable Type causes a big formatting glitch if you include a hyphen in a post title and it absorbs it into the base name for the post.

        1. Hey whatdoyaknow a bona fide technical reason!

          It all becomes clear now. Thank you for the elucidation!

  19. A passenger can already use a radio device the size of a cell phone to trigger a radio-controlled bomb in the hold. It’s not like s/he’s going to honor the “no radios” rule, after all. But checked luggage is already inspected.

    There are other arguments not to have cell phones on a plane (being stuck for hours next to Chatty Cathy), but if a bad guy can get a bomb on a plane or into the hold, there are any number of ways of triggering it (timers, measuring the altitude).

    In any case, the best thing to do about threats like these is to stop inspiring tons of people to bomb us. Do you really think that we can rain down bombs onto Yemen indefinitely (using unmanned drones that wipe out whole extended families of “terrorists”, or hit the wrong people entirely) without inspiring survivors to hit us back?

  20. “…might become a casualty of the latest aviation security threat.”
    First – they left a very important word out of that sentence – the word ‘bogus’ or ‘fake’ or ‘staged’ or similar equivalent is vitally necessary there.
    Secondly – don’t people on airplanes have to enter their credit card number to receive calls? That’s my understanding, though i have no personal experience with it. You couldn’t pay me enough to tolerate the soviet style security used in airports today. (Well, maybe you could if you’re got a few million to spare – but just the once.)
    And, as others have pointed out, it’s a stupid way to activate a bomb in the first place. Much like we’re supposed to believe that the package sender put her own phone number on the slip, or that UPS actually flies out from Yemen or any of the other obvious BS they’re shoveling on the news.

  21. So some hypothetical asshole is looking to kill a bunch of people. Is there some recent shortage of firearms in this country that I’m not aware of? Why would you pick a plane as your target, considering the level of security and minuscule chance of success?

    So your choices are:

    (1) Legally purchase assault weapons and massacre a shopping mall’s worth of people, with all of the live, trauma-inducing news coverage you could ever want.

    (2) Rely on ridiculous James Bond bullshit involving passenger airport security, cellular transmission remote detonation, smuggling explosives into a cargo hold, and probably some fucking lasers and cyborgs.

    Let the lesson be heard. If someone wants to kill you, they’re going to go for the simplest, most reliable method. 9/11 wasn’t made possible by smart bombs and sentient AI. Someone smashed objects into other objects. We’re in this conversation in the first place because of an event made possible by gravity and momentum.

  22. Breaking news: Will the recent attempted rectal bombings mark the removal of in-flight bathrooms? Stay tuned for critical analysis.

  23. Seriously though the only way to fight terrorists is to have lots of friends – like the ones who warned as to these incidents.

  24. I’m impressed. You’ve found an interesting New Scientist story that isn’t hidden behind a pay-wall.

  25. Easy fix: put a wifi/cell receiver next to the baggage X-ray machine. If it detects a cell phone of wifi connection, flag the bag for a more thorough search.

    Alternately, use triangulation to monitor the location of all wifi and cell transmitters in the airport. If one shows up where it shouldn’t (in a baggage holding area), flag that spot.

  26. There’s no need for that. As has been pointed out, wifi in a bag is useless for anything other than peer to peer communication with someone up in the passenger area, since all these in-flight internet systems require login and have captchas.

    And peer-to-peer wifi communication is overkill for triggering a bomb, you’d be way better off with any kind of RF transmitter like a garage door opener or RF relay.

    Hopefully the TSA will take the sane action of simply requiring all in-flight wifi to have strong captchas, but something tells me they’ll take the more heavy-handed alarmist approach of banning all internet.

  27. if a passenger could use a cellphone to transmit to the hold of the aeroplane he is in, he could become a very effective suicide bomber

    Like your luggage is ever being sent to the same location as you are.

  28. i could have sworn i have seen baggage containers for aircrafts that can withstand a bomb explosion.

  29. So who needs physical weapons? Couldn’t the terrorists (not that all persons who do what I’m about to describe here are actually formal terrorists), instead of using physical real-world/non-simulacrum bombs, just create stories (with corresponding images and expert sources) that DESCRIBE THE TERRORIST BOMB THREAT (in all it’s glorious permutations), in order to to terrorize (or at least further numb or otherwise depress) their desired target audience? It’s far simpler, cheaper, tidier, effective (in the long-term), and more downright LEGAL to take that route. Also, the greed-heads will like the spin it puts on their advertizing, since they know that a numb public is a shopaholic/surfaholic public. It’s an old pattern, believing in the stories we tell and are told. Eventually, thinking perhaps (or perhaps not) of “our children” or “our jobs” or “our cultural integrity”, WE will help to usher in (or at least not disallow) some legislative changes when it seems (at least in the script) like THE RIGHT THING TO DO, FOR GOD AND COUNTRY. Easy-peasy.

    >(+_+)< P.S.: Mind you, every rolled up airline magazine is a potential James Bond styled trachea crusher. May I have the scalding beverage of my choice with that, please?

  30. Shirly someone has tested cargo holds for RF reception. Luggage is in a metal box within a bigger metal box, after all. My GPS barely works in the cabin, and that’s near a window.

  31. I am surprised that wi-fi / cell use was ever allowed on planes. It would strike me as one of the most sensible things to have stopped, given how many of the explosives used by all manner of people (not just the recent failed bombers) involve a wireless . And is not being able to update your Facebook page or send a tweet for a few hours that terrible?

    I’m more concerned about the discriminatory pre-screening processes, the no-fly lists and the excuses for cracking down on immigration – in other words the things that affect the already poor and disadvantaged – than the things that cause minor and mostly entirely subjective inconvenience to the wealthier more privileged.

    There is a connection of course: the surveillance of the more privileged enables them (us?) to demand more surveillance of the less privileged on the grounds that ‘we have to put up with surveillance so why shouldn’t they?’ when of course this has relatively little affect on thelives and life-chances of the privileged whereas it has a disproportionate effect on those of the more marginal. These measures, I would argue, actually (and ironically) build support for discriminatory surveillance.

    1. > I am surprised that wi-fi / cell use was ever allowed on planes.

      Bombs are not allowed on planes, but terrorists have this nasty tendency to not follow the rules.

  32. Why deal with bombs at all?

    Remember how the terrorists supposedly got US-military-grade anthrax powder while living in caves? They were then able to use it to threaten Democratic senators into voting for the Patriot act.

    So now if a terrorist wants to create havoc, they just have to go find a cave and get some more top secret US military grade anthrax powder and put it into a tiny container and release it while the plane is in flight.

    Or he can use mustard gas or nerve gas or any other biological or chemical agent.

    And then let them off in crowded sports stadiums — far more death than some (relatively) tiny plane.

    This has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with training the public in how to let go of their freedoms.

    1. “Remember how the terrorists supposedly got US-military-grade anthrax powder while living in caves?”

      This actually did happen – well, they had a mailing address so they probably didn’t live in a cave. Until 9/11, the CDC would send biological samples to any educational institution, with very little proof of the validity of that institution. Basically, someone made a letterhead for the “University of Bagdhad,” requested anthrax, and 3-6 weeks later actually got it.

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