Trump plans ban on laptops in the cabins of flights from Europe

Unnamed "officials briefed on the matter" told Reuters that the Trump administration is planning to ban travelers from bringing their laptops — and possibly tablets — in their hand-luggage on flights from Europe, expanding an existing ban that covers 10 middle-eastern airports.

I have personally seen reliable reports of US-bound travelers from Istanbul being surprised at the gate with a command to put their laptops into padded envelopes that were transferred to a hardsided suitcase that was placed in the baggage hold for the flight. This system was reportedly chaotic and ad-hoc.

The UK is reportedly considering a reciprocal rule that would ban laptops in the cabin for flights from the US to the UK. Naturally, other European nations may follow suit.

The rule is reportedly prompted by the difficulty of distinguishing plastic explosives from other components in electronic devices using an X-ray machine. But this explanation is baffling: a plastic explosive is every bit as dangerous in the hold of an airplane as it is in the cabin. What's more, placing a plastic-explosive charge in a hardsided case densely packed with lithium-battery-equipped devices seems an especially dangerous measure.

When the earlier ban on laptops in the cabin on middle-eastern-originated flights was announced, officials suggested that they were operating on specific intelligence about bombs that could only be activated with manual controls, but again, if this were the case, we could expect attackers to change tactics and switch to timers or other remote detonation techniques.

Travelers to and from affected airports will now face the risk of having their laptops and tablets stolen, having their confidential data leaked (on the bright side, it's hard to imagine a measure more effective at spurring the adoption of full-disk encryption) and having their devices broken.

Given the history of this kind of shitty security thinking, I will now make a prediction: within a year, there will be a "trusted traveler" program that lets well-off people submit to a background check and pay a fee, and in exchange get the right to bring their laptops onto planes. This will defuse the pressure from politically influential businesspeople to reform the situation, allowing it to get much, much worse for infrequent travelers without triggering any meaningful political blowback. What's more, "trusted traveler" will be awarded gratis to people who hold elite flier status or qualify for exclusive credit cards like the Amex Platinum card, as a "bonus."

I also predict that five years from today, some version of this policy will still be in place.

(I hope I'm wrong!)

I also predict a surge in the use of Chromebooks — whose data will not be automatically vulnerable to extraction if they go missing en route — as well as tamper-evident seals on USB ports and laptop screws, and increased demand for easily removable hard-drives (I certainly plan on yanking my hard drive before my next transatlantic flight).

One issue under discussion is how to ensure that lithium batteries in any large collection of devices stored in airplane holds do not explode in midair, officials told Reuters.

European regulators have warned placing what could be potentially hundreds of devices in the hold on long-haul flights could compromise safety by increasing the risk of fire from poorly deactivated lithium-ion batteries.

Peter Goelz, a former managing director at the National Transportation Safety Board in the United States, said a significant expansion of the in-cabin ban on larger electronics "is going to represent a major logistical problem for airlines."

U.S. likely to expand airline laptop ban to Europe: government officials [Mark Hosenball and David Shepardson/Reuters]