Laptop Ban Stranger Than I Thought

Today’s Washington Post WorldView newsletter throws more light, a lot of shade, and a lot more confusion onto the ban I linked to last night, on taking laptops and tablets in hand luggage from certain airports.

First, I didn’t realise that the list of affected airports is different between the UK and the US. Second, for the US, it is just a small set of airports, not all airports in the affected countries. The UK takes the broader approach — but for a different set of countries.

The most interesting point to my mind is that this may all be Trump trying to help American businesses:

When pressed by reporters, officials in both countries said the measures were not a response to a specific threat, but rather the result of intelligence assessments that concluded groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are seeking new methods to sow terror in the skies, possibly through hidden bombs in electronic equipment.

And later:

Farrell and Newman suggested Tuesday’s order is an example of the Trump administration “weaponizing interdependence” — using its leverage in a world where American airports are key “nodes” in global air travel to weaken competitors. My colleague Max Bearak detailed how this could be a part of Trump’s wider protectionist agenda. In February, President Trump met with executives of U.S. airlines and pledged that he would help them compete against foreign carriers that receive subsidies from their home governments.

“A lot of that competition is subsidized by governments, big league,” said Trump at that meeting. “I’ve heard that complaint from different people in this room. Probably about one hour after I got elected, I was inundated with calls from your industry and many other industries, because it’s a very unfair situation.”

So unfair. But if that’s what’s behind it, what the hell does our glorious leader get out of going along with a slightly modified version of it? It’s certainly not to protect British airlines, as they (unlike American airlines) are affected by the ban. Maybe my “lapdog” dig was exactly right. For years Tony Blair was referred too as George W Bush’s poodle. Maybe Theresa May is adopting the same role for Trump. Which is a horrifying thought.

Another WaPo article contradicts all that, though, suggesting that the whole thing might be based on some credible concerns:

The U.S. restrictions were prompted by a growing concern within the government that terrorists who have long sought to develop hard-to-detect bombs hidden inside electronic devices may have put renewed effort into that work, according to people familiar with the matter

But it asks the question and fails to get a satisfactory answer, “Why not ban all electronics on flights, then?”

People familiar with the discussions said the restrictions were designed to defeat the particular type of threat that is of greatest concern: the possibility that terrorists could smuggle explosives inside electronics and manually detonate them once on a plane.

Even if that makes sense (after all, its not like a computer in the hold is (or could hide) some kind of timing device): why just from a strange subset of airports, even in the countries of concern?

And if it’s all based on a real threat, why the US/UK difference?

They also raise the real concern that journalists, activists, and just ordinary citizens, will be separated from their personal information, leaving it under the control of unknown people.

Buckle up, folks, this ride is only going to get stranger and more unpleasant.

Laptop Ban Stranger Than I Thought

On Security at Stansted

To Glasgow, then, and a weekend visit to my Mum. The kids and I caught the train to Stansted on Friday afternoon, to find the security theatre in full force. Although we made EasyJet’s last checkin time with a good ten minutes to spare, I really thought we would miss our flight when we joined the back of one of two or three giant, slow-moving queues. Especially so when, after a few minutes, we realised that we were in fact at the back of a queue for another checkin desk. We weren’t alone in this error, though: the queues mingled, and quite a few others had made the same mistake.

But in the end it wasn’t that bad. The queue began moving fairly quickly — or smoothly, at least — and while it was frustrating, it was bearable, as long as you didn’t let yourself get frustrated. The passport/boarding-pass-control desk looked a right mess, though, covered as it was by abandoned bottles, cosmetics containers and what have you.

To be honest, I’m not actually sure why the queues were so long. The only things that have changed in security terms compared with a few months ago are the prohibited items in hand baggage, and the enforcement of the “only one item” rule (I’m sure this has been the rule for decades, but it just wasn’t strictly enforced). Both of those issues should be dealt with at checkin, so when you get to the security gates you should be ready. Every bag and coat is x-rayed, as before: but there should be fewer bags; everyone goes through a metal detector, just as they always did. There was a “please take off your shoes” section after the metal detectors, but as we paused at it, one security guy called, “Not everybody, not everybody,” and waved us on. I suppose people were randomly chosen, and incidentally, everyone I saw taking their shoes off was white. This may, of course, just mean that people who look like terrorists (whatever that may mean) are not travelling, from fear of being hassled.

I conclude that the only reason for the giant queues must be stupidity: there must be people who, even though they are asked about prohibited items at checkin, and even though this stuff has been in the news for weeks, still have drinks in their hand luggage, and then have to stop to abandon them at security. Or who try to take more than one item on, even though they’ve been told not to. And yet, I didn’t see much of that happening. I really don’t understand why the queues got so big. There were plenty of security staff on duty, too.

Coming back, things were much less fraught at Glasgow Airport, as they generally are at smaller airports, in my experience.

Throughout, I have to say, all the security staff we encountered were cheerful, polite, and helpful, while doing a largely thankless, probably quite dull, job, filled with seemingly-arbitrary rule changes handed down from above. I can’t really fault them, no matter how daft some of the things they have to enforce may be.

A last thought: we are being conditioned to accept travelling with photo ID, even within the country. It was strange to see everyone queuing up to get onto a flight to Scotland, with their passports ready. Now I’d be quite happy to see EU passports issued by the Republic of Scotland (as long as it was a republic), but for now, it was still a journey within the UK.

And the strange thing is, it seems to be the airlines that are driving this, not the authorities. I have had to show photo ID on RyanAir and EasyJet, but a few months ago — this year, certainly — I flew to Scotland with BMI Baby, and not only did they not ask for ID, but I didn’t even have to see a human to check in: hand baggage, a credit card, and a self-checkin machine, and there I was. That was before all the recent fuss, true, but RyanAir (and possibly EasyJet) have been asking for ID for years. Are they secretly being used by the government to get us used to carrying ID cards? And if so, why is it only some airlines?

Or am I being unreasonably paranoid? ‘Cos I only want to be reasonably paranoid, you know.

On Security at Stansted