If you travel by air from certain countries â which happen to be Muslim-majority â to the US or UK, you will no longer be allowed to take your laptop or tablet in your hand baggage. You will probably have lots of questions, such as: why has the US banned them from flights operated by airlines based in those countries, but not on US carriers? And why has the UK banned them from all airlines departing those countries, British airlines included? If a bomb can be concealed in a laptop, shouldnât they be banned from flights altogether, rather than just shifted to the hold? Wouldnât a would-be terrorist just fly to another airport, and get a connecting flight to the UK or US, with their laptop in their carry-on bag? And â most pertinently â what films will the airline be showing now you donât have a gadget to entertain you?
âIt makes so little sense,â says Bruce Schneier, a security expert and author of Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World. It has been suggested the that US ban is a protectionist measure, hiding behind a terror threat. As the Washington Post pointed out, âthree of the airlines that have been targeted for these measures â Emirates, Etihad and Qatar â have long been accused by their US competitors of receiving massive effective subsidies from their governments. These airlines have been quietly worried for months that President Trump was going to retaliate. This may be the retaliation.â
But that doesnât explain why the UK is going along with it, says Schneier, or why it is insisting that British airlines adhere to the ban. From tomorrow, a ban on laptops will be in place on all flights to the UK from Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia. âThe more I look at this, the less sense it makes,â he adds.
Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International and author of Violence in the Skies: A History of Aircraft Hijacking and Bombing, says: âI think itâs a very ill-thought-through procedure. I think it does not contribute to aviation security; indeed, it might even be contrary to airport security.â Experts have warned that putting large numbers of devices with lithium batteries in the hold of planes could increase the risk of fires. Baum also says that it is easier to inspect items in hand luggage. âEven if there is intelligence out there to say there may be bombs secreted in laptops, I would like to believe that screeners at airports are able to distinguish between a laptop that contains an IED [improvised explosive device] and a laptop that does not.â He believes this ban was prompted by the laptop bomb that exploded on a Daallo Airlines flight last year in Somalia. But the perpetrator â who was sucked out of the aeroplane after blowing a hole in the side of the plane, which the pilot then managed to land â is believed to have been given the laptop by an employee at the airport. This new ban âdoesnât preclude an airport insider giving someone a device after the screening process, and if weâre worried about security at these airports then we shouldnât be operating flights thereâ.
But some people I speak to who work in aviation security think the ban is reasonable. âThings change all the time,â says Tom Hardiman, aviation security expert at the management consultancy Egremont Group. âThis isnât the first time weâve had such a situation. We had a liquids ban that resulted in all bags being removed from the cabin.â For a short period in 2006, after a plot to blow up a plane using liquid explosives, people departing UK airports were only allowed to travel with travel documents, essential medicine, baby food and money â this was relaxed a month later, but the ban on liquids over 100ml remains. The ban on laptops and tablets âis a usual, proportionate response to a specific threatâ.
The baseline regulations, or common standards, for airports and airlines in Europe are set by the EU, he says. âAs a state, the UK can put in additional measures [in response to] specific threats and risks.â Germany and Spain (along with Switzerland) have said they will not introduce the ban. âIâd say in the UK the balance is about right [between] meeting the risks against people wanting to travel and having the liberty to do so. I think the government is always trying to find that balance, and are mindful of the impacts on travellers.â
We havenât been told what the threat is, says Chris Barratt, chief executive of Avsec Global, which advises the aviation industry on security and trains staff, âso we donât know whether the measures are right or wrong. All I can say from experience is that itâs not a decision that is taken lightly â there are impacts on the industry, and on peopleâs freedom of movement. We have to be able to trust our government to get that information and respond in the correct way.â
Airport security is constantly evolving â and, many passengers would complain, becoming ever more arduous. âThe vision is that we get to the point where you would walk down a corridor and the detection systems would check you and identify any items weâd rather you didnât have,â says one security expert, who asks not to be named (they have government contracts). âWhen you get to the end, you turn one way to go to the departure lounge, or you turn the other way and you have the authorities waiting for you. Weâre a little way away, but weâre going down that road â with some x-ray machines you see in some airports these days, the more sophisticated ones, you donât need to take out laptops and liquids.â
In the 1950s and much of the 60s, security was virtually non-existent. After a spate of hijackings, metal detectors were introduced to try to stop people taking guns on to a plane, and in the 70s, cabin bags started to be screened. Following the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, all checked luggage was x-rayed. After 9/11, cockpit doors have become impenetrable, while air marshals, advanced screening and body scanners have become commonplace at airports. Shoes and jackets are scanned, and officials often ask for phones to be turned on to check theyâre real.
Airport security is built on layers, according to everyone I speak to who works within it, and each layer is as important as any other, says Barratt. A terrorist would be foiled, one hopes, at some point in the process. âThere is no such thing as 100% security. All the while that there are humans involved, you canât make anything fail-safe.â The only way, he adds, is if we stop flying all together. âAnd then the terrorists have won. Itâs about reducing the risk, making sure the measures put in place change with the perceived threats and intelligence.â And, he asks, how do you measure success anyway? âYou donât actually know that what youâre doing is working until someone tries to attack it.â
The problem, says Baum, is that weâre constantly reacting to terroristsâ tactics rather than being more proactive. The object we try to eliminate âis usually an item that was involved in the last attack â we were searching shoes after the shoe bomb, we introduced body scanners after the underpants bomber, weâre now restricting laptops because there was a bomb involving a laptop â weâre always playing catch-up while the terrorists are planning the next way of circumventing the security system. Overall, the approach of adding items to the list is not the right way to go about things.â
The liquids ban, Schneier has pointed out, seems an especially ineffective example â try to take liquids through the checkpoint and they will simply be confiscated. There are no penalties, you will not be arrested and questioned. âNo one cares any more,â says Schneier about the liquids ban.
He describes airport security as âsecurity theatreâ and says much of it is a waste of time and money, âbecause a lot of it doesnât work. Most airport security does not protect against threat.â Only two things have made air travel safer since 9/11, he has said in the past â securing the cockpit door âand convincing passengers they need to fight back. Everything else has been a waste of money. Add screening of checked bags and airport workers and weâre done. Take all the rest of the money and spend it on investigation and intelligence.â
There are signs that we perhaps shouldnât feel too reassured â in 2015, screeners in the US failed to detect mock weapons in an alarming 95% of tests conducted by undercover agents. It was reported that one agent set off an alarm, but in the pat-down that followed, the screener failed to find the mock bomb taped to his back. Four months after the 9/11 attacks, I flew from London to Los Angeles and back with a penknife I had forgotten about in my carry on bag, which nobody picked up.
What we should be doing, instead of focusing on objects, says Baum, is focusing on people, âlooking for negative intent in individuals, be they employees or passengersâ. Itâs a controversial subject because it raises the spectre of racial profiling, although Baum says singling people out by ethnicity âis completely wrong and also poor security. Itâs about identifying when an individual â whether they are an employee or a passenger â does not meet our baseline expectations, or is behaving in an unusual manner. We should focus our attention on those people more than on others. Get the people who are the obvious tourists and business travellers through the security system and stop making life hell for them, and concentrate our efforts on the people who we find it harder to read.â He points out that customs and immigration officers often give people who have disembarked a flight a tough time. âIf you can do it when people get off an aeroplane, then why donât we do it before they get on?â
In 2014, researchers Coral Dando and Tom Ormerod published research they had done at airports using an interview-based profiling technique. They found that airport staff were 20 times more effective in identifying the planted mock passengers when conducting interviews than when using behavioural indicators. The results, says Dando, who is professor of psychology at Westminster University, were âstunning, and we were amazedâ. Trying to read body language, she says, is not that reliable. It is a myth that nervousness, for example, manifests in universal signs that can be spotted. âThey may exist on an individual level, but they donât exist in general, across a population, because we all behave physically differently when we are being deceptive. We concentrated on the one thing that is fairly consistent, and that is peopleâs speech: what people said, the way in which they said it and the consistency of the story they told.â
The managed conversation, known as CCE (controlled cognitive engagement), was designed to âmake that conversation as difficult as possible for liars, and as easy as possible for truth tellers. And so liars reveal themselves.â She canât give details publicly, but says the technique involves many different types of questions, including ones about the past, to make maintaining a lie difficult. Itâs not as obvious as asking the purpose of their visit.
Someone trying to evade detection âtends to have a script they have developed, and will try to second-guess the questions theyâre going to be asked. The secret to our technique is that itâs never the same,â says Dando.
So has CCE been adopted by airports? No, although Dando says she is about to work with an airline in one of the countries affected by the current concerns. âWe worked with two partner American carriers, and sadly it seems that unless theyâre going to be told to do it by the [US] Transportation Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security, theyâve decided not to bother, which is unfortunate, but thereâs a cost involved, I guess.â
Profiling, says Barratt, would be another layer to the security, not something that would replace the other measures. âIf youâve ever flown with El Al [Israelâs national airline], profiling is very comprehensive. Iâve been subject to it myself.â Passengers are questioned in detail and at length by trained staff â the aim is to identify suspect people, not suspect objects. There have been many criticisms of racial profiling. But El Al also uses other measures such as intensive bag screening and undercover air marshals on every flight.
Some airports, he says, employ behavioural detection specialists in the terminal, who watch out for unusual signs in people (although Dando is unconvinced this works). Barratt worked as a police officer with the counter-terror unit at Gatwick airport for 15 years. Part of the job was looking for people about whom there was something unusual (he wonât give specifics). âWhat you found was that there was something out of place. You are looking for things that donât fit, things you donât expect.â Itâs difficult at an airport, where people may be acting unusually for any number of reasons â they might be nervous about flying, or worried about a business trip, or taking an emergency trip home to be with an ill loved one. âWhat you have to do is determine why it is that they donât seem to fit your picture.â