SAM WAMBUGU: Unease about uncharged electronic devices warranted [Nation (Kenya)]
(Nation (Kenya) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Dead smartphones and other drained gadgets won't be allowed on British Airways and Virgin Atlantic flights to the US under a directive from the American Department of Homeland Security whose officials consider these gadgets potential explosive devices.
The measures are being enforced to tighten security at airports with direct flights to the US due to fears that terrorists have perfected undetectable explosive devices.
Travellers at certain airports could be asked to turn on electronic device; those that do not have sufficient power will not be allowed on the planes.
The policy, which took effect last week, could lead to travel bottlenecks at London's Heathrow Airport as affected passengers decide whether or not to rebook, or leave their gadgets behind, with directions on where they are to be sent.
British Airways says it will cover the costs of shipping dead phones and other devices while travellers adjust to the new rule. Virgin Atlantic says customers can leave gadgets with the airline at the airport but the customer will cover costs to have it returned to them.
American Airlines, the world's largest airline, said US-bound customers with uncharged gadgets can choose to mail the device at the airport, discard it or be rebooked on a later flight at no fee. But why fear dead gadgets?
The primary concern appears to be that a bomb could be concealed inside a cell phone or other electronic device.
An X-ray of an ordinary cell phone at a security checkpoint usually shows a dense block the battery plus electronics boards and wires. Terrorists could potentially remove the battery and replace it with a block of plastic explosives the same shape and size as the battery.
This requirement has been in force for a long time but only enforced from time to time. About a decade ago, the fear of this type of bomb prompted the US security department to order travellers to power up their cell phones or laptops to prove that they contained a battery. .
Now, experts speculate that, perhaps, more sophisticated bomb-makers could have found a way to outsmart that system. It's possible that terrorists may have developed explosives that more closely resemble the characteristics of batteries as shown in an X-ray.
So this new requirement is a simple way to confirm that a device's battery has not been tampered with.
There are other ways to use cell phones as part of a remote control explosive system. Terrorists have often used a cellphone to call another one wired to a bomb, which is designed to explode when the ringer goes off.
That triggering method has been used in many improvised explosive devices in many terrorism-prone countries. The cellphones give terrorists the advantage of detonating a device from long distances.
Could a cellphone be used to trigger an explosive device if terrorists managed to get one on board a commercial aircraft, perhaps in luggage in the cargo hold or into the cabin itself? Probably not.
There are four ways that cellphones communicate: cellular phone, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and text messaging. There would be technological limitations to using any of them in that way.
Cell reception in a plane is spotty at best, and at lower altitudes, the plane would need to be within range of a cell tower on the ground, and the metal body of the aircraft can interfere with reception even then.
At cruising altitudes there would be no cellular voice or text reception. But if you are planning to fly to the US, make sure your phone, tablet or laptop has some juice, otherwise one of you you or your electronic device may not fly. If you are used to carrying several phones, that will only increase inconveniences at the airports.
Sam Wambugu is a monitoring and evaluation specialist. E-mail: Samwambugu@gmail.com
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