The Transportation Security Administration has found yet another way to make traveling terrible: Passengers boarding U.S.-bound flights at some foreign airports will not be allowed to board with electronic devices that don’t have enough juice to turn on. Forgetting to charge your gadget and being stuck in line without the joy of checking Twitter is the least of your worries. You’ll have to throw your phone away when it’s finally your turn to run the screening gauntlet.
The new rule — announced with no explanation of why it was created — has been widely and swiftly lampooned as one more example of TSA nonsense. It’s impressive that the agency has managed to make the already crummy ordeal of flying even worse. But don’t assume this is more TSA idiocy just yet.
The rule change may be obnoxious, but it’s not stupid, says Rafi Ron, the former director of security at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport, notorious for its strict screening procedures. The TSA is likely responding to new intelligence that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has developed explosives that are difficult to detect with current technology, Ron says. That calls for a change in procedure.
“I think that the measures that are taken make a lot of sense,” Ron says.
It should be noted that Ron is not a TSA apologist. He’s the guy who called the agency’s decision to make us all remove our shoes in response to Richard Reid’s shoe bomb debacle “an extremely unintelligent conclusion.”
Ensuring that a phone turns on is a quick, easy and low-tech — if not foolproof — way of checking that its battery hasn’t been replaced with a bomb. The fact that it applies only to passengers flying into the United States from select (and unspecified) airports shows that the TSA is targeting its approach.
That said, it does seem strange that, as an anonymous TSA employee notes to Wired, the TSA needs to do this at all, given that it already uses an explosive trace detection machine. Plus, there is the risk that turning on a gadget containing a bomb might trigger it.
Whatever the answer, the TSA must implement its new rule logically. That is not something the TSA is known for. Jason E. Harrington, a former TSA officer and a critic of the agency, doesn’t hold out much hope that logic will prevail. “Nearly all of the security workforce, in all likelihood, will be mindlessly waving through passengers with powered-up electronics — because when you work front-line security with an inflexible checklist as your guide, you find it’s easy to let critical thinking take a backseat to basic standard operating procedure compliance,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian.
“Meanwhile, at least one old lady will probably arrive at every airport checkpoint each day having forgotten to charge her beat-up old flip-phone, which an agent will inevitably toss into the checkpoint trash bin.”
The TSA has kept quiet about how it plans to implement the rule — the announcement is all of four sentences long — but we hope it at least considers putting an array of chargers in the airport. That way, passengers who show up with a dead battery don’t have to throw their gadgets away, and this becomes just one more in a long list of inconveniences.
There is another, much more nefarious element to the new rule: accusations that it has nothing to do with explosives, but is rather a way for the Department of Homeland Security to better surveil us through our devices. The theory goes that if the phone’s battery is dead, it can’t be tracked. There’s an easy workaround for those who are worried about that: Once you’re through security, pop out the battery and enjoy your flight.