Visible measures or real security?

Image: Stockfresh

12 May 2017

Paul HearnsBans: we all know one, we have been affected by one, but the question remains, do they really work?

Take the ban on liquids on flights which celebrated its tenth anniversary last year. This stemmed from a very real plot to mix liquids onboard a plane, carried there in drinks bottles, to make an explosive which could then be used to take down the plane.

The base ingredient was to be hydrogen peroxide, or bleach to you and me.

Would the safety measure not be better implemented by asking people to boot up such a device to show that it is operational, rather than simply ban them from the cabin?

Now the validity of this concern has been widely debated for 10 years since the original plot was foiled, and most people with knowledge of the subject seem to think it would be very hard to makes something powerful enough, with hydrogen peroxide as the primary fuel, to do any significant damage.

So, the question remains why would various safety organisations, governments and airlines put up with the ban for so many years?

Well, there is a widely-held theory that such measures are visible indicators of the measures and efforts taken by the authorities to ensure safety, and so reassure the public. But the supporters of this theory often question the actual security value of the measures.

Fast forward to 2017, and there is now a ban from seven countries of laptops and large electronic devices on flights coming into the United States, that is likely to be expanded and adopted by the UK under certain conditions.

In reporting on the ban, the Reuters news agency quotes Peter Goelz, a former US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) managing director, as saying it is very difficult to tell if a dense object is a battery or an explosive device. Well, quite.

As such, anything bigger than an iPhone 7 Plus must go in the hold.

However, other fears have been raised about a potential concentration of lithium or lithium ion battery devices all clustered together in a hold.

Imagine if a terrorist had managed to replace the Li-ion battery of say a laptop, with an explosive load. Speculate further if that device was to be activated by an electronic signal from another device, say a smart phone.

Such an attacker could activate the small explosive device from the smart phone, knowing that it could spark a wider reaction within the hold due to numerous other devices being all around it, stuffed with Lithium or Lithium based batteries, all surrounded by handy fuel of clothes and other assorted luggage.

So where does that leave the cabin ban?

The example of the ValuJet flight 592 shows that a hold fire, irrespective of how it started, can be as deadly as any explosion. In that instance, the aircraft was incorrectly transporting oxygen generators that suffered an exothermic chain reaction resulting in a fire that brought down the aircraft.

Would the safety measure not be better implemented by asking people to boot up such a device to show that it is operational, rather than simply ban them from the cabin?

I personally recall in about 1993, coming home from Frankfurt with a rather large, and it must be said conspicuous, portable stereo device and being asked to plug it in at the security check point for just such a reason. The strains of Motorhead, if I recall correctly, that flowed forth, brought a smile to the face of my inquisitor, though not, I’ll admit, my to my fellow passengers.

If, as the NSTB man says, it is hard to tell a dense object like a chemical battery from an explosive, then surely the answer would be to delve further than x-rays and ask people to turn the bloody things on, thus dispelling any doubt.

Would it be any worse in an airport queue to have a security operative going up and down the lines asking people to turn on any devices they have, ready to show as they pass, rather than simply relegating them to the hold, particularly if the likes of smart phones will be unregulated?

Unless the safety services are keeping something highly significant back in terms of the aims of the ban, this smacks again of visible efforts to reassure, rather than practical, preventative measures, suggesting an overstated threat.

However, if that temporary liquids ban is anything to go by, this should all be over and done with in a while, allowing us to go back to enjoying air travel, without the scramble for clear bags, and worrying about how much toothpaste you’ll need a for a trip.

No, wait…


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