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Why experts smell something fishy in Trump’s electronics ban

Technology and security experts have spoken out about why these new restrictions make no sense to anyone with a basic understanding of computer science or cybersecurity or just plain common sense.

world Updated: Mar 23, 2017 09:56 IST
Joyeeta Biswas
Trump electronics

While some say the Donald Trump administration’s restrictions could be an excuse to go through and extract sensitive information being carried in the electronic devices of passengers, others believe the true motive is to weaken competition to US airlines. (AP)

On Tuesday, US President Donald Trump’s administration said passengers travelling from 10 airports in Muslim-majority countries would have to bring larger devices such as tablets, laptops and cameras in their checked baggage in response to unspecified security threat. Bemused and baffled, technology and security experts have spoken out about why these new restrictions make no sense to anyone with a basic understanding of computer science or cybersecurity or just plain common sense.

1) Smartphones are as good as laptops for attacks

If the US is worried about the plane being hacked, critics say, that could be accomplished by a cellphone just as well. The modern smartphone today is powerful enough to match larger devices in computing ability.

And if the US believes explosive devices could be hidden in laptops or tablets, these could do just as much damage in the cargo hold. So these restrictions wouldn’t slow down a determined terrorist.

2) The world is a canvas for terror groups

Militant groups such as the Islamic State are no longer restricted to their countries of origin. As their followers and ability to influence people through social media has grown, cells have sprung up, spectacular attacks have been carried out and smaller groups have sworn allegiance to them across the world, from France and Germany to Bangladesh and Pakistan and Nigeria. Trying to impose restrictions on just a few countries is like locking the door of a house with no walls.

3) What does ‘larger than a cellphone’ mean?

The restrictions, by the US department of homeland security (DHS), apply to devices “larger than a cellphone”. Which cellphone? How large can a cellphone be? If they stop us from taking along our tablet, can we whip out one of those giant cellphones with the antennas they used in the 90s to compare sizes?

Larger than the average tablet. (AP file)

The US seems to have left it to different airlines to decide, as if the details aren’t really important as long as some inconvenience is caused.

4) The precedents are shaky

The US says it based its restrictions on recent intelligence reports that militants were trying to smuggle explosive devices in gadgets. A state department official reportedly referred reporters to “several terrorist events on airplanes in the last year”, but there seems to be only one previous example of such an attempt. In Somalia a year ago, a bomb hidden in a laptop blew a hole in the side of an aircraft. The bomb failed to down the plane. The carrier, called Dallo, does not fly to the US. If thousands of passengers are to be put to so much inconvenience every day, experts are asking, shouldn’t the rules be based on less vague precedents?

5) The restrictions could actually be more dangerous

The US federal aviation authority last year issued a directive to block lithium-powered batteries, used in many such electronic devices, from being carried the cargo holds of planes because they posed a serious fire risk. By forcing people to stow their laptops in checked baggage, the DHS was violating its own government’s safety concerns.

Critics have suggested that the real reason for the restrictions isn’t security at all. While some say it could be an excuse to go through and extract sensitive information being carried in the electronic devices of passengers, others believe the true motive is commerce. According to the Washington Post, the restrictions might be Trump’s attempt to weaken competition to US airlines. “Three of the airlines that have been targeted for these measures — Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways — have long been accused by their U.S. competitors of receiving massive effective subsidies from their governments,” the Post quoted two political scientists as saying. “These airlines have been quietly worried for months that President Trump was going to retaliate. This may be the retaliation.”