Controversies over electronics on plane still continue and need a real solution

A recent incident at the Orlando airport underscores the nervousness these days of the security implications of personal electronics.

Apparently a camera containing a lithium battery exploded, causing tremendous confusion and disruption as explain in this Orlando television station report.

This was not a laptop, tablet or smartphone.  But there have been issues in the past with specific items, including some Samsung smart phones and some hoverboards.  In some devices it seems even a battery not plugged in has caught fire.

Laptops have not have many incidents; however some time this year high school students watched a 2006 laptop blow up in their California home.

Contrast this with the controversy last spring with the temporary bans of in-cabin electronics from airports in various countries, on the theory that terrorists could devise plastic explosives that could be hidden from security, as this story by Jack Stewart in Wired had explained.

According to the LA Times, the TSA implemented a new rule requiring screening of all laptops and similar electronics.  It’s not clear if this applies to Known Travelers, who presumably are trustworthy users of consumer electronics in the normal and lawful manner.  A July 2017 memo from the TSA suggests that TSAPrev travelers are exempt (also see this).

But as I noted in May, the TSA (and similar security in all other countries) has to face a basic policy reality.  There are some incidents of very low probability that are impossible to prevent with absolute certainty. It’s almost a quantum thing.  Laptops on flights were not controversial until this year. I’ve flown with them for twenty years.  But more modern lithium batteries have at least a theoretical risk due to the fact that lithium is fairly reactive.  Remember the high school chemistry experiment of putting sodium into water?  (There has been at least one injury in the past few years from that demonstration.)

As I wrote in May, we need to solve the problem of the best approach to electronics and travel.  Could non-lithium batteries be used again and improved?   Could a safer ground rental system be developed, if some day it was no longer practical for people to take their own electronics?  (You don’t have to take your data if it’s in the Cloud, hopefully.)  There would seem room in the blogosphere for advice on how to travel with gear and make sure it works when you get there — along the lines of “Blogtyrant’s” ideas on how to help readers with content (to the point that readers actually welcome emails).

We need to keep an eye on this problem.

(Posted: Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 at 12 Noon EST)

Update: Nov 15

Here is TSA’s own blog post on passenger options if an item is not allowed on a plane or in checked luggage.

Here is the FAA’s current policy on batteries in equipment brought into planes, pdf.  Here is an explanation of watt-hours for a battery.  The FAA sheet would imply passengers should know the watt-hours of their batteries that aren’t always published but are printed on the batteries themselves (since 2011).  They should normally be less than 100.

(Video on battery access)

A quick visit to a near Best Buy and discussion with a  tech verified that Apple typically makes battery info details available to consumers as an app, but most PC-style laptops based on Windows or other ops do not. A policy solution to the safety problem discussed here could include making the info available to the user on a firmware app.  Many modern laptops (like the ASUS) require considerable effort and practice (and Philips screwdrivers) to open properly to see and exchange the batteries.

Update: Nov. 16

It still seems that checkpoint-friendly bags (USA Today story) for laptops are recommended, and they must not have extra compartments or buckles.  Yet, relatively few of them at a local Best Buy store were compliant.  Retailers don’t seem to have a lot of knowledge about this.

Airports seem to be encouraging electronics, with modern docking stations in secure areas, and restaurants (in secure areas also) with order menus on iPads.

Update: Nov 17

I found myself going through security after returning a rent car at Fort Lauderdale without the opportunity to check a bag (I later learned that was on a higher floor). So the regular luggage went through the TSA-Prev line and a shaving cream container was confiscated even though it would have been acceptable in checked luggage (which I checked at the gate).

TSA Liquids rule

TSA all items 

Governments, tech, travel industry need to get their acts together on in-flight electronics ban; the facts don’t add up

The government (DHS and TSA, and Trump Administration, as well as European and “responsible” middle Eastern country governments) and the tech industry, and the travel industry (airlines and on-land rentals) need to get their acts together – and fast – on the proposed electronics ban in cabins on planes.

The latest information is that the DHS is seriously weighing requiring that all electronics larger than smart phones be in checked luggage, on all flights from Europe and the UK, or probably all inbound flights to the US.

CNN aired a comment early Saturday morning (May 27) that this ban might include outgoing flights.

At the same time, the TSA is requiring laptops be removed from bags (overruling the TSA-approved laptop bag practice) in many airports for domestic US screening.  It’s likely that this will require that laptops boot up successfully without external power.

At this point, a traveler has to wonder, would an electronics ban eventually apply to all domestic flights?  Could it eventually include smartphones if there is more new intelligence?  The issue is further beduffled by the Trump administration’s carelessness in divulging intelligence from allies to the Russians, or allowing media leaks (one of I which I reported on a legacy blog, about Manchester, from the New York Times).

The idea of placing laptops with lithium ion batteries in the cargo hold seems to contradict concerns about the safety of lithium batteries unattended in general, although there are rebuttals that the density of lithium is spread out over a wide volume.  The is also some research on developing aluminum batteries for laptops that would be safer.

Moreover, the TSA has always advised travelers from putting laptops, in particular, because they might be damaged in flight by rough handling, weight of nearby cargo, cold, and high altitude.  No one has tried to rebut this previous advice in current discussions. Here’s a USA Today article on current TSA advice on checking laptops and other electronics in today’s domestic fights.  It doesn’t jive with the new concerns.  No one has an reply to this.

It would be reasonable to ask travelers to consider alternatives.  If a traveler is going to be away for several weeks and stay on the ground, should she ship the laptop by UPS or FedEx?  Should these companies and laptop manufacturers develop industry standard ways to ship laptops without damage?  Could containers for packing for cargo checkin be sold by manufacturers?  Because this problem has developed so suddenly, there seems to be no industry standards.  The tech industry needs to solve this problem fast, but it needs to know what DHS really needs to do.

Could “travel-safe” electronics be developed? (That includes not using lithium.)  It sounds like it is possible to work with a smartphone and keyboard. What I need on the road is the ability to do social media and blog posts with simple text, a few photos and short videos (after YouTube uploading).  But the equipment needs to work. A couple years ago Lenovo was selling a travel laptop based on inner BlueTooth connectivity which broke down a lot.  Such devices need to work reliably when on the road after air travel and transport.

On the other hand, could a ground rental industry be developed?  You rent a computer the way you rent a car.  When you turn it in the hard drive is wiped clean for security, and you store all your work in the Cloud or on thumb drives or min hard drives (which have to go back home).

But this industry will not develop unless it has to.  And we need to know what DHS really wants to do.

In my own circumstances, travel without normal access to electronics is not possible.  I’m not prepared to go dark on vacation for a month.   Indeed, people could run the risk of losing their accounts or content if they cannot respond to problems (after notification) when on the road.  This could become an increasing problem in the future.

There is some talk that the ban (and the new policy about taking laptops out of bags) will not affect pre-cleared passengers.

It was common 20 years ago, before 9/11, for passengers to be asked to start laptops at airports.  I was asked to do this only once (with an old Compaq Windows 95 machine).  But in those days, I did not always carry the laptop.   I did not take it to Europe in 1999 and again early 2001. Sometimes I depended on Kinkos (now FedEx), or other Internet cafes, when all I needed was AOL for email and to check my one domain at the time.  I did not try to update it on the road, but I would check that it was up when on the road (about every other day). Page request volumes would go down by about 40% when I was not actively updating it.

Hotel business centers today are woefully inadequate for heavy use by travelers, because they know travelers carry their own (which is why they offer free Internet).  The one exception was that a hotel in Bilbao Spain had a huge business center for guests back in 2001.

CNN has a nice op-ed by Bruce Scheier questioning the sense of the in-cabin electronics bans.

(Posted: Saturday, May 27, 2017 at 2:30 PM EDT)

The electronics “travel ban” (from a few overseas airports for now) begs big future questions about staying connected “on the road”, especially for small businesses

In late March, the United States and then the UK instituted a ban on most electronics (larger than a smart phone) in the cabins of direct flights from a number of airports in the Middle East and Africa, largely Muslim countries.  The UK list is slightly smaller than the US list.  So far, other western countries have not yet followed suit.

NBC News produced a story by Harriet Baskas March 22 on how travelers were irked here.  Obviously there could be issues about cancellations and trying to change to connecting flights in Europe.  I’ll come back to that.

Firday, March 31,  CNN produced (in a story by Evan Perez, Jodi Enda, and CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr) what it calls an exclusive story on the intelligence behind the travel ban.  The claim is that associates of Al Qaeda, largely in enclaves in Yemen, have developed ways to hide plastic explosives inside laptops, possibly in a DVD bay, in such a way that laptops would still start if travelers are challenged at airports.  There is concern that terrorists might have acquired prototype screening machines to test their devices.  Presumably these devices can be detonated only manually.  But theoretically, devices could be improvised that could be detonated by cell phones even if stored in cargo bays, if close enough to other similar devices.

DHS would obviously be concerned that terrorists could communicate in different parts of the world and spread this “expertise”.  Through the dark web, such information might become available to disaffected “lone wolf” or small cell groups in the U.S.,

Confounding the logic of the ban is the recent concern over the safety of lithium batteries in cargo. A few older laptops from the middle 2000s have caught fire, at least when charging, as happened with some teens in California recently.   But the concern for safely of lithium batteries in laptops is much less than for other devices, including some Samsung smart phones (some makes may not be brought onto planes) and hoverboards, which have caught fire in apartments and private homes while charging.

Also countermanding this picture are recent reports of research (as at Stanford) showing that aluminum based batteries may be safer than lithium and could be engineered to be acceptable replacements for many devices.

AC360, Anderson Cooper’s news analysis program, interviewed some experts on May 31,  Saturday, April 1, 2017. CNN interviewed Mary Schiavo, former Inspector General for the US Department of Transportation.  Later Robert Baer was interviewed.  Most of these guests expressed the obvious view that the Mideast cabin laptop ban begs the question as to whether it will be expanded, and could eventually become routine, even on domestic US flights.

DHS says that it has multiple layers of security, which includes the latest screening machines.  DHS apparently believed that airports in the affected countries did not have the same level of security.

Some observers have even claimed that the laptop bans were instituted out of Trump-style “protectionism”.

Business travelers generally need to carry their electronics with them and work on planes.  Owners of small businesses also would need to, as would “professional” journalists.

The worst case scenario would be sudden bans of all electronics on flights, even though in the West hundreds of millions of people fly with no intention of harming others.  This sounds like the “trojan horse” argument in the immigration debate, which Donald Trump has leveraged.

Tech companies could envisions solutions.  Until now, the TSA has always told air travelers not to check laptops and tablets, possibly because of the lithium issue, but largely because the devices are likely to be damaged.  It is possible to imagine sturdy (and explosion-proof) containers in which they could be packed, with the cases sold on Amazon or by stores like Best Buy.  It is possible to imagine expedited services to ship electronics for longer trips by UPS or FedEx to airport stores to be picked up on arrival, for use  after arriving.  There have been issues with bringing conventional photo film home on planes in the past, and I have mailed it home (just USPS)  before to get around the issue.

Frida Ghitis wrote on CNN about her experience with having to pack her laptop and other devices suddenly. CNBC reports that at least two Mideast airlines loaned passengers corporate laptops for inflight use, which works for passengers who have saved their data on memory sticks or in the Cloud.

Its also possible to envision a ground rental industry comparable to car rentals (maybe rented with cars).  But security for the devices would be a huge issue requiring innovation.  Right now the travel industry is not prepared to offer these services, because it has always assumed (since the late 1990s at least) that most travelers want to carry their own electronics.

Hotels do have business centers, which are generally inadequate with only one or two not very secure computers.  I use these only to print boarding passes before returning.

Back in the period between 1997 and up to 2006, after I had established my online sites (doaskdotell.com and the prior hppub.com) I sometimes traveled without electronics.  At the time, it was common for airports to require laptop startup (not always).  More recently, laptops in TSA-approved bags have not had to be started.  But in the early 2000’s there were more facilities in hotels or nearby Kinkos’ stores for checking email.  At that time, I often checked my sites to make sure they were up but did not try to update them online.  I did use my AOL email online.  I did this one on week-long trip to Phoenix and Las Vegas from Minnesota in 2000, probably checking email four times.  One hotel had Kinkos next door.  In Europe, in both 1999 and 2001, I carried a primitive cell phone, but no computers.  A hotel in Bilbao, Spain had a really large business center with very good response time and plenty of terminals.  I was able to find well run Internet cafes in London.  But I don’t know if I could find this level or service today.

Since taking up blogging at the start of 2006, I feel it is important to be able to update Blogger every day (almost), and WordPress blogs like this one somewhat less frequently.  Were I to receive a “complaint”, I need to be able to fix a problem when “on the road”.  (I don’t get the last at-bat, by analogy to baseball.)

My understanding that only “mobile” blogs on Blogger can be updated by phones (this may have changed, typical link). Mobile blogging on WordPress is possible (link).  I am not sure now whether these techniques could work with my setup now.  A small keyboard would help.  The last time I tried, Blogger could not be updated from an iPad without third party apps.  All of this I would need to check into later.

All of this could preview an environment where eventually web hosting companies could require third party contacts to update content in case of complaints and the owner could not be reached.  I’ve never heard this idea mentioned, but it sounds plausible.  (This would lead to discussion of the digital executor issue, which I’ve covered on my main legacy blog on Blogger).

Conventional social media (Facebook, Twitter, and especially Instagram) are much more easily used in a mobile-only environment without access to computing resources.   But these don’t serve the same self-publishing interests that true web hosting (including embedded Blogging) services.  I can also become relevant whether one is posting on a “free blog” or whether it is hosted (which right now, to my understanding, happens only with WordPress).

The ability to stay connected on the road is potentially very critical to the way I conduct my own business.  I will stay abreast of it and report.

(Posted: Saturday, April 1, 2017 at 7:30 PM EDT)

Update: Wednesday, April 5, 2017, 12 noon EDT

CNN has a report that more airports and countries may be added to the electronics ban, but expansion of the ban is not necessarily eminent.

Updated: Tuesday, May 9, 2017 at 7:30 PM EDT

CBS reports that the TSA and DHS are considering adding all or most European and UK airports to the electronics ban.  The policy would seemingly affect only flights to the U.S.  It is not clear if it makes sense to put a lot of lithium batteries in checked luggage, and the policy would contradict previous TSA guidance that laptops are likely to be damaged in checked luggage.  Can proper containers be designed and sold?  Could users instead just ship laptops back home by FedEx, UPS (or ordinary mail)?  I used to do that with photographic film because it could not survive carry-on security machines.  Do we need to build an adequate computer rental (like car rental) business for travelers. at least for international?

 

Guest Post: “7 Travel Hacks You Need to Know Before You Go” (by “Personal Income”)

Guest Post: “7 Travel Hacks You Need to Know Before You Go” (by “Personalincome.org“.

Everyone loves to travel. It is one way to learn new things and have fun along the way. Travel allows you to see places you have not seen. You get to meet new people and make new friends. Learning about other people’s cultures is the best way to truly learn.

There is one thing about travelling that people don’t line though, and that is packing. This is one of the parts of travel that people worry about and travellers would be happy to avoid it if they could.

Going to an unknown part of the world brings excitement. Travel is also one of the best bonding activities for whole families. Parents would love to have vacation time with their children. Children light up at the thought of going to their favorite places like theme parks where they could meet their favorite characters.

However, travel always comes with stressors that cause a lot of people to worry. One of them is packing for the trip in an easy manner. This is one part of travel that seems so simple and yet it takes a lot of thinking and effort. Plus there is also the case of trying to bring only the things that you need. For this you will have to make a list. Then, you would have to know which items need to be packed in a special manner.

The infographic below is designed for travellers who hate packing. These travel hacks will reduce the problems people encounter while on a trip. Feel free to share this to your fellow travellers as well!

7 Travel Hacks You Need to Know Before You Go

My own reaction:  One of my own concerns is packing electronics so that they won’t have a problem with the TSA.  There is a lot of controversy over which laptops or tablets have to be pulled out of bags.  It’s important to be sure that devices (especially phones) are powered up and work, or a flight could be missed.  This subject is likely to change in the future.  I know musicians who travel with all kind of gear, and it has to work every single time when they arrive.  They have to pack consistently, the same way, every time.

The TSA’s link on checkpoint-friendly bags.

Picture: Mine, landing at Orlando airport, July 9, 2015.

Second picture: Atlanta airport, May 2014

(Posted: Friday, December 23, 12:30 AM EST)