Should the Government Have Lifted the Laptop Ban?

So, realistically, what are the chances that a laptop bomb could be developed that could evade detection by airport scanners? Well, pretty good. The truth is that these bombs have already been developed and used. They could have already brought down some planes. Certainly, one was used on a Daallo Airlines Airbus 321 in Somalia in early February, 2016. Although the purpose of the suicide bomber in possession of the laptop was bringing down the plane and its 74 passengers, in the end, he only brought down himself. He detonated the laptop at too low an altitude and only managed to blow himself out of the plane through the hole he made in the fuselage. He was, literally, a suicide bomber.

laptop hole

This may have seemed like a small incident in an insignificant part of the world, but it wasn’t for airline security experts. It posed a very serious question: How did the bomber manage to get through security and, more specifically, how did the laptop bomb avoid being detected by the airport scanner?

There have been a number of investigations that have shown how luggage and body scanners can be fooled. But it has been a general policy that laptops must be booted up to show if they are operable. This is because traditional scanners can’t detect lithium batteries. So, we must conclude that the terrorists behind the laptop bomb must have found a way to boot up a laptop with explosives in the battery compartment. At the same time, they had to simulate the image a battery would make on a scanner. We must also conclude that they somehow acquired an x-ray luggage scanner so that they could test to see if the bomb was properly concealed.

But is it possible for terrorists to get their hands on an airport x-ray scanner? I wasn’t sure, so I checked it out. To my surprise, I found that they were readily available…on Alibaba. That’s right. You can buy the scanner below online from a Chinese company.

scanner

In fact, you can buy the scanning gate as well.

scanner walkthru

They have a variety of models at a variety of prices. Yes, they even have the model that color codes the contents of your luggage.

But will they ship these scanners to the Middle East or other countries where they could fall into the hands of terrorists? Yes. They will ship them anywhere, as can be seen in the sales map below. In fact, you will see that most of the company’s customers are in the Middle East.

scanner purchase map

The company that sells the luggage scanner shown above generally sells no more than 3-5 scanners a year to any particular country. However, in the year ending in mid-2015, there was a huge spike in sales to the United Arab Emirates. In this year, they sold them 29 scanners, 6-10 times higher than the best sales to any country in any other years.

scanner sales emerites

Of course, there may be good reasons for this increase. There is no proof that any of these scanners eventually found their way into the hands of terrorist groups. Nonetheless, The Emirates was put on the list of airports from which onboard laptops were banned. This could be because of their connections to other airports in areas that are known terrorist centers and that have outdated scanners. That said, The Emirates is not without shady connections of their own. In the past, they have been involved with money laundering for Al Qaeda. They have also been singled out for redirecting arms shipments to other Middle East countries and military groups. It would surprise no one if scanners were also ‘redirected’.

Even new 3D scanners are available for purchase on Alibaba, but I have not yet seen any 3D CT scanners for sale. These new scanners are able to detect even small amounts of explosives and their implementation may be the reason why laptops can now be taken onboard without a problem. Unfortunately, they are very expensive and it will be a long time before all airports around the world can afford to use them. Another problem is that they can also be purchased on Alibaba. More importantly, these scanners will not detect peroxide-based explosives like the one that was used in the Manchester, England bombing.

So where do we stand now? A June 12, 2017 article in the New York Times disclosed that Israeli hackers had discovered that a bomb-making unit in Syria was planning to place bombs in laptops in an attempt to bring down planes. They were designing the explosive material to look the same to scanners as the laptop batteries which means they must have been using a good scanner to get this right. In any event, the intelligence surprised authorities enough to issue the laptop ban for certain airports. The subsequent financial damage done by the ban to both the banned countries and the US and UK forced the regulatory bodies to adjust their standards. The security holes within the airport network persist, even though progress has been made. Financial considerations have trumped caution, in this case, and only time will tell if this move is worth the risk.

There is no information on whether the Syrian bomb-making unit has been shut down or if they had already disseminated their information and skills to other ISIS cells or supporters around the world. This possibility should cause concern for those European cities with known terrorist cells. I would also suggest that someone keep a closer eye on where airport scanners and explosive detection equipment are being sent.

The very real possibility that bombs may be hidden in laptops and other electronic devices has, as of July 26th, forced the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) into implementing more rigorous screening procedures for all carry-on baggage. This applies to all airports within the U.S. but it would not be happening at all unless a serious threat existed. It would be ridiculously naïve to think that this threat existed only within the confines of the U.S. Indeed, when I traveled to the U.S. from Europe last month, the security agents in Europe told everyone to put their laptops into a separate tray so that they could be independently checked. More people than usual, it seemed to me, had their baggage pulled aside for closer inspection and more people were questioned. It was also the first time I had to go through a full body scanner. In other words, the threat is real but laptops are being allowed on planes. Because body scanners have routinely been fooled, I would be more concerned with a team of terrorists working together. One could have a laptop or other electrical device and the other or others could carry the actual explosive. Can you tell which of the images below shows a man with 200g of plastic explosive hidden around his waist? Don’t feel bad if you couldn’t identify the terrorist on the right.

About Steve Mierzejewski

Marketing consultant for InZero Systems, developer of the next generation in hardware-separated security, WorkPlay Technology. I've worked in Poland, Japan, Korea, China, and Afghanistan. I'm a writer, technical editor, and an educator. I also do some work as a test developer for Michigan State University.
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