International travelers hoping to make their way into the United States will have to leave their cell phones and other electronics behind if the devices are not charged, according to a new U.S. Transportation Security Administration policy citing an increased terror threat in the Middle East.
Security screeners at airports across the world will now ask U.S.-bound passengers to turn on their phones, laptops, tablets and other devices to prove the technology isn’t some kind of explosive. Travelers with machines that won’t turn on because of a low battery life will be prohibited from bringing the devices on board.
The new restrictions, announced last week and detailed by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” are not expected to be enacted within the United States but will be in place in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The TSA is able to compel foreign airports to abide by its restrictions by refusing to allow flights from airports that deviate from the policy.
The changes, which are expected to lengthen lines and require airports to install new power outlets, come in the wake of warnings from American intelligence that aspiring terrorists are working to develop bombs that are better equipped to make it through airport security. Officials cited no specific threat, mentioning only Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the ongoing unrest in Syria and Iraq.
“This is not something to overreact to or overspeculate about. But it’s something we felt was necessary” Johnson said Sunday, adding that the DHS is working to “anticipate the next attack, not only simply react to the last one. And so we continually evaluate the world situation, and we know that there remains a terrorist threat to the United States, and aviation security is a large part of that.”
The TSA has also called for tighter scrutiny of customers’ shoes, and warned NBC about non-metallic bombs being surgically implanted inside an individual’s body.
“I don’t think we should expect this to be a one-off temporary thing,” Deputy British Prime Minister Nick Clegg said on a radio program last week, as quoted by the Guardian. “We have to make sure the checks are there to meet the nature of the new kinds of threats. Whether it is forever -- I can’t make any predictions. But I don’t want people to think that this is sort of just a blip for a week. This is part of an evolving and constant review about whether the checks keep up with the nature of the threats we face.”
So far, though, the announcement seems to have created more questions than solutions. Cory Doctorow, a technology blogger and author, wrote in a Boing Boing post that the security measure will create a headache for parents who rely on bright screens and video games to keep children occupied during otherwise painful delays, saying “holidays and battery-discharge go together like peanut butter and chocolate.”
“And of course, travel affords lots of exciting opportunities to break your beloved electronic crap, from spills to drops,” he wrote. “And what steps will airport security take to safeguard the data on travelers’ devices? When you are forced to surrender the laptop or tablet or phone full of confidential employer data, trade secrets, personal photos, banking records and photos of your kids in the bath, how will the G4S contractors at Heathrow assure you that they won’t be used to rob you blind, get you fired, and embarrass and humiliate you?”
Anxious travelers are advised to prepare for the continuing changes by not only arriving at the airport with the expectation that they could wait for hours at security, but also with fully charged phone and laptops.
A slew of apps and other shortcuts have sprouted up in recent years giving travelers a glimpse into how long they might have to wait at the airport.
The MyTSA app, for instance, uses available data to show American airline customers exactly how long their wait could be. WhatsBusy, a free iPhone app, uses crowd-sourced data for the same purposes. The TSA also published a list of recommendations on its Web site to help customers prepare for the screening process, including a list of items prohibited from being included in carry-on luggage.