Laptop Bombs on Planes, Conclusion

Baby steps…we conclude.

Let’s address the other big reason why electronic devices are such a security pitaWe can thank Steven Jobs for a major part of this. Super salesman that he was, he invented needs that people never had, touted in his bio, The Journey is the Reward. The idea that we need a battery that doesn’t come out is  a really nefarious concept. The sealed laptop, tablet, and phone make reliable inspection impossible with current technology.

It is impossible because the battery is a big gob of organic chemicals markedly different from the other materials of the device, but not so different from a bomb. If the battery were separately presented to the scanner, there would be little trouble verifying that it is a battery. Recall the Mogadishu case: (CNN) the laptop bomb that passed x-ray inspection in Mogadishu, exploding on a Somali airliner on 2/2/2016. Quoting,

McGann told CNN that when modern multiview X-ray systems are used alone there is a chance the clutter in the X-ray image caused by the laptop could lead operators to overlook anomalies flagged by the technology. “Single view X-rays, on the other hand, would be totally reliant on a very vigilant screened at best — and TNT concealed in a laptop could be easily missed,” he added.

McGann is paraphrasing “Detection of organic materials by…” It’s a hard problem.

By one report, the Somali laptop bomb was concealed in a DVD drive from which parts had been removed. Scanner operators are ordinary people, challenged by very clever terrorists. Batteries and explosives are large, low density objects containing organic materials. They are not chemically similar. But when both are embedded in a gadget, discrimination beyond simple density is required. Battery or bomb?  The quoted sources suggest it cannot be done reliably. This is because the “signatures” provided by conventional x-ray augmented by an extra detector, and even a CAT scanner with spectroscopic detector, are confused by the superposition of  the large variety of materials  in electronic gadgets.

Removing the battery simplifies inspection, because then, inside the gadget, something that looks like a battery, isn’t. What about the battery pack itself? If  inspected separately, could it still conceal a bomb?The battery by itself is a smaller, less complex unit, easier to visualize for inspection. Additional certainty would be offered by a removable inspection cover.

A basic principle: The smaller the volume that is sequestered by a “closed”, non accessible design, the greater is the mitigation of the threat.

We’ve been relying entirely on high-tech, indirect inspection. But to make a gun “safe”, you open the breech, remove the magazine, and visually inspect. With some redesign, our gadgets can be made amenable to a combination of indirect and direct modes inspection, providing a degree of security not provided by either mode by itself. Consumer product life cycles are brutally short. The changes could be implemented in less than two years.

It’s time to stop hugging our gadgets like bling. The alternative is terrifying. At least you don’t have to fly naked.

This documentary is relevant to the current threat climate.

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