Security Consultants Claim New Terrorist Bombs May Mean No More In-Flight WiFi

from the security-theater dept

It what may be one of the more ridiculous reactions to the latest (failed) attempts at putting bombs on airplanes, some security consultants are suggesting the ridiculously confused idea that law enforcement may use this as a reason to no longer allow WiFi or mobile phone connectivity on airplanes. The idea behind this is that by adding connectivity, you can now provide remote access to a bomb, and set it off:

In-flight Wi-Fi “gives a bomber lots of options for contacting a device on an aircraft”, Alford says. Even if ordinary cellphone connections are blocked, it would allow a voice-over-internet connection to reach a handset.

“If it were to be possible to transmit directly from the ground to a plane over the sea, that would be scary,” says Alford’s colleague, company founder Sidney Alford. “Or if a passenger could use a cellphone to transmit to the hold of the aeroplane he is in, he could become a very effective suicide bomber.”

But… if you actually think about it for more than a few seconds, this makes almost no sense. First of all, that final sentence makes no sense at all. A suicide bomber on an airplane can already do this. They don’t even have to use a cellular network, but any one of plenty of remote wireless options to set up a network between themselves and a bomb stowed away somewhere. Furthermore, they could already use cellular networks (if they’re flying over land where such networks exist) — just not legally. But somehow I doubt a terrorist intent on blowing up an airplane cares about following the FCC rules on using mobile phones on airplanes. As for the terrorist on the ground using WiFi to remotely connect to a bomb… again that’s an unlikely scenario. While it’s possible that someone could configure such a bomb to automatically log itself on to an in-flight WiFi system, it would still need to figure out how to get through the sign-on and payment setup. Possible? Perhaps. Likely? Not really. It would seem like there are much more reasonable options — again, such as just using the existing cellular networks. Hopefully this is the idle speculation of these “consultants,” rather than anything that any law enforcement agency is taking seriously. But, then again, these are the same law enforcement agencies that make me remove my shoes every time I want to fly.

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Comments on “Security Consultants Claim New Terrorist Bombs May Mean No More In-Flight WiFi”

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DannyB (profile) says:

Think about this for a second

If you are going to have a smart “brain” (eg, smartphone) as a detonator, in order to make use of WiFi, then you wouldn’t really even need WiFi.

Such a “smartphone” brain (eg, you can get Android phones cheaper than iPhones) has GPS. It could be preprogrammed: if you were first at this GPS location (airport) and then subsequently at this GPS location (over target at particular altitude) then its time.

No WiFi needed.

What’s the solution? Keeping bombs off aircraft is the solution. Not banning WiFi.

matthewdippel (profile) says:


I just recently took a very long flight and used the GoGo in-flight WiFi. What I couldn’t understand is why, after I had created my account, signed in, paid and was ready to connect, I was given a CAPTCHA just prior to internet access being granted.

I kept thinking, what could they *possibly* be trying to prevent, people from setting up new accounts, paying for them and connecting in an automated fashion? If anything, that’d make them money. But this post makes me think that the folks at GoGo may have had this scenario in mind. A “bomb on a plane” designed to connect via WiFi would have a tough time handling the CAPTCHA, but it would be unlikely to stop the creation of a device like this.

As you correctly state, a ban wouldn’t do much to mitigate risk. Someone left their MiFi on for the entire flight. I can’t be sure that it was actually able to communicate with the cellular network, but my mom used to call us from a cell phone in my dad’s small plane to let us know when they were about to land and it always worked. Nobody went to any trouble to find it and have it turned off, even though it was broadcasting its SSID and anyone connecting to GoGo would have seen it in the list.

Michial Thompson (user link) says:

Personal Protesting

Before 9-11 I flew between 100k and 150k miles per year via Commercial Airlines. Since 9-11 I have reduced that travel to under 15k per year.

Why? Because of stupidity like this. I got tired of stripping to my underware to go through a medal detector, and getting harrassed for something as simple as trying to cope with the non-stop hassles that the pissant highschool dropouts pushined into authority decide to dish out on a whim.

The airlines are no more safe today than before 9-11. The only people harrassed at the gate and detained for a misshapped tooth brush are white males. They are so damn afraid of being sued for profiling and harrassment that the only people the can stop are White Males.

Probably the biggest joke of all is standing in the security line being forced to hand over my papers gustapo style, and having the guy squint close and stare at me, then watching as the Berka covored terroris behind me as it walked through nearly unobserved.

Hell my guess is that Bin Laden is walking the streets of the US giving speaches at fan club meetings all while walking around in public with a Berka on. Hell probably even flies first class from fan club to fan club.

But you know, some granma that’s never set foot in an airport in podunk Michigan is crying that “we gots to makes our skies safer” so lets spend billions on harrassing honest Americans so that everyone BELIEVES we are safer.

Rich Kulawiec says:

Re: Personal Protesting

I agree with just about everything you said, except that airlines ARE now safer than they were. But not due to anything that STASI, I mean, the TSA, has done.

As Bruce Schneier has pointed out, two, and only two, things have made airline travel safer: (1) armored cockpit doors and (2) passengers have learned to fight back. That’s it. Everything else that’s been done has either been useless or worse.

Anonymous Coward says:

If you can sneak up the bomb, you actually don’t need Wi-Fi to detonate anything you can just put an altimeter and when it reaches the desired altitude it explodes, GPS can make it explode when over a big city and so on.

I think tightened security can have the opposite effect leading to accelerated evolutionary forces to make bombing airplanes more difficult to detect.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Banning WiFi on aircraft

TOTAL agreement with this article!
By FAR the most effective way to accomplish this is to use a openly-available time schedule to find out when an aircraft will be at X, set an included timing device (which could be made easily modifiable on the ground, by a variety of means, in case the aircraft is delayed) to time out at time X, and check the bag.
Inconveniencing a large number of people on the off chance some naive terrorist would opt for an inferior method for setting of a bomb is simply ridiculous.

Gregg L. DesElms (profile) says:

Missing the obvious, once again

Yes, it’s true that the bomber on the plane could employ a wireless trigger of some kind, without the aid of WIFI or cell phone connectivity…

…but good luck getting the triggering device, at least, past security. Cell phones, on the other hand, routinely and effortlessly clear security.

As for the cell phone signal only being useful up to 500 or so feet: If you stop and think about it, the best moment (from a knucklehead terrorist’s point of view) to trigger the bomb is just before the landing gear is retracted, just after the wheels are off the ground. Any pilot will attest that the plane is most vulnerable at that moment, when it is just becoming airborne… far more so, seemingly counter-intuitively, than while the plane’s trying to land.

If the plane explodes at that moment, it’s not only going to kill everyone on board, but it will also more effectively rain the fiery mess down onto (and so, therefore, maim and kill) more people on the ground…

…and it’s the NUMBER of people maimed or killed which most interests terrorists. That’s why terrorist suicide bombers need rarely be feared when s/he’s in the company of only a person or two… or even a crowd, as long as it’s very small. Terrorists are interested in NUMBERS…

…and the greatest kill numbers can be achieved by blowing-up the plane when it’s between 100 and 500 feet off the ground… at which there is plenty of cell phone signal.

As far as confiscating cell phones, there’s an easier way: Just have cell phone jamming circuitry in the ceiling of the plane along its entire length.

WIFI is even easier to stop on a plane.

Whether or not airlines should do it, I don’t know. I both understand and appreciate the argument against it; I might even share it if I thought about it long enough.

But make no mistake about the pure technology of it (and I say this from the position of someone with 33 years in IT and other forms of high-tech): Having the ability to communicate with the WIFI or cell phone receiver on a bomb trigger via a cell phone or smartphone or notebook/netbook computer — all of which can get through security without a problem, where some kind of odd-looking wireless device with a button on it would likely not — would be convenient, indeed, and invaluable, in fact, for any suicide bomber…

…or even for a bomber on the ground who simply found a way to get the WIFI or cell phone receiver controlled trigger and bomb onto the plane by some means.

And though I understand the comments here regarding the unlikelihood of that given that the idiot terrorists, up ’til recently, couldn’t even figure out how to explode their tennis shoes or underwear…

…only temporary sense of safety, at best, may be derived from them. There are many capable engineers who are either terrorists, or who are at least sympathetic. It’s ridiculous to assume that they’re all a bunch of Middle-Eastern equivalents of some dysfunctional character from an old episode of Green Acres…

…as the most recent events in the news clearly demonstrate.

Don’t make the fatal mistake of underestimating this enemy. I’m not saying, as those on the socio-political right are saying, that terrorists are everywhere, or that it’s a Muslim thing or anything like that. That’s not what I’m talking about. As it is foolish to underestimate the ability of terrorists to finally learn how to get it right, it’s equally foolish to believe that all — or even most — Arab-Americans (or even non-American Arabs) and/or Muslims are terrorists or even sympathizers. The VAST (and I strees the word) majority of Arabs and other Muslims are as alarmed and upset by knucklehead terrorists as anyone else.

So I don’t want to come across as though I agree with the alarmists. I’m simply saying that the technology required to connect a WIFI or cell phone controlled trigger to a bomb in a suitcase or piece of cargo in the hold of an airplane, and then to detonate it via either WIFI or the cell phone network as the aircraft’s wheels clear the ground, but before it reaches an altitude of 500 feet, is easy. Scary easy, in fact. Getting it on the plane, though, would be not-so-easy… which, of course, means that the whole thing’s not as easy, after all. But my point is that the pure technology of it, were airport security not a factor, is a no-brainer.

And, by the way, for the record, I’ve gotten five bars of AT&T cell phone signal WAY higher than 500 feet in my life. So I’m only saying 500 feet elsewhere in this posting because another commenter suggested that cell phone signals above that altitude are essentially non-existent or are of such sub-standard quality as if to be effectively so.

The comment about the solution being just banning all airplanes was kinda’ funny, though. [grin]

Gregg L. DesElms
Napa, California USA
gregg at greggdeselms dot com

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Missing the obvious, once again

Yes, it’s true that the bomber on the plane could employ a wireless trigger of some kind, without the aid of WIFI or cell phone connectivity…

…but good luck getting the triggering device, at least, past security. Cell phones, on the other hand, routinely and effortlessly clear security.

Think about that for a minute longer. How hard would it be (for an electrical engineer) to cause a cell phone to emit a radio signal to be picked up by the bomb in the luggage compartment? Even easier than that to hide a transmitter in a laptop. RF-shielding the baggage compartment, as has been suggested, would prevent any sort of radio detonation or GPS (though timers and altimeters would still work fine). Banning wifi would inconvenience travelers and nothing more.

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