Size Matters: Why The TSA Fears Thirteen-Inch Laptops, But Not Eleven-Inch Ones

from the makes-no-sense dept

I used to travel with both a laptop and a netbook. More recently, I’ve usually traveled with a laptop and a tablet. I always took both the laptop and netbook out when I went through airport security, assuming that was required. Also, remembering reports that were written when the iPad first came out, I also take my tablet out and dutifully place it in a separate bin. The last time I went through the airport, a TSA agent told me (for the first time) that I don’t actually need to take out the tablet, but she still thanked me for doing so. I may continue to do so, just to avoid any further hassle, but it turns out that the rules for what devices you need to take out, and what you don’t, are ridiculously opaque. And, in fact, I probably never had to take out that netbook in the first place, though I wouldn’t have put it past the TSA agents to force me to do so anyway if I hadn’t.

Matt Richtel, at the NY Times, tries to get to the bottom of the weird rules for what devices come out and which don’t and mostly comes up empty. He got curious after a similar experience, in which he was told his iPad could stay in his bag. The TSA insisted it had its reasons, but wouldn’t tell him. Other security experts had some guesses, but no solid reasons. Then, there’s the TSA’s famous Blogger Bob. Oddly, Richtel and the NY Times apparently don’t know how to do this amazingly cool HTML trick of “linking” (guys, it’s 2012, get with the program), but Richtel quotes two TSA Blogger Bob posts, which I will link to here, finding them myself using another modern digital tool: the search engine. The first one says that smaller devices can stay in your bag:

Electronic items smaller than the standard sized laptop should not need to be removed from your bag or their cases. It’s that simple.

It’s important to remember, however, that our officers are trained to look for anomalies to help keep air travel safe, and if something needs a closer look, it will receive secondary screening. The key to avoiding bag searches is keeping the clutter down. The less clutter you have in your bag, the less likely it will be searched.

Only electronics the size of a standard laptop or larger (for example Playstation®, Xbox®, or Nintendo®), full-size DVD players, and video cameras that use video cassettes must be removed from their carrying cases and submitted separately for x-ray screening. Removing larger electronics helps us get a better look at them and also allows us to get a better look at the contents of your bag

That explains the what, but not the why. It also, once again, makes me think that it’s often a safer bet to just remove, rather than give the TSA any reason to delay you. The second post is slightly more bizarre, in that it seems to suggest that there’s a screen-size cutoff:

So with those rules in mind, the 11” model of the MacBook Air is fine to leave in your bag, and the 13” model must be removed prior to X-ray screening. Unless of course you own one of the “Checkpoint friendly” laptop bags… Keep in mind that even though you’ve done everything right, our officers are trained to look for anomalies and the need may arise to take a closer look at your gadget.

I hope this clears things up.

Got it? 11″ screens? Leave ’em in your bag. 13″? Take ’em out. 12″? Well, are you feeling lucky?

I am curious, however, how many people actually have tried to go through TSA security with an 11″ or smaller screen on a computer… and made it through without having to pull the device out of your bag. I can’t imagine that most average TSA agents know this amazing 12″ rule.

Either way, Richtel tries to parse the language to figure out why there’s a screen size cutoff, and still comes up empty. Finally, he talks to an anonymous “security expert,” who actually worked on “related issues with the Department of Homeland Security.” That guy admitted what we all pretty much suspected all along:

He said that the laptop rule is about appearances, giving people a sense that something is being done to protect them. “Security theater,” he called it.

Richtel makes it sound like “security theater” is a new term, which it’s not. But, either way, it’s nice to get confirmation, yet again, that the whole thing is a joke. But, in the end, it doesn’t matter, because rather than deal with security delaying you from catching your flight, it’s still probably going to be easier to take everything out and put them all in individual bins.

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Comments on “Size Matters: Why The TSA Fears Thirteen-Inch Laptops, But Not Eleven-Inch Ones”

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WysiWyg (profile) says:


I have always been of the impression that the point of checking your laptop is to make sure it’s not a bomb?

Then I guess it could make some sense to have a size limit, since you probably can’t make a decent size bomb that fits in say a cellphone (I don’t honestly know that much about bombmaking).

Then again, the 13″ rule seems very arbitrary.

Also, wasn’t there talk about them making copies of harddrives to check for copyright infringement? Or was I dreaming that?

Chosen Reject (profile) says:

Re: Bombs?

The sign I saw recently mentioned that they want you to take the laptop out so they can see if the electronics have been tampered with. I’m not entirely wise to the hiring guidelines of TSA agents, but my guess is very few of them would have any clue about whether some electronics have been tampered with beyond something entirely obvious, like the all electronics being gutted out.

Hmmm… makes me we want to get an old laptop, gut it out and then go through just to see what they do.

Jake says:

Re: Bombs?

Back in the days when my father had to make semi-frequent business trips to Northern Ireland, the rationale was that you could strip out the inside of a laptop and hide a handgun in it, so he was required to prove that it was capable of booting up; the late-90s IBM ThinkPads had a metal baseplate as a heatsink instead of using a fan, which would interfere with the X-Ray scanner.

Of course, back in those days they didn’t also go through your laptop’s hard drive without probable cause or a warrant, or throw you in jail for having “materials likely to be useful to a terrorist” on it. And this I might add was at a time when we had the army running honest-to-whoever counter-insurgency operations within our own sovereign territory.

Abdullah P. Wasserman says:

Passengers still have fists and feet and can spit.

Why aren’t passengers bound, gagged, water-boarded and beaten unconscious before they travel on planes?

You say it gives the TSA/CIA/FBI/USA/SOB/FOD/XYZ/AAA…ZZZ/000…999 room to maneuver for bigger budgets?

But (Gard bless) ‘merica is broke-assed and trillions of bux in debt.

Oh, never mind.

Why does the Soviet Onion seem kind of easy-going these days?

Aren’t you better off today? Vote Democrat or Republican in 2012! America needs more of the same old shit!

Anonymous Coward says:

Wait, you pander to the TSA?

“safer bet to just remove, rather than give the TSA any reason to delay you.”

I give them plenty of reasons to delay me. Honestly, they seem rather annoyed every time I show up at the TSA checkpoint with my bag full of Nerf blasters… and then refuse the body scan opting instead for the patdown.

I also often neglect to remove my liquids from my bag (although, they’re generally in a quart bag).

Ultimately, a trip through TSA checkpoint for me takes at least 10-15 mins, and that doesn’t include waiting in line. They seem genuinely annoyed, and I’ve noticed they’re starting to preemptively push me through the metal detector instead of the body scanner – and I’m getting less fuss over my Nerf blasters recently.

FWIW, I fly the same trip at least twice a month… and you can hate me for being that guy who slows everything down >:)

Chosen Reject (profile) says:

Re: Wait, you pander to the TSA?

I also refuse the body scan in favor of the pat down. I figure if they want to make my life miserable, I’ll make someone else’s life miserable as well. However, I’m pretty sure that the pat down would be the easiest way to smuggle knives aboard. I had my id in the middle of my folded up boarding pass in my cargo pants pocket during the pat down. The guy didn’t say anything about it. A razor blade could have easily been in the same space without adding a significant amount of space to have made it any more suspicious then it already was.

I’ve long since given up the idea that the TSA does anything to make me safer, but after my last experience (I don’t fly often) I think we’re less safe now than we were 11 years ago. At least from the perspective of what gets on the plane. The only two things that needed to happen to prevent another 9/11 were done long ago: 1) Keep passengers from the cockpit, and 2) make passengers not accept a hijacking. Number one happened shortly after 9/11, and number two happened before United flight 93 got to its target.

Eileen (profile) says:

Re: Re: Wait, you pander to the TSA?

Yes, the two points you mention have been repeatedly made, and at this point an airport or plane is in no more danger (arguably less) than any other collection of 100 – 300 individuals you might find anywhere.

There’s money to be made in security theater though!

At this point, the troubling thing is that they’re not even trying to claim this will prevent another 9/11. So by extension, any group of 100 – 300 people is open for TSA treatment: bus terminals, trains, stadiums, etc. Welcome to the police state. I put the over/under of looking like Brazil (the movie) at 2020.

Aaron (user link) says:

11" - no hassles

I travel relatively frequently and have done so for several months with an 11″ MacBook Air. Despite seeing many varieties of TSA incompetence, I have never been asked to remove it from my backpack.

I often travel with the 11″ MacBook Air in the same pouch as an iPad – which causes long, quizzical gazes into the X-ray machine, but it hasn’t been a source of questioning or trouble.

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

So much of what passes for airport (and cruise ship) security is “theatre”. X-Rays and scanners ought only to confirm what a well trained agent should notice anyway, that there’s something not right about the passenger that goes beyond a nervous flyer. Things like unable to make eye contact, a high level of anxiety and a number of other signs that there’s something wrong with this person.

The size of a screen on laptop or pad computer don’t enter into it. Yes, it’s possible that you can pack an explosive in a laptop or iPad though only by making them essentially useless. In most cases there would also be some evidence of wide spread tampering which someone would need to do to remove the motherboard and pack in explosives such as broken seals.

Mostly, though, it’s just for show. A well trained and well informed terrorist such as the ones who struck on 9/11 will know, in detail, about security measures and the best ways of circumventing them. As did a group of Sikh separatists based in Canada who didn’t even board the planes. The bombs, with timers, went on as luggage and then the terrorists simply didn’t bother to get on the flights.

Nothing is 100% but TSA isn’t concerned with that as much as they’re concerned with the theatre around boarding a plane which will convince people that it is 100%. Until, heaven forbid, the next time.

Beefcake (profile) says:

Shoes at the Airport

By that logic, there should be a shoe-size threshold as well. Proposal: US Mens size 10 or smaller, you’re free to keep your foot odor to yourself (provided the blueshirts don’t detect any anomalies such as a loose heel or an unfamiliar knot). Size 10 or greater, remove your shoes for screening. While the rule only applies to Men’s sizes, profiling is wrong so if you have a women’s size 10 or higher you may also be asked to remove your shoes for screening.

If your footwear is European sized, no matter what the size you must remove them for screening because you’ve clearly done business or traveled abroad and therefore are subject to enhanced screening. Once screened, said footwear will be turned over to ICE at the International Terminal to ensure it isn’t counterfeit or infringing on a copyright. If it is, you will be subject to rendition to a secret holding cell at Disney headquarters. But if you’re cleared after all this, you are free to continue to your gate where you’ll have an unobstructed view of your plane taking off without you.

William C Bonner (profile) says:

I've been carrying "Subnotebooks" all along.

The screen on my current laptop (an HP dm1z) is the largest notebook screen I’ve had since before the TSA came into existence. It’s got an 11.6″ screen.

Are you saying that the smaller laptops that I’ve been carrying for the past decade I should have been able to leave in my bag all this time?

I used to hate carrying electronic components through customs because I had to explain tech stuff to non technical people. I’ve always just treated my laptop like the next guys laptop when his was a 17″ screen. Mine just doesn’t rip my arm out of its socket.

Bastiat's Ghost (user link) says:

A device of any size or function

A device of any size or function can be broken down into components small enough to make it through airport security and then be re-assembled pre-flight. The most unobtrusive way to do this is to have multiple people carry 1 component each inside of various objects or body cavities. These components are handed off to a single person in the bathrooms or any other area with inadequate security coverage. The device that is being built up could even be handed off to several people over several days depending on the desire for obfuscation and the size and complexity of the device.

In short, there is no method to prevent the construction of a bomb, knife, or zip-gun short of stripping everyone completely naked and having them go through full body X-Ray or MRI scans. Even those measures will prove inadequate once cybernetic prosthesis and genetic engineering become commonplace. It is not difficult to imagine that someone could have their bone marrow in some of their bones replaced with high explosives with a biological trigger, even with today’s technology.

If you want to be safe, try not to piss off the rest of the world. And hope that fortune smiles upon you.

zbeast says:

Ya,, I carry a scarry bag.

I carry one bag that always phreakes them out.
it’s my digital art bag.. The bag is about 2 inches
thicker than a standard laptop baq
but it has a lot in it..
2 spare battery’s, 4 charger. 2 digital wacom pens.
one Wacom tablet, macbook pro, scanner, drawing pad (paper).
portable light table. The bag is heavy and has branded cable shoulder strap with pull out back pack straps.
icom radio and it’s cables and controller.

Because of the heaviness and the high density metals it always gets searched.

Ryan Diederich says:

Simple as THIS

When on a cruise I found out that the contents of handheld bags were x-rayed on their way back on to the ship. With a simple thing called common sense, I put a personal knife in with my camera. No one ever bothered me, and I felt quite safe traveling around the islands that we stopped on.

After that I knew how to pack my bags so that they would never be screened, simply allow a low enough density of objects such that an X-Ray could pass through them.

If they posted instructions such as this in a widespread manner, then the process of screening would go much faster.

Also, they let my small bottle of lens cleaner on the plane, but my AA batteries had to be screened separately

Anonymous Coward says:

I think one of the problems with airport security is that the rules are not really evidence based on anything. They’re based on the unsubstantiated opinion and intuition of some random bureaucrat (committee) that probably knows very little about physics, chemistry, weapons, explosives, terrorists, etc… and just goes on his own subjective intuition and arbitrary conjectures and feelings on the matter at the time he wrote the policies.

It’s like when they stopped that guy with the cup cake. Were there any objective criteria for doing so? No, but it was some random person’s gut feeling that he should, some random TSA agent who probably knows little about chemistry, biology – potential bio hazards, weapons, bombs, etc… He was just basing it arbitrarily on what he felt comfortable with allowing on the airplane at the time.

and I think this is a problem with airport security in general. Little of it is based on objective criteria over what constitutes a dangerous item and more of it is based on spur of the moment feelings and comfort zones by whoever happens to be there at the time. The policies are not evidence based, they’re faith and comfort based at the time that they were written.

Agent Phoenix says:

I have a 10″ Asus netbook and I’ve tried to go through screening without taking it out. Security has always made me take it out of my bag AND its sleeve. Stupidly annoying. I also keep my bags very organized. I think there’s too much inconsistency in air travel. Some places make you take your shoes off; some make you take off every outer jacket layer of clothing.
They say inconsistency is the mark of the true mad man. Airport security is as mad as it gets.

CT2Mike says:

Inconcistency in TSA Handling

Face it, EVERY bit of the screening, from beginning to end, is meaningless to the point of MISDIRECTION.
It is ALL security Theater. ALL.
As a point of fact, the weapons used by the 9/11 terrorists DID NOT GET CARRIED ABOARD BY THEM.
They were placed there by EMPLOYEES. Hmm
People that work around the equipment.
People we trust to do their job right
People that we expect to use Judgement in determining what is and is not Safe.

I trust TSA like they trust me. NOT AT ALL.
But I recognize what they are, and what they represent.
The Gestapo was created to ensure internal security was maintained and kept secure.

I do NOT fly, and WILL NOT. Not because I fear Terrorists; because I fear Tyrants.
I chose NOT to give up my rights, simply for convenience and a little security. If it means I can’t fly, I don’t fly.

Name one government that gave back a right it took.
Historically, even after Marshall law is relaxed, it is NEVER the same, there are new mandates, strictures, and laws. ALWAYS.

TSA is your very own domestic Police State Overlord Enforcers.

They won’t be mine.

Anonymouse Dron says:

Month long vacation in Asia...

A max legal size carry-on bag (9 x 14 x 22 inches IIRC) crammed to the f’in brim with consumer electronics , right down to a shortwave ‘field’ radio. DSes, PSP, cameras, walkie talkie, iPods and phones, charges, headphones, GPS, etc.

Laptop was separate, in the also-permitted laptop case. A walking Best Buy store. Even brought a power bar so that we wouldn’t run out of seat AC outlets on the aircraft. LOL.

Checked bag had the metal detector for an afternoon of beach combing under the coconut trees.

No problems at all. One inspector was a bit concerned by two loose 9-volt batteries in the inventory we brought. But his supervisor decided that there were enough sources of electricity to light up a small city, so he waved us through.

Cute wife brought a dozen pairs of shoes in her carry on bag.

Best. Vacation. Ever.

Vlad says:

Watch me, I’ll bring in a nice AlienWare gaming desktop. lol!

screening electronics like this is useless because if they were bombs, chemical scanning (which happens automatically) will pick it up. If you used a sophisticated software to detonate one, any laptop size, ipad, macbook, smartphone would do it.

So really… would they screen someone’s hair for potentially hiding something under what they might presume to be a wig?

Xjy Xjy (profile) says:

Ritual humiliation

If they monitored heart rate at security I’d never get on board. I was once a bit flustered after hurrying to catch up with a friend at Heathrow and was swearing under my breath – immediately some goon woman was next to me asking if I felt “uncomfortable”…
The joke is, that if you strip off naked to avoid all the shit they arrest you for disturbing the peace. It’s like Playboy – a big soft porno tease.

Anonymous Coward says:

Varies by agency as well

There is a lot of variation depending on where you are as well. When I travel, I always take my Kindle. I never had an issue. When I went to the UK last time, they made me take it out.

TSA, as mentioned above, don’t care about something like this.

UK Customs did.

So the definition of ‘electronic device’ really varies depending on where you are it seems.

Damosel Smith (user link) says:

Laptops are designed to be efficient, easy to use and fast, all while taking up only a little bit of space. Some are designed for different purposes and come in different sizes. For example, laptops designed for extreme portability can be less than a quarter inch thin but lack processor power, while gaming laptops will be more powerful, but less portable. The screen is one of the most important parts of a laptop. Choosing the right size depends on your needs but can be relatively simple to decide.

Juanita (user link) says:

Boogie Man

“Security Theater”?

You’re right, such a thing is hardly a foreign (or new concept). Heck, it’s what parents do every night for the kid that’s scared of the boogie man. “See little Susie? I’ve just checked under your bed and nothing was there. But, we’ll leave your door open just in case you get scared…”.

However, it makes me wonder what other unnecessary rules are being pushed on passengers for the sake of soothing the incessantly paranoid. How many flights have been missed over something so asinine?


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