Proposed DHS Rules May Cause The Deaths They Claim To Prevent

from the security-theater-making-us-less-safe dept

Back at the end of March, the Department of Homeland [in]Security issued rules stating that all electronics larger than a smartphone should be checked instead of kept in a carry-on on flights into the US from 10 airports or on 9 airlines from mainly Muslim countries in the middle east and north Africa. This was following claims by US and UK intelligence that terrorists are smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items to ‘target commercial aviation.

Not only does this not pass the smell test — anyone looking to bring down an aircraft with explosive devices won’t care if they’re in the cabin or the hold: boom is boom. The idea that items are going to go through some sort of super-secret screening is laughable, when red-team penetration tests find it trivial to get prohibited items onto aircraft (including via people with no ticket who bypass security screenings). And, of course, airports already require carry-on electronics to be x-rayed, and often swabbed for explosive residue. What’s more, I remember seeing ‘explosives smuggled on board’ hysteria since Pan Am 103 almost 30 years ago, where Czech explosive Semtex was suspected to be in everything from fake muesli to electronics following the use of just 12 ounces (340g) to blast a 50cm hole in the 747’s hold.

A more “credible” theory is potential “cyber warfare” (a pox on that term). With electronics out of sight of the passengers after check-in, access to them is far easier for ‘security services’. As well as allowing easy access to snoop on passenger electronics and data, there is a potential for far more nefarious actions in the tradition of Stuxnet.

Stuxnet was a worm that targeted a certain Siemens industrial control system primarily used by Iranian nuclear centrifuges. However, it spread via infected USB drives to computers, and from those computers to other USB drives, all the while using rootkits with compromised digital signatures to hide. It essentially used a digital version of ‘6 degrees of separation‘ to eventually infect its target. What better way to spread similar malware than to infect a bunch of computers on flights to the target country? It’s not just laptops either, cameras need memory cards and are just as easy to infect. As a theory, it’s got a lot to commend it, but that’s beside the point, because, remember, this is about ‘safety’ and people not taking bombs into aircraft cabins.

So fast forward to the present, and while expanding the ban has been kicked about, a JetBlue flight has shown the incredible danger of requiring electronics to be put into bags that often are kicked about.

The smoking gun battery (Source, Grand Rapids Ford Airport)

May 30th’s JetBlue flight 915 (NY JFK to San Francisco) had to make an emergency landing in Michigan after a AA lithium battery in a backpack started to smoke. When it was noticed, the backpack was moved to the aircraft bathroom which presumably dislodged whatever was causing the short. Luckily that was enough to prevent the fire from getting started, which would have soon gotten out of control.

And therein lies the problem. Lithium battery fires are very dangerous, and one of the things that make them more dangerous than most other fires is that most of the things you’d do by instinct to put out a fire (smother it, put water on it) actually makes them worse. Realistically, the only way to deal with a lithium fire is to stop it before it starts, and while that happened this time, if it were in the hold we’d be looking at a downed Airbus A321 with 158 dead.

Airlines know this and have for a long time. In 2000, I tried to fly with 2 batteries in my checked baggage from the UK to San Francisco with Virgin, and to Las Vegas with TWA. The batteries, Hawker (now Enersys) SBS40‘s were 38Ah, 12v batteries (yes, you can easily start a car with them) and were packed safely into my checked baggage as well as being certified safe for air travel (they won’t leak if tipped or punctured). Virgin had no problems, but TWA flatly refused, citing a risk of fire in the hold (and at 28lb/12.7kg each, carry-on wasn’t an option)

Now bear in mind this is a battery designed for rugged use, puncture resistant and safe (which is why they were used in Battlebots entries, which is why I was taking them, for the Suicidal Tendencies team), in a fire-resistant case where the only available fuel might be some small amounts of hydrogen gas, and whatever items are around. Lithium batteries generally don’t come in rugged fire-resistant cases, provide their own fuel, and worst of all, physical damage (such as heavy-handed baggage handlers) can cause such damage.

If you want a more specific example of the risks, just cast your minds back to last year and the Samsung note7. With just the potential for a fire with note7 battery, they were banned from aircraft for safety reasons. They weren’t consigned to the hold, where they can cause problems without anyone noticing.

And it gets worse, Lithium-ion batteries are EVERYWHERE. Aside from the rechargeable AA and AAA batteries like the one that caught fire on flight 915, lithium batteries are in laptops and cameras. Here are some examples of lithium batteries I had to hand, that I’d take on a trip with me and have to check.

That’s a laptop battery, a digital camera battery, a phone battery and a video camera battery (I have 4 of these). One of them is 10 years old, that’s how long these batteries have been out there.

Any of these can cause an uncontrollable fire if mishandled (and sometimes, just from age). What’s more, any of these devices wouldn’t take much to rig with a short-range detonation using nothing more than their own battery as the bomb. A bomb which will pass all the cursory security checks because there are no obvious chemicals (RDX, TNT, etc) to detect.

As a policy to prevent bombings, it’s not useless, it’s actually WORSE than useless, as it makes it FAR easier to take down an aircraft with electronics, just by accident, let alone by design.

The only people who benefit from this policy were it to be enacted worldwide, would be the computer snoopers, and of course, the many thieves, pilferers, 5-finger-discount shoppers, and general low-life criminals that seem to be employed at most airports in their security/baggage handling/TSA departments. Anyone else is potentially flying corpse-class.

Now, some might say that in this case, having lithium-ion batteries of any kind on an aircraft — whether in checked luggage or carry-on — is a recipe for disaster, and that they should be banned in general. But what I’m saying is that they are more prone to fire through mishandling than other battery types, and that such a fire, once it has started and takes hold, is more difficult to get under control easily. Well-maintained, well-treated batteries are safe if they’re kept in the cabin, as any incident can at least be quickly addressed, as the recent JetBlue incident showed. Requiring they be put into baggage that is dropped, thrown, punted, squished, molested, rummaged through and otherwise mishandled, before being packed tightly into an aircraft hold unattended means that damage leading to a fire is far more likely, and that fire is unlikely to be discovered ? let alone extinguished ? before it is too late for the safety of the aircraft.

And if you’re wondering how to put out a lithium battery fire when started, the answer is to use a class-D fire extinguisher (which only works on metal fires) but in a pinch, salt (pun intended) or sand can be used. Good luck finding the former, or enough of the latter two at 43,000ft. In a pinch, you can use water in mist form to cool around the battery and bring its temperature down (this can take a LOT of water and time), while also isolating it from any other fuel where possible (which was done in this case). Again, this is not really feasible if the fire is in the hold. Here’s a demonstration of extinguishing a laptop battery fire, and how even when prepared, and waiting for it, with an extinguisher at the ready, it can still take a minute or two to put it out. Most people would be tempted to stop once the flames go out, allowing for re-ignition.

Reposted from the Politics & P2P blog

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Comments on “Proposed DHS Rules May Cause The Deaths They Claim To Prevent”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Firesafe Luggage?

Maybe they will have to start screening for batteries and forcing you to use an approved luggage that can contain any potential fires. If I were in the right position, I might even start working on ways to have a luggage store right near the screening area with outrageous prices to give people a last mine option to bring their batteries.

K`Tetch (profile) says:

Re: Checked luggage is put in containers

SOME are explosion resistant (mainly the ‘fly bag’, which debuted in 2013). MANY are flame-resistant (ISO 19281:2016) but are not required. In fact, loose loading of luggage is still a thing on many aircraft.

Plus while 14 CFR 25.857 gives cargo area classifications, including requirements for detection and extinguishing/supression, as the video shows, what works for a normal fire doesn’t work so well on a battery fire. Especially as directed cooling is the main thing. Watch the last examlpe int he demonstration video linked in the last paragraph – they extinguished the fire, then dumped a LOAD of ice on the laptop (effective as most supression systems) and it didn’t stop it from re-igniting.

We’re not talking about a wood/paper fire, we’re not talking about a fire caused by an electrical spark igniting something. This can’t be fought the same way ‘traditional’ fires can be fought. That’s why there’s special training on it (I’ve trained in basic firefighting, both in the UK and US, including on SCBA gear. And that includes seperate training for lithium battery fires, which is handy for all the Battlebots that have caught fire over the years (and which now use a lot of lithium batteries)


Re: Checked luggage is put in containers

Even if they are not, the idea that it’s more dangerous to put stuff in the old is just absurd. In the passenger cabin, an explosion could rip the plane apart and you could get sucked out. That will end your trip real quick.

There’s also much less chance of direct and indirect damage form the explosive itself if it’s not in the middle of a large crowd of people.

For non homemade munitions we talk about things like kill radius and casuality radius. IOW, it’s better if the explosion is not next to you.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Re: Re: Checked luggage is put in containers

Kill radius works on the ground, not so much airplanes. As a gross example, suppose an explosive charge blows the tail off the plane: that the passengers were outside the kill radius and therefore survived the explosion won’t earn may brownie points after the subsequent 400 MPH vertical impact with the terrain.

It also isn’t always explosion and fire that are direct causes of death. UPS Flight 6 was brought down by smoke from the cargo fire–no one died from the fire itself. In addition to toxic components of smoke (which can kill) airplanes operate in a hostile environment. Unplanned events (fire) can result in damage, which in turn results in death. Nine passengers of United Airlines Flight 811 died because a cargo door opened during flight. Hydraulics and electrical systems pass near the cargo area and can be damaged as well.

Removing a bomb or incendiary device to the cargo hold does not assure passenger safety, as it might in a building on the ground.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Checked luggage is put in containers

In general, there is more to damage in the hold, as that is where flight controls are often routed because thy are easier to access there. Also, and it the bomb is big enough to bring an aircraft down, does it matter whether the passengers are killed by the blast, or killed by impact with the ground. Besides which, putting laptops etc. in a container in the holed means that the terrorists just design the bomb to wok in that situation.

As a means of protecting people from terrorism, this makes no sense. However if they want more time to search someones electronics, or to intercept copies of leaked documents, then lost and delayed luggage will serve nicely.

My_Name_Here says:

Re: Re: Re: Checked luggage is put in containers

Welcome to “incorrect”.

You make a basic mistake that a home brew, non-traditional explosive (not detectable by current equipment), size and shape smaller than a laptop battery could blow the tail off of a plane from a random location in the cargo hold, in a random location inside a random mental container packed down with hundreds of other suitcases full of soft, energy absorbing materials.

There was one plane crash where (apparently) the tail was blown off, but that required careful placement of the explosives in a particular postion against the bulkhead in the cargo hold, not randomly throwing a laptop with a small device into baggage and hoping it might end up near something.

If they were really lucky, they might damage one of a number of redundant systems. Mostly, they might blow a hole in the part of airplane that isn’t pressurized anyway and really annoy people.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Checked luggage is put in containers

You want to say so long as no one is directly affected by the explosion, all is good. You forget that, direct harm aside, the passengers are packed in a tin can with the explosion and its consequences; that the tin can is held up by air; and that many of the consequences of an explosion in the tin can result in it and the passengers impacting the ground at high speed.

And if the plane does crash, the fact that the explosion might not itself have directly harmed the passengers, is very moot.

Anonymous Coward says:

I think you may have a math problem.

What is the instance of fire per 100,000 powered down and not currently charging laptops? I couldn’t find a anything on the topic which suggests the chance of it happening rest between slim and none.

Once you do the math ypu realize yoi are arm waving… and not making much real sense.

K`Tetch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

This is true, until you consider that one of the major points is that physical damage is a major cause of thermal runaways. When they’re in your carry-on, you do your best to not bash it about. When it’s in a checked bag, the baggage handlers don’t care, it’s not their bag after all, they just want it moved as quickly as possible.

It’s the whole “increased chance of damage” by it being checked that is the problem.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

That would require tgat tge bag is hit hard enough to get through the bag, to your laptop -which wouldn’t be right against the outside – and then damage the laptop enough to actually damage the battery.

You point to exposed AA batteries in a soft backpack as a relevant example. They are easily damaged because they are unprotected.

Not seeing any laptops on fire on planes because of damage… and that is with people even dropping them from time to time and even charging thrm in flight.

Your assertions just don’t add up.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Its hard to do that considering that because of hightened security x ray machines and other checks nobidy has tried this specific approach. We do know that there have been attempted shoe and underwear bombs as well as at least one other bombing that took plane down in the last couple of years.

How many dead do you need to be convinced?

My_Name_Here says:

Great Story... so?

Here’s the thing. Laptops don’t catch fire much, although there have been a couple of smallish recalls in the last couple of years (less than 200,000 units total from HP, with less than 1% apparently actually having the issue at all). Most of the over heating seems to be related to when the laptop is plugged in a charging.

Now chargers, well, millions of those have been recalled. Those things that plug into the wall appear to be anywhere from 10 to 100 times more dangerous than a laptop battery!

Now, before anyone goes down that road, yes Samsing S7 phones had an issue, and yes a number of their phones did catch fire or overheated. However, when you consider the number of cell phones in distribution versus a single model failure, you start to understand that it’s a fairly rare occurrence.

From everything I could find online (did a couple of dozen searches on Google and Bing), a laptop catching fire or overheating while not plugged in and turned off appears to be rather small. Since the media would tend to go all wild with something like that, the lack of any particular stories that match the profile is impressive.

I can also say that most stories related to battery fires appear to be related to AA size rechargeable batteries, and mostly they appear to be no-name brand or off brand units (no main company names have appeared).

For all the hype, there doesn’t seem to be much related to consumer products catching fire, outside of the Samsung issue. There are cases, but they appear isolated.

For reference, American Airlines says on their website:

“travelers may check bags that contain batteries, as long as they are installed in electronic devices.”

In other words, you could already check your laptop without breaking any rules.

So yeah, sort of seems like a non-story, mostly based on people not wanting to be deprived of the glow of their laptop screens to comfort them on the plane.

Anonymous Coward says:

Also gives a government pretense to search electronics to find anything “embarrassing” to a government , like evidence of war crimes, corruption and criminal acts maybe, ones that a moral person felt the world needed to know, the ones that slip through the cracks of mass surveillance offcourse, one of the reasons why mass surveillance has become so prevailent….sort of like……covering your bases…….they say it will be used for this and that, given as little detail as possible, while neglecting to mention what i suspect other reasons it most definately in a technical sense can also be done

I predict that governments will invest in the creation of programs that deal in algorithms, to trawl through OUR private lives, in their databases to create profiles of every single human being that they can(force/”deal” with the rest), basically, whose cheering for us(safe), who is’nt cheering for us(flagged/under investigation)

Once thats normalised, any entity that has a positive influence in a corrupt government hemisphere, such as companies, will probably get access, essential services, such as hospitals……….

Near future, far future….i dont know……….i do know that if nobody steps up and intelectully and understandably explains the slippery slope and its possible destination to the public, authoritarians will always be the drivers of the bus headed towards that cliff just up ahead

The right and the left…….we need something new……….the middle maybe

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

DHS: Checked bags now MANDATORY

After watching DHS try to explain this, combined with it’s likely meaninglessness as an anti-terrorism measure, I have concluded it has nothing to do with terrorism.

This measure is about checked bags.

A carry-on bag is free and checked bags cost $$$$. As a result, the travelling public saved money by stuffing their carry-on and forgoing checked bags.

(The last time I traveled, I shipped the stuff that wouldn’t fit my carry-on by UPS…it was cheaper than a checked bag.)

This has hit the airline bottom line in two respects. First, they still have to have baggage handlers, even though fewer bags means less money to cover the cost. Second, the carry-on bags are now heavier: more fuel for free carriage.

What can the airlines do to counter this? Perhaps a law that a checked bag must be purchased? Such a law would be unlikely to pass Congress (unpopular).

So they asked big daddy DHS to make a rule. How to justify such a rule? What should it say? The first answer comes easy these days: “terrorism” justifies any rule whatsoever.

The second answer is tougher, because how do you justify forcing a traveler to pay for a checked bag–even with terrorism as your excuse? Electronics is the answer: almost every traveler carries a laptop, pad, camera, perhaps other devices. Call these devices weapons of terror…and then make a rule that any device bigger than a cellphone must be checked.

That is what DHS has done.

I have seen no reason to think there is any other meaningful justification for this rule. Watching DHS boss John Kelly stammer around, pretending this has a justification, other than airline greed, has only firmed my belief.

Anonymous Coward says:

You are making a mountain out of a mole hill. The nice men from the American government who travels in the check baggage area with the electronics will be armed with a fire extinguisher especially made for electronics fires…. what are they doing while not fighting fires? definitely not going through the electronics… definitely not

sorrykb (profile) says:

  • anyone looking to bring down an aircraft with explosive devices won’t care if they’re in the cabin or the hold

I suppose… Two people, each carrying a laptop hiding bomb components, could go through security, and after security assemble a bomb combining the components of the two laptops.

It’s the same argument about the liquid restrictions: Two or more people could combine some 3oz liquids to make an explosive mixture.

Basically unless everyone flies naked with no belongings whatsoever, there will be a risk. And no food and drink service on planes, cause they’re a risk. And no ground crew, cause they’re a risk.

Come to think of it, we might as well ban all travel. It’s dangerous.

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