Critics question motives behind laptop ban on planes

March 26, 2017
Excessive restrictions. A passenger buys a ticket at an Emirates Airline counter beside a dangerous goods warning sign in Los Angeles International Airport, on March 21st. (AFP)

Washington - Critics are questioning the motives behind the deci­sion by the United States and the United Kingdom to ban electronic devices such as laptops from cabin luggage on flights originating from several Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Coming after efforts by President Donald Trump to restrict travel from several Muslim nations in the Middle East and Africa into the US, the laptop ban is seen by some as another attempt to keep Muslims away. “This fits right in with that the administration has been doing,” Ismael Ahmed, a member of the board of directors at the Washing­ton-based Arab American Institute, said. “It fits right in with the Mus­lim ban.”

US authorities say the aim of keeping laptops, tablet computers and other electronic devices larger than mobile phones out of cabins is to prevent terrorists from smug­gling bombs onto US-bound planes. The restriction was announced for direct flight to the US from airports in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE and Qatar.

US airlines are not affected be­cause they do not have direct flights to the US from the airports hit by the ban. Officials have not given an end date for the ban, but news reports said some airlines had been told that the restriction would end in October.

Quoting unnamed officials, US media reported that the ban was introduced as a result of informa­tion uncovered during an attack by US soldiers on an al-Qaeda group in Yemen in January, but there have been no further details.

The United Kingdom followed suit with a similar measure that targets flights from six countries – Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – and also includes UK airlines that fly directly from those nations to Great Britain. Canada and France are reportedly thinking about introducing similar measures.

The fact that only certain flights from certain airports are affected and that the US and the UK bans ad­dress different groups of countries makes critics think that air safety might not be the real reason behind the move. “If you ban them, ban them for everybody,” Ahmed said. “This is just more of a war on the world of Islam.” He added that he expects the laptop ban to be chal­lenged in the courts.

Ahmed is not alone in suspect­ing there might be ideological reasons behind the ban. Amnesty International said in a statement that “Trump’s blatant anti-Muslim rhetoric and the total lack of ex­planation about these new restric­tions raises serious concerns that this could be yet more bigotry dis­guised as policy”.

Reaction in the affected coun­tries has been mixed. Several air­lines announced they would start implementing the ban, with Dubai-based Emirates publishing a new video clip promoting its on-board entertainment system with the slogan “Who needs tablets and laptops anyway?” By contrast, Tur­key protested against the decisions and said it was trying to convince authorities in Washington and London to exclude Istanbul’s main Ataturk Airport from the ban or at least “soften” the restrictions.

Technology experts point to un­answered question in connection with the US and UK bans. On Twit­ter, Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the School of Infor­mation and Library Science at the University of North Carolina who regularly comments on technology issues, pointed out that a potential terrorist could fly to a country out­side the ban’s scope to take a plane to the United States from there.

John Strickland, an aviation ex­pert and consultant, told CNBC it was dangerous to fill a plane’s hold with lithium battery items. “If these batteries are damaged they could have this thermal runa­way fire and that itself is a security challenge of a different kind that the airlines would have to wrestle with,” the US broadcaster quoted Strickland as saying.

Some observers speculated there might be economic reasons behind the US laptop ban, a step that could see passengers used to working during long-haul flights in expen­sive business class seats switch to other airlines. Writing in the Wash­ington Post, political scientists Abraham Newman and Henry Far­rell noted that US airlines had been complaining that some competi­tors from Gulf nations had unfair advantages because of government subsidies.

Last month US airline executives met Trump and warned of “further harm to hard working Americans” because of state help for airlines in Gulf nations. “I know you’re under pressure from a lot of foreign ele­ments and foreign carriers,” Trump told them, according to the White House.

Newman and Farrell argued that the laptop ban might be an exam­ple of a country using its clout in a globalised economy. “This can be understood as a variant form of ‘weaponised interdependence”, they wrote.

In a separate development that could draw criticism, the US De­partment of Justice announced it would try to strip a 47-year-old Pakistan-born man convicted for his participation in an al-Qaeda plot of his American citizenship. The Justice Department is arguing in a civil suit that the man, Iyman Faris, who has been serving a 20- year sentence for his role in the 2003 plot to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, lied dur­ing the process of becoming a US citizen in 1999.

Taking US citizenship away from someone is rare, but legally possi­ble. News reports say the practice has so far been used to denational­ise Nazis living in the United States.