TSA Bans Ink/Toner Cartridges From Airline Passengers; Wi-Fi Future Uncertain

In the wake of the pair of thwarted bombings by Al Qaeda last month, the TSA has announced additional restrictions and guidelines for passengers traveling both within the United States and internationally. In additional to logical and prudent steps, such as banning packages from Somalia and Yemen (temporarily) and additional screening for packages classified as high risk, there's a new pair of rules that're collectively bizarre. From the DHS press release:

Toner and ink cartridges over 16 ounces will be prohibited on passenger aircraft in both carry-on bags and checked bags on domestic and international flights in-bound to the United States. This ban will also apply to certain inbound international air cargo shipments as well. The Administration is also working closely with industry and our international partners to expedite the receipt of cargo manifests for international flights to the United States prior to departure in order to identify and screen items based on risk and current intelligence. We are also working with our international and private sector partners on the expansion of layered detections system including technology and other measures.

The immediate rationale behind the restrictions is clear. One of the packages withstood multiple passes from Scotland Yard's high-tech scanners and low-tech dogs. If investigators had been unable to provide a specific tracking number to identify the package, it would've been passed and presumably detonated. Both of the bombs were found encased in printer cartridges. Practically speaking, this isn't a restriction that's likely to affect many people. We're fairly certain that most folks don't carry multiple cartridges of black ink stuffed into their pants pockets or strapped to their legs. The wording of the restriction also seems to imply that while no single cartridge can weigh more than 16 oz, multiple 12 oz cartridges would be just fine. Most consumer-oriented print cartridges weigh much less than 16 oz, but higher-end printers often use cartridges that weigh more.

"Limited impact," however, does not equate to "intelligent safety improvement." Presumably, the would-be bombers used print cartridges because they're familiar enough to the eye to pass rote inspection, yet sturdy enough to contain the contents of a bomb as it travels towards its destination. Serviceable items include childrens' toys, external hard drives, and Mrs. Jones' cat.

He doesn't LOOK busy...

More ominously, there are rumors that the TSA is considering banning the use of in-flight WiFi  after useless, SIM-card-lacking cell phones were discovered attached to the toner cartridges in question. No one is arguing that the cell phones could've been detonated by a phone call in flight, but there's the possibility that such a device could be constructed, which may be all the incentive the DHS needs. The appeal of being scattered over twenty square miles of ocean just because a seatmate wanted to check Facebook is admittedly small. The idea that a ban on airplane WiFi would prevent this from occurring is blindingly stupid. Terrorists who found themselves unable to construct complex detonators out of cell phones and WiFi might be forced to wreak havoc with other devices like a thermometer, egg timer, or LED clock.

On a side note, we expect the airline industry would fight tooth and claw to keep in-flight WiFi flowing. It's one of the few services that's begun to turn a profit in recent months and the carriers would be loathe to see it go.

The only thing more dangerous than no security at all is a security system that lulls people into thinking they're safe when they aren't. The more regulations, baggage checks, and clothing-removals the TSA mandates, the greater the divorce between the actual danger and perceived danger of a terrorist attack.