Foiled terrorist plots often end with stricter security procedures at airports, but the most recent bomb scares could lead to the loss of something far more precious than our nail clippers: We could lose our in-flight Wi-Fi.
We've seen reports that the ink cartridge bombs discovered on several flights in recent days contained SIM cards and mysterious circuitry which may have been intended to serve as a trigger mechanism, but now we're reading that federal authorities are particularly fixated on that information.
Several security experts are suggesting that both the UK government and the US Department of Homeland Security will be looking into the technology behind in-flight cellphone and Wi-Fi connections in order to determine if it could be used by evildoers in conjunction with trigger mechanisms similar to those discovered.
Now, before you start a mob and shout that the sloppy pile of electronics found on those aircrafts can't possibly be reason enough to threaten our beloved in-flight Internet connections, let's sort out what the worries are.
According to officials contacted by Wired, there's little argument over the idea that the electronics in the bombs shipped from Yemen are anything more sophisticated than timers—and certainly not call-activated triggers—due to the technological limitations posed by distance and altitude:
"They couldn't call," says Roger Cressey, a former counterterrorism official in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations now with Goodharbor Consulting. If the terrorists used a regular cellphone to call an airplane-borne bomb from a great distance, it probably wouldn't be able to reach a tower that could bounce a signal to the phone - though it's not impossible.
The trouble, according to Roland Alford of explosives consultancy firm Alford Technologies, is that the benefits in-flight cellphone and Wi-Fi tech provides for your average traveler could give someone with malevolent intentions a way around the issues discussed by Cressey:
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."
Now, as New Scientist notes there are several experts who disagree with Alford and explain that "the use of mobile phones on planes does not constitute any additional security threat," but the point remains that rumors are flying and none of them are pleasant. Authorities are eying our in-flight cellphone and Wi-Fi connections with suspicion and nervousness and while things probably won't go beyond that, it's enough to make some of us clutch our laptops just a bit tighter the next time we board a plane.