Why the TSA Can Take Your Phone

And everything you need to know to make sure they don't.

Jul 8, 2014
Outside Magazine
Crime Justice Law TSA

If you needed another reason to dread the security line, here it is: any uncharged gadgets can be seen as a threat and confiscated.    Getty Images

The next time you hop on a plane headed for the U.S., make sure all your gadgets are sufficiently charged. Not so that you’ll be left in a giant metal cylinder with no Words With Friends to keep you amused, but so that security won’t nab your devices before you even get on the plane.

The Transportation Security Administration is asking 15 airports in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa to confiscate any electronics that cannot be turned on. The fear here is that any devices that don’t boot up could be hollowed-out shells with bombs stuffed inside.

The U.S. received intelligence reports that the Al Qaeda group in Yemen was trying to disguise explosives as cell phones. The group’s head bomb maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, has created undetectable explosives in the past few years, prompting the updated screening procedure. Hey, if the underpants bomb didn’t work, why not switch to something less conspicuous?

Here’s how the setup will work. Say you’re returning from a European skiing trip. You’re getting ready to board your flight at one of the airports that’s implementing the new screening procedures (the T.S.A and Department of Homeland Security are keeping mum on which airports they’ll be).

You hit the screening line, and one of the security agents will ask you to power on any electronics you have. Your phone turns on: Great! Pass right on through. But if it doesn’t, the agent will let you use your charger to boot it up. If even that doesn’t work, kiss your phone goodbye. The agent will confiscate it, and you may be pulled aside for further questioning.

The plan right now only applies to cell phones, but the T.S.A. said that it may start screening laptops and tablets in the same way. But Billy Vincent, former head of security for the Federal Aviation Administration, told The New York Times that laptops pose a different problem because there’s enough space to pack in explosives without having to gut the computer.

Having your cell phone die is stressful enough; with these new regulations, having it happen on a security line can be downright traumatic. It’s yet another hoop that travelers have to jump through, but better to be prepared than end up with an extended stay in some overseas airport.

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