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UK laptop ban: practical move or political ploy?

ByLaura Potier

Apr 5, 2017
CBP Officer processes a passenger into the United States at an airport.

The UK has recently announced a new ban on certain electronic devices, including tablets, laptops and anything larger than a mobile phone from being carried in hand luggage.

This ban applies to flights coming into Britain from a selection of Middle Eastern and North African countries, namely Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey. Of the 14 carriers affected by these new restrictions, six are UK airlines, including British Airways and EasyJet.

These new restrictions brought in by Theresa May closely follow a similar move by the US. The ban implemented by the Trump administration affects nine airlines coming into the United States from 10 specific airports in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

There is an interesting discrepancy in the UK and US lists of affected flights. Only Egypt and Turkey feature in both, which begs the question as to why, given the extensive information sharing that exists between the UK and the US, the two lists do not match up. How effective can these policies therefore be, and how can one place of origin be safe for one country and not for the other? Is it really believable that there exist no security measures that would screen electronic equipment effectively enough to detect whether or not an electronic is real?

This question is of particular relevance in the case of Emirates. Whilst the majority of its flights from Dubai going to the United States are covered by the ban, two escape the restrictions. It appears that these two flights, one to Newark Airport and the other to New York JFK, make a stop in Europe on their way to the US, and this hence exempts them from the new ban. Furthermore, it is unclear why the US views the UAE authorities as providing insufficient airport security, considering that airports in Dubai and Abu Dhabi have both met the international security standards. This raises another question, which is to what extent these restrictions are justified and to what extent this is merely a blanket ban driven by vague Islamophobia, considering the countries included in both US and UK bans have a Muslim majority population? This makes a controversial casual tie between the perceived threat of terrorism against western countries and popular Islamic faith.

Security experts have stated that these bans were implemented due to a number of factors, but most recently a plot involving a fake iPad filled with explosives – the details of which have not been disclosed – seems to have been the short-term cause for these new regulations. An explosion in a pressurised cabin, where a terrorist can position the explosives against a window or door and tear the skin of the aircraft, is guaranteed to have a far more devastating impact than in the hold, where they have no control over the position of the bomb.

So whilst yes, it seems that fears expressed by the US and British governments are legitimate, the selection of Muslim-majority countries strikes an uncomfortable resonance with Trump’s attempted Muslim travel ban in the US. The uncanny resemblance could suggest that the announcement of the laptop ban was made out of frustration at the failure of the travel ban, which has been considered unconstitutional. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Theresa May’s timed announcement of similar restrictions may be another way for her to align herself with the US in the wake of Brexit. While this could be criticised as political expediency, the UK does need strong political and economic allies if it is to retain its globally influential status.

Regardless of the justifications for the electronics embargo, many share the concerns of Alexandre de Juniac, Director General of the International Air Transport Association, that even in the short term, the effectiveness of the ban is highly debatable, and that these current measures are not sustainable.


Image: US Customs and Border Protection via Flickr

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