Editorial: The iPod Bomb? Don’t Panic

When the news wires first published reports of today’s foiled transcontinental airline terrorist attack, we immediately noticed something unusual: in addition to banning passengers from carrying on liquids that were potentially capable of serving as explosives, British and U.S. authorities were said to be imposing carry-on bans for iPods – by name – as well as cell phones and notebook computers. Further reports from Bloomberg, CNN, and Sky News have confirmed the bans this morning, with CNN quoting a “senior Congressional source” as saying that the plotters “may have planned to use an MP3 player or a cell phone to trigger the explosives,” while a main page headline stated that cannisters of liquid would have been detonated “with iPod or cell phone.” The intended result was the destruction of between three and ten planes mid-flight, in waves of several planes at once, with total casualties in the thousands.

iPod-detonated plane bombings? Is this the stuff of spy novels and conspiracy theories, or the real thing? The full details will surely emerge over the coming weeks and months, and given the iPod’s popularity, they may not be pretty: reports have noted that it’s possible to use something as small as an electronic key fob to trigger a detonation, so it’s not hard to imagine someone hollowing out an iPod for such nefarious purposes. Since prior terrorist attacks have relied on actual cell phones to act as triggers, it’s unclear whether attackers could use a fully working iPod to this end, or whether authorities are broadly concerned by anything with an inconspicuous plastic shell. The iPod may have been named, but it also may have been falsely accused.

What does this mean for iPod-carrying travellers today? In the United Kingdom, the answer is unfortunate: because of a very wide-reaching, ultra-cautious ban, you’ll need to put your music – and just about everything else you’d carry – in your checked luggage. Similarly, based on measures announced by Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, U.S.-based passengers departing from Boston’s Logan International Airport will not be able to carry iPods, cell phones, or notebook computers on board planes. Plan on checking them with your other luggage, and carry books instead. It remains to be seen whether this ban will spread to other U.S. airports as well.

For obvious reasons, we hope that it doesn’t. Just as with the FAA’s regulations that prohibit the use of certain portable electronic devices during plane takeoffs and landings, we think that there’s an increasing need for clarity – and science – in bans that may apply to iPods. If there are actual threats, we fully support a government’s decision to prudently limit them in the name of public safety. If hollowed-out iPods or other portable devices are the concern, airports can treat them like laptops, and require them to be turned on and working at current security checkpoints. If working devices are the threat, their potentially dangerous characteristics should be isolated so that safer versions can be developed and sold, perhaps under a TSA or FAA certification or standards program, as with recently released locks. And if there’s no way to isolate the threats from such devices, it’s time to equip airplanes with suitable, no-cost replacements. In this day and age, people can’t be expected to weather transcontinental flights without some form of electronic entertainment; books and conversations are great for some people, but not everyone.

On the other hand, iPods may pose comparatively little or no threat to airliners – as detonators, or during takeoffs and landings. This seems possible, both because there hasn’t yet been a reported incident of an iPod-related airline problem, and also given the wide variety of other popular devices such as computers, laptops, and cell phones that are more potentially threatening. If this is the case, flight regulating agencies and companies such as Apple should be working now to dispell the myths surrounding in-flight iPod safety. Like our readers, iLounge’s editors frequently travel with and depend upon iPods for travel entertainment, and we shudder at the thought of losing the ability to listen to or watch our media collections on planes. As a British resident quoted by the U.K.‘s Sky News explained after learning about today’s ban, she was comfortable with airline safety and okay with the delays, but “[e]ight hours without an iPod, that’s the most inconvenient thing.” In such uncertain times, distractions are especially valuable, so it would be great to know for sure what is and isn’t safe to do in the skies.

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