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Kareem Chehayeb

The electronics ban will do nothing to protect Britain

Kuwaiti social media activist Thamer al-Dakheel Bourashed boards a flight to the US [AFP]

Date of publication: 24 March, 2017

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Comment: Not only is this an ineffective and illogical security measure, it is also a blow to civil liberties and the right to privacy in general, writes Kareem Chehayeb.

In light of the controversial American and British laptop bans, I thought I would take the advice of Royal Jordanian Airlines' witty social media team.

They posted a list of things to do on a long flight with no laptop or tablet, one of them being "Think of reasons why you don't have a laptop or tablet with you."

So here goes nothing:

An unnamed American official speaking to CNN claimed that Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda affiliated organisations in Syria and Yemen have been working on using the battery compartments of laptops and other electronic devices as explosives.

Is the laptop ban an effective security measure?

Apparently, following a raid in Yemen, US officials believed that Al-Qaeda in Yemen took down a Russian plane in 2015 using an explosive hidden in ordinary electronic devices.

If this is true, then why stop at the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey?

According to Joseph Chinyong's testimony before the House Subcommittee, IS has been gaining ground in some Southeast Asian countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia. But direct flights between London and Kuala Lumpur remain unaffected.

And what about India, where an attack on a Mumbai train took place in coordination with IS in Syria? A quick Google search shows that there are five direct flights daily between London and New Delhi, as well as between London and Mumbai.

But before thinking about Asia, perhaps the United Kingdom should revise the countries impacted by the ban in the first place; they happened to forget about three very active airliners from the Middle East; Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways.

Ignoring the home-front

But the real issue with the ban is that it does nothing to tackle arguably the largest issue for the United Kingdom: Some of its own citizens.

According to the BBC, as of February 2017, 850 people from the UK have traveled to Iraq or Syria to fight alongside extremist organisations, and about half of them have returned home.

Given that these were some of Europe's worst attacks, perhaps the United Kingdom should consider a ban on laptops, trains and buses too

This week's attack at Westminster was carried out by Khalid Masood, a British citizen from Kent. Less than 24 hours later, a French national residing in Antwerp, Belgium, tried to drive his vehicle into a crowd.

To this we could add the tragic Paris attacks of November 2015, which were orchestrated by - you guessed it - a Belgian national.

According to Prime Minister Theresa May, the Westminster attacker was known to MI5, but was downplayed as a "peripheral figure". 

Given that these were some of Europe's worst attacks, perhaps the United Kingdom should consider a ban on laptops, trains and buses too - just in case.

A blow to civil liberties and transparency

Not only is this an ineffective and rather illogical security measure, it is also a blow to civil liberties and the right to privacy in general.

Taking into consideration the existing restrictions and other security measures at airports, the laptop ban will be a cause for concern for students, journalists and just about anyone who owns a personal device.

Documents, reports, photos, and videos will be exposed, risking theft, damage, and the normalisation of extreme, pervasive surveillance measures

On both a professional and personal level, documents, reports, photos, and videos will be exposed, risking theft, damage, and the normalisation of extreme, pervasive surveillance measures.

Having laptops, tablets, and other electronic devices separately scanned through the x-ray machine has so far proved a successful measure. And whether a laptop is in the cabin, or stored inside the hold seems unlikely to change very much in the long-run, if it is to be used as an explosive.

And in addition, passengers are still free to travel with their laptops in hand through the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, or through a layover in a European country en route to the United Kingdom.

So what's the point?

Given the illogical and inconsistent nature of the ban, it seems more likely it is yet another knee-jerk Islamophobic measure, which will further demonise Muslims and chip away a little further at everyone's basic rights, all in the name of security.

And lastly, the extremist organisations this measure apparently targets are unlikely to be phased by it at all.

Kareem Chehayeb is a Lebanese writer and musician based in Beirut.

Follow him on Twitter: @chehayebk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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