tsa belongings Your laptop is a suitcase: How the U.S. government is searching computers, phones, and other electronics at the border

A chilling article that’s must-reading for anyone who travels with a laptop, smartphone, or any other electronic device that stores personal data. Some snippets:

[At San Francisco International Airport] a tech engineer returning from a business trip to London objected when a federal agent asked him to type his password into his laptop computer. “This laptop doesn’t belong to me,” he remembers protesting. “It belongs to my company.” Eventually, he agreed to log on and stood by as the officer copied the Web sites he had visited, said the engineer, a U.S. citizen who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of calling attention to himself.
“I was assured that my laptop would be given back to me in 10 or 15 days,” said Udy, who continues to fly into and out of the United States. She said the federal agent copied her log-on and password, and asked her to show him a recent document and how she gains access to Microsoft Word. She was asked to pull up her e-mail but could not because of lack of Internet access. [...] More than a year later, Udy has received neither her laptop nor an explanation.
The U.S. government has argued in a pending court case that its authority to protect the country’s border extends to looking at information stored in electronic devices such as a laptop without any suspicion of a crime. In border searches, it regards a laptop the same as a suitcase.

My view: Airport security officers should be there to check the materials you intend to bring into the airport for explosives or weapons. Not for content. Screen the computer to see if it’s loaded with plastic explosives, sure. But don’t read my e-mail. You shouldn’t be editing for content the books I bring onto the plane, you shouldn’t be viewing the phone numbers I dialed, or the web sites I accessed unless you have a warrant and I am a suspect in a crime. And even then, such a search should be conducted by appropriate law enforcement officers, such as the FBI.

But the current administration argues that things like warrants aren’t necessary at the border. Anything goes, regardless of the color of your passport. Here’s hoping the next president has the backbone to reassert some control over this runaway fearmongering security apparatus and reincorporate some basic all-American rights into the legal movement across our borders.

In the meantime, individuals and businesses need to be aware that anything electronic can be confiscated, copied, or destroyed if you’re arriving at an American airport from abroad. That means backing up and/or deleting anything of possible personal or business value. Simply renaming files, as suggested here over a year ago, may not cut it anymore.

- Rename filenames, avoid laptop confiscation
- Batteries not included: New rules ban loose lithium batteries from checked luggage
- A handy guide for luggage inspectors
- Your shoes remain a threat to security


laptop battery fire Batteries not included: New rules ban loose lithium batteries from checked luggage

Effective January 1, 2008, travelers to, from, or within the United States will have yet another rule to track: A new, more stringent policy governing the transportation of rechargeable batteries, which have occasionally caught on fire.

If you’re putting rechargeable batteries into your carry-on, you’ve got little to worry about. But if you put any of those rechargeables into checked baggage, you’ll need to master the arts and science of lithium weights and measures. Huh?

For example, a “Lithium Metal Battery, Spare or Installed (over 2 grams lithium)” is now prohibited across the board. But under 2 grams lithium? No problem in your carry-on.

Huh? Lithium Metal vs. Lithium Ion? 2 grams vs. 8 grams of lithium in the battery? How many travelers know the difference? Perhaps more importantly, how many airport security personnel do?

But this isn’t a beef with the TSA… yet. No, the TSA isn’t to blame for this new rule. Rather, reserve your ire for the Department of Transportation and its Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

The DOT’s battery website shows just how confusing this can be. The TSA’s site, on the other hand, offers a far simpler set of guidelines:

Under the new DOT rule, lithium batteries are allowed in checked baggage under one of the following conditions:

* The batteries must be in their original containers.
* The battery terminals must not exposed (for example placing tape over the ends of the batteries).
* The batteries are installed in a device.
* The batteries are enclosed by themselves in a plastic bag.

Of course, the biggest risk, going forward, is uneven enforcement. In a few days, I’m sure we’ll start hearing stories about some legal batteries being removed, or prohibited batteries being permitted aboard. THEN, you can go back to griping about the TSA.


Apple has been running ads galore for its iPhone, but one ad in particular bugs me. It’s the one with the pilot, who talks about the weather.

The pilot in the ad, who tells us that he was working a flight from Chicago to Newark, says he’s notified by the tower of a three hour weather delay. Skeptically, he whips out the iPhone and browses over to weather.com to see that there is no weather en route. He calls his dispatcher, and within minutes, they’re cleared for takeoff. iPhone to the rescue.

(If you prefer multimedia to pithy summaries, click the image below to view the ad on the Apple site.)

 Apples iPhone pilot ad: BS, or is air traffic control really this clueless?


No, seriously: Really?

The pilot is identified simply as “Bryce,” and for all I know, he may be a real pilot. (Chicago to Newark… if he’s a commercial pilot that makes him a pilot for American, Continental, or United. Anyone recognize him?)

Either that story is 100% unadulterated bunk, or we’ve got even bigger problems than reported (or not reported, as the case may be).

How was this discussion supposed to go? “Uh, there’s no weather on radar. Why am I delayed?” “Oh, you’re right, I guess you can go now. Get outta here!” Unlikely. One expects (and hopes) that the Chicago tower has access to weather reports. And radar.

(Amusingly, the phone image shows two lines of storms on that flight route, one across Indiana, and one across Ohio. Maybe they should have picked a clear day.)

The ad could have repurcussions for travel: If you’re working in an airport tower, prepare to be harangued by pilots, passengers, and weather nerds across the land.

So either Apple is pulling a fast one, or we’re all screwed.

Categorized in: cell phones

Upgraded: Seat pitch regulation?
Chris Elliott notes that European regulators are considering rules to require minimum seat pitch, though it’s not clear what that minimum would be. Some of the ultra-cheapo carriers have legroom below 30″, which is horrendous. (Skybus-esque, for an American equivalent.) The reason for the regulation? Deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, a.k.a “economy class syndrome.” Maybe they should invest in this guy’s airline seat design while they’re at it.

Upgraded: Free wireless calling
Looking to cut down on the cellphone minutes? T-Mobile customers can sign up to make unlimited free calls with a compatible cellphone, if they’re in range of a T-Mobile wireless HotSpot or if you enable your home or office wireless router to link up with your phone. Brilliant. I’m a T-Mobile wireless customer myself, and I’ve been extremely satisfied with their service, both in terms of their network and their customer service. A few years ago, when wi-fi was less common in hotels, I sometimes traveled with a router and plugged it into the hotel jack, creating my own in-room hotspot. With T-Mobile’s new service, I’d strongly consider carrying a cellphone-linked router with me once again.

Upgraded: Paris Wi-Fi
Another city goes wi-fi. This time, it’s Paris. David Ourisman reports on the new arondissements electroniques.

Upgraded: American Airlines to London… Stansted?!
With open skies a reality between the US and Europe, airlines have been announcing new and expanded routes across the Atlantic. American Airlines announced a route from New York-JFK to London-Stansted, the airport that Ryanair made famous. This is interesting, since it’s the first (corrected below) a major network flight between the US and the more obscure Stansted Airport. (Maxjet and Eos fly there, yes, but American’s use of Stansted is big.)
Update: Joe Brancatelli writes in to point out that American Airlines has actually flown to Stansted in the past, with a Chicago-O’Hare to London-Stansted flight that launched in 1992. So now, with Maxjet and Eos eating American’s premium-cabin lunch on the London route, American makes its (triumphant?) return. Thanks, Joe!

Downgraded: Check-in? (or is that Upgraded?)
Jared Blank picks up on Spanish airline Clickair’s promise to eliminate the need for check-in. No real details, but it reminds me of train service, where you get on and have your ticket punched by the conductor. I’m too tired to figure out how it might work, but first come, first served seating is nothing new, and “shuttle” flights have existed for years, so there’s no reason this couldn’t work on heavily-traveled, high-frequency business routes.

Downgraded: Alitalia
Could Alitalia be downgraded any further? Already plagued by bankruptcy, strikes galore, and general incompetences for years, the Italian flag carrier is killing its frequent flyer program. And from its ashes will be reborn a new program, but you’ll only keep your miles if you fly the airline twice in the first half of 2008. Gary Leff has the story. I share his disdain.

Upgraded, in theory: Designer airlines that may never fly
From a Newsweek article on how the ultra-rich are finding ways to burn through their substantial cash: “Brands like Versace, under new leadership, are moving beyond red-carpet dresses into areas like interior jet and auto design. Last year Donna Karan went a step further, researching the launch of a branded airline.” Donna Karan Airlines?? Would the name of that airline perhaps be DKJFKSFO? DKDFWPHX? Yeah, sure. The ultra-rich don’t fly commercial. Good luck with that venture…

Upgraded: American Express’ Starwood card
I’ve long been a proponent of the Amex credit card that’s linked with the Starwood Hotels program. Several e-mails in my inbox have alerted me to the recently upgraded bonus offer: Get 10,000 bonus points with first purchase, and (here’s the upgrade) 15,000 bonus points for charging $15,000 in the first 6 months. Nice bonus, if you can get it.

Upgraded: Boeing’s 787
With much fanfare, Boeing rolled out its first 787 Dreamliner yesterday (on 7/8/07, har har har). The plane has a lot of potential to revolutionize air travel, and I’m excited at the prospect of actually flying in one someday. Sure beats the regional jets I’ve sat in lately… MSNBC’s photo page of the 787 rollout is here.

viewtoakillviewtoakillblimp Upgrades and Downgrades    July 9, 2007    Changes, but will they do you good?

Speed round of Upgrades and Downgrades
Upgraded: Zeppelins! (Beware if Christopher Walken is on board.)
Downgraded: Airport showers at LAX.
Upgraded, as much as possible: Regional jets.
Upgraded: Latin America; Downgraded: Easter Island.
Downgraded: Traveling bulldogs.
Downgraded: Business class meals at the hands of a NYT food critic. Shocking.

Posted by: Tyler Colman (a.k.a. Dr. Vino)

oldphone iPhone home, uPhone home“I could never imagine going to Vinexpo [wine trade show in Bordeaux] without a cell phone,” someone told me. Why? Because I did just that.

It was unintentional, of course. Despite having a quad-band phone, I forgot the charger to my Motorola Razr. So no phone during the show. Perhaps you have felt a similar frustration in your overseas travels.

I got reunited with my charger while in France and installed a SIM chip from Orange, a local cell phone provider. It cost 30 euros for the chip and a few minutes credit. I later reloaded it at one of the ubiquitous tobacco stores (yes, that’s what they’re called) where they give you a code to add prepaid minutes. Calling domestic land lines in France is a low per minute rate. But calling French mobiles and the US sucks down the credits faster than I would a glass of 1982 Petrus.

I thought I was being Mr. Savvy International Traveler by going local. But in the end, I’m not sure it was worth it. Yes, I got a French number that is valid for eight months. But the domestic rates for calling mobile phones is so high in France, I’m not sure it’s any less than calling an American number.

So next time I might just switch on international roaming, which generally ranges from $0.99 to $1.29 a minute from American carriers. Imagine that: what’s the most convenient might also be the most price competitive. If you have further suggestions for ways to maximize your mobile, post them in the comments! And what about the iPhone–is it quad-band?

Tyler Colman, Ph.D. writes about wine in print and online at DrVino.com

Categorized in: cell phones

boarding pass collection The false promise of electronic ticketing

When e-tickets first rolled out, they held the promise of paperless travel. For example, Alaska Airlines, the first domestic U.S. carrier to introduce wireless check-in back in early 2001, offered this nugget to the media when they rolled it out: “Once a passenger checks in via a cell phone or another wireless device, he or she can go directly to the appropriate gate, show a photo identification and board the plane.” Ha!

Ah, what could’ve been. I was reminded of the pre-9/11 predictions of how e-travel would be when I read how Northwest Airlines rolled out upgrades to their website, allowing you to perform a greater number of services via wireless devices. If you browse over to their site with your mobile, you’ll be able to buy tickets, change reservations, check in, etc. (Other airlines, such as Southwest, let you check in for your flights, but don’t let you buy tickets wirelessly.) But fully electronic travel, once promised, is a bust. It’s still a paper-trail world. The trees aren’t safe.

You can’t print a paper boarding pass from your smartphone, after all. Even in Europe, where you can use SMS text messaging to check in, you still need to stop at an airport kiosk and choose to “reprint” the pass.

After 9/11, it was no longer possible to go through security without a paper boarding pass. Mind you, the real security benefit of this requirement is highly questionable. Sure, it means that fewer people actually pass through security, but having a slip of paper with your name on it really doesn’t make you any more or less of a threat. (See, for example, the hoopla surrounding the fake boarding pass generator.)

At the end of the day, I’m glad to have Northwest and others on the wireless train. Being able to make changes via the wireless web really is an improvement. But it falls short of the predictions that we could skip the paper boarding passes altogether. Or that gate readers could scan a phone, or swipe a card, at the gate. That would really put the “e” back into e-tickets. Dare to dream.


- Forged boarding passes: Fraud, yes, but where is the security threat?