Toner: The New Contraband

November 8, 2010

According to an article at the BBC, the US Department of Homeland Security [DHS] has instituted a ban on toner cartridges in checked or carry-on luggage on passenger flights inbound to the United States.  There is also a general ban on cargo flights to the US from Yemen or Somalia.

The press release from the DHS says that

Toner and ink cartridges over 16 ounces will be prohibited on passenger aircraft in both carry-on bags and checked bags on domestic and international flights in-bound to the United States. This ban will also apply to certain inbound international air cargo shipments as well.

This seems to say that individual cartridges larger than 16 ounces are being banned, but that is not entirely clear (can I bring along 25 14-ounce cartridges?); nor is it clear whether the 16 ounce limit applies to weight (as the BBC implicitly assumes, converting it to 453g), or to volume (16 ounces = 1 US pint ≈ 473 ml).

This is apparently a response to the discovery of two air cargo packages, bound for the US, which contained explosives hidden in printer cartridges.  It is another example of what I believe is a misguided response to specific threats and tactics; it is worth noting that the original packages were discovered, not by ever more arbitrary and draconian searches, but by good cooperative intelligence work.  After all, while it is certainly true that explosives can be hidden in printer cartridges, they can also be hidden in stuffed animals, electric shavers, laptop computers, and books, to name but a few possibilities.

I guess, in the light of the “underpants bomber” last winter, we are lucky that the DHS has not decided to disallow wearing underwear on airplanes.   And I still think that Bruce Schneier has the best observation on this:

I wish that, just once, some terrorist would try something that you can only foil by upgrading the passengers to first class and giving them free drinks.

Now there is talk that in-flight WiFi Internet access might be banned because a data transmission might be used to trigger an explosive device.   By the same “logic”, any kind of radio receiver, timing device (like your watch or alarm clock), or pressure gauge / barometer ought to be banned.  If we carry on this way, the would-be terrorists don’t have to do much — we’ll do it to ourselves.

Refuse to be terrorized.

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