Register: Fliers stripped of hi-tech, remote detonation a possibility in terror plot

Summary:According to The Register's reporting on this morning's foiled terror plot, passengers looking to fly out of UK airports this morning were not only asked to stow all of their carry-on luggage, they were asked to put any electronics in that luggage.  The crackdown on wireless technology apparently included "wireless keys" (often used for cars, but sometimes for other things too) fueling speculation that authorities were concerned about remote detonation.

According to The Register's reporting on this morning's foiled terror plot, passengers looking to fly out of UK airports this morning were not only asked to stow all of their carry-on luggage, they were asked to put any electronics in that luggage.  The crackdown on wireless technology apparently included "wireless keys" (often used for cars, but sometimes for other things too) fueling speculation that authorities were concerned about remote detonation. Most reports cite the targeting of US airliners and others are saying some British ones may have been included too. Reported Joe Fay:

Hand luggage allowances have been stripped back to little more than wallets, travel documents, verifiable prescription medicines, contact lenses or glasses, essential baby items, female sanitary items, tissues (unboxed). Food and drink, other than baby milk, has also been banned. Parents, apparently, must "verify" baby milk by tasting it in front of security staff...Keys are allowed, but NOT electronic types, including remote car locking types......All electronic items – laptops, ipods, phones, etc – are verboten and must be stashed in suitcases....The crackdown on electronic items has fuelled speculation that the plot could have involved some kind of remote detonation, using a mobile phone or electronic car key for example, or some kind of device that would be assembled once on the air plane.

This is the second time in little more than a week that the idea of remote detonation has been raised in the context of travel and the targeting of US citizens or interests.  Last week, at the Black Hat 2006 conference, Flexilis Inc. showed how improperly shielded RFID-based passports could be used by terrorists to detonate bombs targeting citizens of particular nations. Flexilis used a video to demonstrate the point. From cloning, to ID theft, to remote detonation scenarios, the role of RFID as a security measure in passports was seriously called into question during that security confab.

If remote detonation was a real possibility in this situation, it would not have been the first time that the explosion of a transatlantic flight would have involved a radio of some sort.  The explosive that was used to destroy Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 was hidden inside of a radio that had been stowed in checked baggage. Based on the discovery of a circuit board fragment that bore similarities to a timer found on a Libyan intelligence agent who was arrested nearly a year before Flight 103 was brought down, intelligence agencies have concluded that a timer was used to detonate the explosives in that case.  But, there are some alternative theories, one of which was put forth by Joe Vialls in 2000 who claimed that there was a 99 percent chance the bomb on the "Lockerbie flight" was "triggered by a simple radio detonator, not by a MEBO timer as claimed by American intelligence." 

So, what was it like in the airports here in the US? In a post headlined Avoid flying today, Doc Searls wrote first hand account of his experience flying out of Boston's Logan Airport this morning.

Meanwhile, the bigger role of IT in the thwarting of the plot probably deserves a story. Suggesting that communications surveillance probably played a role, Fox News is reported:

A senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said authorities believe dozens of people — possibly as many as 50 — were involved in the plot, which "had a footprint to Al Qaeda back to it." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation...Another U.S. source in Washington told FOX News that the plot had a "serious Al Qaeda connection."

The Fox News story (the content of which is oddly changing) also reported that officials had spotted some highly coincidental timing (the story has since been edited but I'm guessing that it had to do with planned travel of certain individuals).  Could this be some smart data mining at work? CIO Magazine just published a huge feature on how data mining is one of the US government's key weapons in the war on terror.

During the US Department of Homeland Security's televised press conference this morning, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff cited a significant amount of "seamless" integration between government agencies as having played a role in uncovering the plot. That integration apparently involved British security agencies as well as Chertoff commended the British government for its cooperation in the investigation which apparently has been taking place over a period of months. Whether or not any inter-agency integration of IT systems had something to do with the foiling of this particular plot remains unknown (American intelligence agencies have a directive from the President to better integrate their systems). But you can be relatively certain that a lot of data, images, reports, scans, and other digital information was passed electronically between investigators and the various agencies who were probably using all sorts of technology to make sure that everyone had the most up-to-date information that could be had.

Topics: Security

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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