By Christine Negroni
Even as airline passengers struggle with whether they should have the full-body security scan or go for the "enhanced" pat-down, another potential safety issue has arisen: Does the coming of Wi-Fi service to passengers pose any sort of danger aboard the plane?
The question arose after Yemeni terrorists tried recently -- and failed -- to destroy two U.S.-bound cargo planes by stuffing printer cartridges full of explosives and then detonating the charges in flight.
British explosives consultant Roland Alford created a stir when he told New Scientist magazine that Wi-Fi is a "Pandora's box" for terrorists and that giving passengers Internet access "gives a bomber lots of options for contacting a device on an aircraft.”
A number of airline workers, security professionals and technologists say they agree that Wi-Fi can create serious security risks. The Association of Flight Attendants, for example, has asked the government to ban Wi-Fi.
“We recognize the potential of the threat and are looking at it closely,” said Gideon Ewers, the spokesman for the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations. His reaction was mirrored by the Washington. D.C.-based Air Line Pilots Association.
“We need to fully explore what could the bad guys do, how could this be turned against us,” said Robb Powers, a Boeing 737 pilot and chairman of the national security committee for ALPA.
Security Experts Worry About Wi-Fi
Security expert and blogger Bruce Schneier dismissed such concerns in a blog posting last week: "Put together a sloppy and unsuccessful package bomb with an imagined triggering mechanism, and you have a new and dangerous threat that -- even though it was a threat ever since the first airplane got Wi-Fi capability -- must be immediately dealt with right now," he wrote. "Please, let's not ever tell the TSA about timers. Or altimeters."
The Yemeni bomb plot demonstrates one way Wi-Fi could facilitate terrorists, said Dinkar Mokadam, an occupational safety expert with the Association of Flight Attendants. He said wifi Wi-Fi and Internet-enabled calls could enable a terrorist to maneuver around the U.S. ban on the use of cell phones on airplanes and actually trigger a bomb.
“This sort of a detonation doesn’t require a voice," Mokadam said. "It requires communication to a cell phone and you can text to a device and have it go off. You don’t have to even talk to it.”
DHS Considering Banning Wi-Fi
Banning Wi-Fi use completely or during high security-alert periods are two of several proposals the Department of Homeland Security is considering. TSA spokesman Greg Soule said DHS was “using the latest intelligence and state of the art technology to address ever-evolving threats.”
While the Yemeni bombs contained cell phone components, they do did not appear to have been designed to detonate with a phone call but by cell phone alarm; that is, communication with the plane would not have been necessary to set off the bombs. But since the call-activated bomb is an established technique, terrorists could conceivably hide devices in checked luggage and then trigger them through an Internet-enabled call, according to Roland Alford’s father and business partner, explosives engineer Sidney Alford.
The debate comes at a time when airlines are ramping up their marketing of Wi-Fi service to passengers. AirTran and Delta Air Lines, for example, have partnered with Google to offer free Wi-Fi aboard hundreds of their planes during the holidays.
Southwest Block VoIP
At Southwest Airlines, where Internet service is being installed on airplanes, spokesman Chris Mainz said their broadband doesn’t work that way.
“Our Wi-Fi product will not enable cell phone-to-cell phone interaction and it blocks Voice over Internet Protocol,” Mainz said.
Whether Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), the system that delivers voice communication over the Internet, can be completely restricted is not entirely certain. Aircell, the airline Internet company in Illinois that provides broadband to airlines including Delta, AirTran and American Airlines under the name Gogo, declined to be interviewed for this story. But earlier this year, Aircell released a statement saying it is “extremely difficult to stop every instance of VoIP.”
Delta Air Lines declined to comment on its security practices.
In opposing the use of cellphones on airplanes in the U.S., DHS, the FBI and the Department of Justice said in 2005 that they were concerned that terrorists or hijackers could use the phones to “facilitate a coordinated attack,” either with someone on the ground, on another airplane or even among people sitting in different sections of the same airplane.