Tuesday, July 08, 2014

New concerns about airline security and electronics could disrupt travel for independent journalists

Back in the 1990s, it used to be common for travelers to have to turn on laptops at airports.  It’s curious that this practice stopped and wasn’t resumed after 9/11.  Generally, travelers, at least domestically, have found that carryon electronics are left alone, as long as laptops are placed in appropriate bags.

There has been a lot of news that passengers on inbound flights to the United States will have to prove that they can turn on their electronics based on battery power (not depending on a local plug in power source).  The reasoning is that the battery bays could hold plastic explosives reportedly being developed by terrorists in the Middle East. The idea may have been anticipated by the Universal film “Non-Stop” last February (review on Movies blog July 2).

Although right at this moment the rules seem to apply overseas, there is every reason to believe that they will soon apply to domestic flights.  Terrorists with western and US passports and visas could re-enter and try to disrupt domestic air travel.

I reported on this Sunday night on the International Issues blog, but would like to talk here a little more about the ramifications.

I’ve traveled by air on four airline round trips since the passing of my mother at the end of 2010.  I had not traveled by air since late 2006 before then.  I’ve also gone by Amtrak and car on many instance.  By air and train, I usually take a Windows notebook (right now, a gateway), an iPad (which is vintage 2011 and rather heavy now) as a hotspot, cell phone, two digital cameras, and all relevant charging cords.  An interesting complication is that some things are not easy on an iPad and need a computer, especially access to Blogger.  So far, I’m batting 1.000.  I’ve had Internet access every single day “on the road” and actually been able to use Blogger every day.  But I can’t forget or lose anything.  I’m not sure how easy it would be to replace a power cord on the road.  In 2011, in Texas, the Toshiba Notebook seemed to be failing but I got it working again for the rest of the trip (but have since replaced it).  Last time I checked, it’s not easy to replace a Notebook immediately and have everything ready (like all the software updates) if there is a problem upon arrival, even though these products tend to be inexpensive. 

One danger is that a component suddenly fails at the airport.  But of course if it really broke it probably wouldn’t be usable on the trip anyway.  So one tip would be to use smaller, newer, lighter items, preferably less than two years old if possible.  It’s not a problem to charge everything the night before.   

Of course, there are more technical complications in Europe.  The current is different, and transformers must be used.  The proper connections probably have to be purchased.  Connectivity and availability of some services could be different.  There are sites (like this) that outline  the options for cell phone rental, v. beefing up your own plan with your own phone, here.  It depends on what company you have, and the specifics are likely to change quickly over time. 

Wolf Blitzer, in one interview, raised the issue that it would be possible to miniaturize explosive chemicals to the point that they could be inserted into electronics that work.  The answer from the government was that a “balance must be struck.” 

In any case, an environment could develop where it is much more difficult to travel with electronics by air (especially overseas) than it has been.  This can be very important to an independent blogger like me.  An “establishment” journalist has a company behind him to take care of the logistics and keep him or her wired; I do not.  Various ideas come up.  One is obviously collaboration with others.  That possibility will actually be explored pretty soon.   But the collaboration could lead to much more travel (especially to some areas, like California, Canada, the UK, especially if video or music production is involved) than in the past.  Another idea is that hotels could do a better job than they do now of providing reliable “business centers” (with enough security) than they do now.  (Most standard hotels have one or two computer terminals in their business room – I’ve used them to print out return airline boarding passes – oh, I ought to use the smart phone – but what if these become forbidden?)  The Amtrak Arrive magazine has a short piece on this problem on p. 58 of its July/August 2014 issue (“Rethinking the Business Center”) but these ideas seem only to help companies or organizations of some size.
Another aspect for an individual blogger or “pundit” is being reachable and able to respond if there is some sort of problem, especially on trips longer than 3-4 business days, not counting weekends and holidays.  Typically, right now, there is no one else who could answer in my stead.  (This leads to consideration of the “digital executor” issue taken up here before; because I, like everyone eventually, can pass away, too).  If I have access when travel, even if through a hotel business center, and can address problems in a secure and timely manner, then that is OK. 
One issue if significance is having a support contract with your provider.   But social media companies don’t provide contracts, and Google does not offer one for Blogger.  I think it would be nice if it would, maybe $100-$200 a year, depending on number of blogs.  That would give more response to problems and “due process” in certain kinds of situations.  On the other hand, it has worked since 2006;  that same year (2006), a company that did provide a support contract for a javastarter site failed. 

Most of my concerns here relate to travel within and among the US and other "western" countries.  Many services are not available in authoritarian countries (like China), and travel to some of these places for openly LGBT people may be dangerous.  I'm going to look into this myself further, maybe with attorneys,. maybe the State Department.   

Let me add also that Virginia Hospital Center (next door) tells me that patients can have wireless Internet access in their rooms if they are able to work (despite the cell phone ban), in a comment they made on my movies blog for a July 6 entry. 

Second picture is Minneapolis, 2011.  

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