US airlines threaten to confiscate phones and laptops that aren’t charged: Our biggest fear is being separated from our gadgets

Rhodri Marsden examines our anxiety about gadget separation

Many years ago, when my dad was a teacher at a secondary school in Hertfordshire, an anonymous call to the school prompted a bomb scare. The fire alarm sounded, the children traipsed obediently to the assembly point on the school field, and staff were asked to volunteer to go from classroom to classroom “to look for the bomb”.

My dad was one of the few who put his hand up. No one found a bomb. That evening, on hearing this story, my mum looked at him in disbelief. “And what do you think a bomb looks like?” she asked him. My dad paused, probably imagining a black sphere with the word “BOMB” written on it. “I have no idea,” he confessed. Of course he hadn’t.

Bombs are, by their very nature, designed not to look like bombs. Their latest possible disguise, according to the Transportation Security Administration, the US body that dictates screening criteria for flights to the US, is the casing of an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy; as a consequence, devices that fail to power up at check-in may not be allowed on the plane.

With the miniaturisation of technology comes the inevitable miniaturisation of explosive devices. It’s not particularly surprising that a device with the potential to cause catastrophe can be packed into a black lozenge approximately five inches by three, but while the biggest issue is evidently our safe passage on flights across the Atlantic, the biggest outcry has been saved for the potential confiscation of electronic devices, be they phones, tablets, laptops or whatever.

There’s an irony that the interminable wait for an intercontinental flight is a guaranteed battery drainer, as idle searches and bored tweets lead to flashed-up warnings and pulsating red indicators, sending us scurrying into branches of Boots or WHSmith to look for concealed power points normally used to power vacuum cleaners in the small hours of the morning. The reassuring prospect of charging one’s dead phone on board the aircraft has been replaced by the fear it might be removed from the flight altogether as a potential security risk. Panic is spreading – not because of terrorism, but because of anxiety surrounding gadget separation. That’s where we’re at in 2014, ladies and gents.

People travelling on flights yesterday from Heathrow Terminal 3 to the USA reported no change in policy as yet, no requests to demonstrate the working capability of any smartphone. But indignant travellers have been venting online fury, whether it’s ranting at the supposed efficacy of  X-ray machines designed to detect explosives, paranoid grumbling at the security services (“they need your phone to have power so that they can read all your messages”), or bemoaning the anticipated delays at check-in as people reassemble their belongings after inspection of laptops, phones, tablets, external drives and the spare external battery they bought to avoid everything running out of juice while waiting in the queue.

No one seems to have considered the possibility that there might even be a helpfully positioned power point to allow dead devices to spring back into life – after all, this is about preventing acts of terrorism, not the government assembling a massive iPhone collection.

Of course, there’ll always be those that question restrictions on freedom during times of terrorist activity, but these particular measures seem to be predicated upon the simple fact that my dad belatedly realised more than 30 years ago: we don’t have a clue what bombs look like, and we never will. Today it might be a dead smartphone. Tomorrow it might be a smartphone that actually powers up. Then what?

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