back to article US Homeland Sec boss has snazzy new laptop bomb scanning tech – but admits he doesn't know what it's called

Flying into America? Don't worry about that crackdown on laptops and similar gear in your carry-on luggage. It's no longer happening. No, instead, the US has something else up its sleeve. New screening technology in airports will sniff out any bombs in your IT kit. So says Homeland Security boss John Kelly has, although he …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "[...] whereas he was satisfied that Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates did do background checks before allowing their citizens to travel to the US."

    He probably means that women can't travel without a male relative. Shortly to be also implemented for US citizens wishing to travel from the USA.

  2. bazza Silver badge

    So says Homeland Security boss John Kelly has, although he doesn't know exactly what that tech is.

    Could it possible be a sledgehammer? I'm told they're excellent for cracking walnuts.

  3. Stevie Silver badge


    Ten trillion bux spent on baggage scanners, none left over for background checks on baggage handlers and cleaners ...

  4. Youngone Silver badge

    They're not even trying anymore

    It's bad enough that no-one seems to know what The Gestapo Homeland Security are even for, but the clueless boss can't even be bothered reading his briefing material.

    Then, when given the correct answer makes fun of Mr. Pistole.

    I am going to go ahead and assume that someone senior working in the Transport Department actually needs to know what they're doing, because the Transport Department has proper work to do.

    1. Graybyrd

      Re: They're not even trying anymore

      Just ... stay away, okay? Just stay the f*ck away.

      A GOP spend-nothing, do-nothing, know-nothing Congress critter has realized that it'd be a helluva lot cheaper to build a tall wall around each of 'merica's airports; all foreign visitors to conduct business & visitations from within said walled enclosure. No exceptions. When said business & visits are done, board a flight and leave. Nobody allowed aboard foreign flights but foreigners. Plane blows, so what?

      Oh.... that pesky issue of the Great Southern Border Wall budget? A 300-yard zone utilizing recovered Iraq/Afghanistan/Syrian land mines will suffice. Budget problem solved.

      America seeks security. So just stay the f*ck away.

  5. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    " John Pistole, the former administrator of the US Transportation Security Administration, "

    Sounds like a bit of a loose cannon to me.

    And am I the only person thinking "In Mission Impossible if the agents get caught the Secretary will disavow them. But in the TSA do the agents disavow the Secretary instead?"

    Kelly does seem to be a total f**kwit but then I suppose you can't expect all the members of the Trump Cabinet to be up to the intellectual level of the D, who is (as he's said himself) "very smart."

    Mine's the appropriate weight jacket for the season with no interior pockets or obvious bulges.

  6. Mark 85 Silver badge

    If this weren't so pathetic, I'd be rolling on the floor and emanating gales of laughter. Instead, I'm cringing and wondering WTF do we have running things in this country?

    1. JustWondering

      Right now, Bannon Wormtongue seems to be running things. But no worries, I hear Vince McMahon is going to be appointed Special Advisor to the President, in an effort to make the government appear more plausible.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        "Right now, Bannon Wormtongue seems to be running things."

        Even the Vatican is worried about conservative US Catholics getting into apocalyptic political liaisons with Bannon et al.


        [the Vatican approved author] added that their vision was "not too far apart" from Islamic fundamentalism.

  7. fidodogbreath Silver badge

    the intelligence community had told him that although an undetectable bomb could be made for laptops, a remote trigger could not

    Um, someone with the skills to build an undetectable laptop bomb could probably gin up a similarly undetectable timer.

    1. Mike 16 Silver badge

      Undetectable Timer

      Can't they just use a Casio F91-W ("Terrorist Watches" that,combined with certain physical characteristics, could win you a very unpleasant time at the airport, and maybe a free ride to Cuba)?

      More seriously, the TRS80 Model 100 had provision for the laptop's own real-time clock to bring it out of sleep and run a program at any designated time. 1980s tech, so I'm sure not everyone has forgotten how to do it.

      As for not understanding the tech, I suspect this is just his way of (not) saying: "Well, it's a CAT-scan machine like you find in many hospitals, but these will be a special version that we cannot discuss until we have all the shell corporations in place to prevent a recurrence of the kerfuffle about the last Scanner binge, where due to certain traitors, it somehow appeared that members of Homeland Security had a financial interest in the one approved vendor"

      1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

        Re: Built in Timer

        Penguins can test for a usable wakeup timer with:

        [ -a /sys/class/rtc/rtc0/wakealarm ] && echo got one || echo not there

        If one is there, cancel the detonation with:

        echo 0 > /sys/class/rtc/rtc0/wakealarm

        If you can get clear in 4 minutes, type:

        date '+%s' -d '+ 4 minutes' > /sys/class/rtc/rtc0/wakealarm

        You can then shut down you laptop and flee.

        1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge

          Re: Built in Timer

          If the laptop is powered on in the hold and set to connect to a wi-fi hotpot (such as one on your phone that you turn on mid-flight) how is that detectable?

          I'm assuming that the range would be sufficient etc.

          1. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

            Re: Built in Timer

            I'm assuming that the range would be sufficient etc.

            Very unlikely, given how much metal there is between the cattle-cabin and the cargo hold..

        2. Mr Sceptical

          Re: Built in Timer

          Err, doesn't virtually every BIOS in existence have the ability to wake a PC (or laptop) at a set time...???

    2. Milton Silver badge

      ... undetectable bomb could be made for laptops, a remote trigger could not

      'intelligence community had told him that although an "undetectable bomb could be made for laptops, a remote trigger could not".'

      Whichever idiot said that has an entire planetload of scientists, engineers, bomb-makers , chemists and electronic engineers laughing heartily.

      There are so many miniaturisable, disguisable, effective and reliable ways for creating detonators that the statement must have been made by someone of exceptional stupidity and/or ignorance. You can fit a ultra-low-power timing circuit or a barometric sensor or even a tiny RF receiver into something no bigger than an electrolytic capacitor. A microscopic piece of thin wire, indistinguishable from the 75,000 other interconnects in a laptop, acts as the final detonator.

      Let's be honest: the idea of putting the stuff in the hold was witheringly stupid and did nothing to make anyone safer. Indeed, packing extra Lithium-battery devices in there probably made everyone LESS safe.

      This was the predictably hysterical, ill-considered, ill-informed over-reaction to a piece of dubious "intelligence",and it merely happened to coincide with causing unnecessary inconvenience for countries the US doesn't like and airlines which it thinks unfairly compete with its own.

      Sometimes stupidity is just regular dumbness, but sometimes it's enhanced by the presence of politicians and their weasel brains.

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

        ""undetectable bomb could be made for laptops, a remote trigger could not".'

        This statement has to be parsed with a lot of care.

        Are they talking about a remote trigger whose signal is undetectable? Probably not. Except what good would that do you? What you want is the hold to be RF shielded to stop it doing anything if someone sends it.

        Are they talking about a remote trigger that would not show up on current sensors? That sounds more likely. Dodgy circuit board on Xray machine monitor? Time for a deeper probe.

        Note. Modern laptop batteries are not passive devices. They contain embedded electronics as well.So on balance just about true, and IRL likely to be so for decades to come.

  8. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge


    The whole Trump administration is giving me bad flashbacks of growing up in Petaluma. The pride in stupidity is terrifying.

    1. hplasm Silver badge

      Re: Flashbacks

      More like growing up on Metaluma, with murderous giant-brain-headed security mutants- except without the giant brains...

    2. Mike 16 Silver badge

      Re: Flashbacks (Petaluma)

      You got something against Wrist Wrestling? Or is it the poultry and dairy farms? They at least have an old-school Radio Shack, with components, not just phone-plans.

  9. Steve Knox Silver badge

    ...terrorists had developed a method of packing explosives into notebooks...

    On a completely unrelated note, whatever happened to all the batteries from those Note 7s, anyway?

    1. collinsl

      They're in a skip in a layby just outside Wandsworth

  10. Malcolm Weir Silver badge

    @Youngone I'd be really careful about assuming that John Kelly was "clueless" or couldn't be bothered to read his briefing papers, or that his "nerd" remark was meant or taken in bad humor.

    I mean, he was nominated for his previous job by a chap called "B. Obama", and confirmed by the Senate for that role (Commander, United States Southern Command).

    I detest Trump and most of his cabinet, but I would not underestimate a modern Major General (USMC, Ret), which is what he is.

    1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge

      "I would not underestimate a modern Major General"

      In that case there will only be 1 oxygen mask for every four people on the plane :P

    2. Swarthy Silver badge

      RE: I would not underestimate a modern Major General (USMC, Ret), which is what he is.

      But only if he's never-ever sick at sea.

      1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

        Re: RE: I would not underestimate a modern Major General (USMC, Ret), which is what he is.

        Wrong operetta.

        "Modern Major General" is Pirates of Penzance.

        "Never-ever sick at sea" is HMS Pinafore.

        1. Swarthy Silver badge
          Thumb Up

          Re: RE: I would not underestimate a modern Major General (USMC, Ret), which is what he is.

          But I'm sure he can "whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore."

  11. Marketing Hack Silver badge

    I could have done without the "nerd" comment

    So the chief doesn't know jack-shit about the new technology behind the postponement of his agency's most controversial current initiative, and but his deputy knows this important piece of information, and the deputy is a nerd for knowing that?

    Sounds like poor leadership 101 to me.

    1. RonWheeler

      Re: I could have done without the "nerd" comment

      Sounds like humourless, childish but fashionable Trump-administration-bashing to me.

      1. Afernie

        Re: I could have done without the "nerd" comment

        "Sounds like humourless, childish but fashionable Trump-administration-bashing to me."

        It's beyond irony for anyone supporting the toddler-in-chief to refer to anyone else as childish at this point.

        1. RonWheeler

          Re: I could have done without the "nerd" comment

          I don't support him as he is a tasteless slug with environmental credentials I don't support.. But I consider him better than any big government candidate..And I'm not a fashion whore.

          1. Afernie

            Re: I could have done without the "nerd" comment

            "And I'm not a fashion whore."

            You heard it here first folks. Opposition to a narcissistic crook, sexual predator, bigot, con-artist, pathological liar, possible traitor and science denier being in the White House is fashionable. Who knew? For your information I'm from Scotland and we hated him with passion and reason long before his name ever stained your ballot papers.

            I'm also amused that you thought "utterly paralysed, perpetually scandal-hit global laughing stock government" would be preferable to "big government", but I guess it takes all sorts.

  12. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    The theatre opens another season......

    Back in the day someone trying to sell passenger explosive scanners asked the airline what they would pay to have this.

    "$70 a flight"

    Note that, a flight, not a passenger.

    Why? Because their real threat assessment of the threat was it was too small to raise ticket prices by any significant amount to counter it. Although I can hear also hear Mel Gibson saying "Not many men know how much their life is worth. I do..."

    Let's remember the real threats have been caused by a)Unaccompanied luggage b)People with box cutter knives getting into the cockpit. c)People who've had weapons put on the plane by a route that bypassed customs search entirely.

    All the hype about "liquid explosives" and other such BS has only been demonstrated when experienced bomb techs had about 30 attempts to get an explosion, with reagent grade chemicals.

    IRL almost anything is possible. But a lot of stuff is just complex or ineffective or expensive to do.

    As others have noted how many cleaners have turned out to be undocumented people, who in theory should never have passed a background check, but (apparently) did?

    1. Graham Cobb

      Re: The theatre opens another season......

      "$70 a flight"

      I would say that certain recent actions by the US government have just put the price up.

      I wonder who gets to benefit...

  13. Uberseehandel


    Computed X-Ray Tomography

    They have tweaked some scanners

    1. Alister Silver badge

      Re: CT


      Computed X-Ray Tomography

      They have tweaked some scanners


  14. Aladdin Sane Silver badge


    Counter Terrorism.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Thumb Up

      "Counter Terrorism."


      Metal detector --> CT scanner

      X-ray machine --> CT scanner

      eNose --> CT scanner

      Genius. Making the speaker sound knowledgeable without actually having to know anything.

  15. handleoclast Silver badge


    A lot of people have blasted Kelly for calling Pistole a nerd. That may be the case. But it may not be. The printed word, particularly a transcript, loses a lot of meaning.

    If might have been said in a way that indicated humour and camaraderie (perhaps even respect and affection) because tone of voice and body language convey a lot of meaning.

    It might have been said in a way that indicated contempt.

    Given that Williams asked Pistole for an explanation and thanked Pistole for giving one, Williams seems to have held Pistole in some esteem. Given that Kelly got a laugh for calling Pistole a nerd, there's a chance it was said in a humorous way or the audience might have responded differently.

    That's purely conjecture on my part. My interpretation could be completely wrong. But the interpretation that is scathing of Kelly could also be completely wrong. There isn't enough information in a transcript to be sure either way.

    And now I shall await the inevitable downthumbs that come from people who dislike having their hasty assumptions challenged. You know who you are.

    1. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

      Re: Nerd?

      On my first reading I assumed it was done in a light-hearted fashion.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "...his military background..."

    "He said that, given his military background, he'd been skeptical that you could pack enough explosives into a laptop to destroy an aircraft"

    Remember most grunts are just fuckwits in uniform. And I've been there among them.

    When I did my time I was always surprised at how little explosive it took to kill a tank - there's only about 2.2kg in a MILAN missile. That's worth pausing and thinking about. Its in a conical shaped charge, but remember its killing a 50+ tonne machine covered in steel. Slap a tank next time you are at a museum or near one. Solid is an understatement.

    How much explosive would it take to punch a hole in a plane? Fuck all. Tamping it would be the hardest part as the missile in flight provides the tamping for the shaped charge. And blowing a hole isn't 100% certain to down the plane...

    Its a sign of our times that I have decided not to complete this post and to post as an anon. I was going to guess how one might down a plane, because it is a fun mental exercise, but I genuinely worry now about publicly discussing such stuff. NOT because I worry I might inform a terrorist - that's fucking vanishingly unlikely - but because the "powers that be" nowadays seem to be such incredible tossers that just talking about this may get me into trouble.

    We are living in dark times.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    give up

    I gave up flying, yeah it sucks, but I'm done playing farm animal and being terrorized by agents of fear. If I can't drive there, it's not worth going to.

  18. Eddy Ito Silver badge

    It's a new kind of technology...

    New? It's been in common use for over 40 years which means likely invented over 50 years ago. If this is the guy heading security it's no wonder it has a stasi checkpoint feel to it.

  19. blkprometheus

    Not new

    In the early 90's I worked for the first company whose product that the FAA certified for explosive detection for airports, the CTX line. So no, using CT scanning for explosive detection is not new.

  20. tonybarry

    CT may be harmful to your laptop

    There have been reports of a computed tomography scan being harmful to pacemakers and other medical devices:-

    And putting a laptop through CT is going to deliver a generous slug of gammas to a device that is not built anywhere near as robustly as an ICD / pacemaker. To get through the casing will require more MeV than through a person, and the flux density will be higher too.

    Space based devices need to be hardened against radiation flux (although low-earth-orbit radiation doses to satellites over a unit lifetime are substantially higher than one single CT). Such protection is a whole study in itself, and requires a many-tiered response to prevent failures that can range from trivial to catastrophic. The catastrophic fails occur near power supplies or motors, where the battery charging circuits or the H-bridges to drive motors fail so that the power rail is connected to ground via a low impedance circuit. Rapid, untrammelled battery discharge is one especially unwelcome result.

    I whole-heartedly approve of the TSA's unrelenting efforts to keep us safe while flying, and will joyfully** endure the most undignified and invasive examinations to assure my fellow passengers that I have not shoved a bomb up my arse ... but I really do not consider this CT exam of my laptop a good idea.

    Regards, Tony Barry

    ** well, joyful might be an inappropriate adverb. I am not gay enough to ever be joyful about such things. But it seems the TSA will leave no turd unturned in their search for explosive devices. I salute their zeal and diligence, and wish them the best in their fruitless cavity searches.

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