The Real Reason You Can't Bring Water Bottles Through Airport Security

Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

Travelers already tired and weary from long spells sitting on planes and standing in gate lines can still muster up enough energy to grumble about restrictive airport security measures. Shoes and belts have to come off. Laptops are slid out from their cases. Unopened bottles of water are tossed in waste bins.

For a mode of transportation that can cause dehydration, not allowing water bottles through security is particularly grating. The directive was put in place by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in 2006. TSA agents and passengers are expected to follow the “3-1-1” rule for liquids. Those boarding planes can carry 3.4 ounces of liquid per container in a 1-quart bag, with one bag per passenger. While the rule has lent itself to criticism and ridicule, intelligence agencies believe they had—and continue to have—a very good reason for instituting it.

In the new Netflix series Terrorism Close Calls, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officials go on record with details of a number of potentially catastrophic attempts to target civilians that were thwarted by law enforcement. Among those individuals contributing to the show is Steve Hersem, the former deputy director of the CIA’s Community HUMINT (Human Intelligence) Division. Hersem tells Mental Floss that the liquids ban has roots in two separate terrorist plots.

“The banning of a certain quantity of liquids from airline flights in 2006 was the direct result of the intelligence uncovered during Operation Overt,” Hersem says. Operation Overt was the term used to describe a collaborative effort to foil the plot of Abdulla Ahmed Ali, a British citizen who had known affiliations with radical Islamists and terrorists he connected with during frequent trips to Pakistan.

"Ali’s bags were secretly searched when he returned to the UK and a powdered orange soft drink along with a large number of batteries were found in his suitcase," Hersem says. "Based on his associations in Pakistan and the items in his luggage, a layered surveillance program was instituted by MI5, with assistance from the London Metropolitan Police. The surveillance, which included secret cameras and listening devices in Ali’s apartment, resulted in the discovery of a bomb-making laboratory and the fleshing out of a number of co-conspirators."

At one point during their surveillance, investigators witnessed Ali drilling a hole in a soft drink bottle so that it could be filled with an explosive liquid while still appearing to be unopened. If their plan had gone through, Hersem says that the result could have been an attack on seven planes flying out of London and heading for North America using, among other things, a hydrogen peroxide-based-liquid explosive. (Ali and several of his associates were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2009.)

Water bottles sit in a garbage bin at an airport
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

But that wasn’t the only justification law enforcement used for the liquids ban. "Al Qaeda had been fixated on targeting aviation as early as 1994 when Ramzi Yousef, the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attack, tested liquid explosives on an aircraft during the Bojinka Plot," Hersem says. "The Bojinka Plot targeted, in part, Philippine Airlines Flight 434 from Manila to Tokyo, which resulted in the death of a passenger and a large hole being created in the aircraft."

The subsequent liquids ban on flights may have stemmed directly from Operation Overt, but there was also a decade of intelligence to substantiate Al Qaeda’s ambitions—a threat that doesn’t seem to be letting up. "The ban is ongoing because intelligence continues to inform the United States Intelligence Community and other allied intelligence services that Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, continues to target aviation," Hersem says.

But why allow a little over 3 ounces? According to the TSA, limiting containers to what can fit inside a quart-size bag prevents what former TSA administrator Kip Hawley once called a “critical diameter” to blow anything up. The size of the container precludes enough of a potentially explosive liquid from being carried on board.

If you really want to get that bottled water past the security checkpoint, there is a workaround: Just freeze it. TSA allows for frozen liquids so long as they’re completely solid. (If it’s mushy or half-melted, you'll be asked to toss it.) Alternately, you can also just bring a completely empty bottle through and fill it up once you're done with the screening, which is the more environmentally conscious thing to do.

Convenient? Not really. But Hersem maintains it's necessary. "As long as there [are] ideologically driven terrorists who are interested in targeting civilian aviation, these types of bans have to be in place and are beneficial in the aggregate."

Why You Should Never Charge Your Phone in Public USB Ports Without a USB Data Blocker

Creative-Family/iStock via Getty Images
Creative-Family/iStock via Getty Images

The USB charging ports that have popped up at airports, coffee shops, and even outdoor stations around cities in recent years are definitely a lifesaver when your smartphone is down to its last bit of juice. A dead phone is annoying at best and downright dangerous at worst, so it’s totally understandable why you’d jump at the chance to revive it at your earliest opportunity.

However, those public ports might not be as benevolent as they seem. According to Afar, hackers can load malware onto those stations—or on the cables left plugged into the stations—which can then deliver passwords and other data right from your device to the hacker’s. If you have used a public port recently, don’t panic; TechCrunch reports that these cases are fairly rare. Having said that, it’s definitely better not to risk it, especially considering what a nightmare it would be to have your identity stolen.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office explains that the easiest way to prevent becoming a victim of this type of scam, often referred to as juice-jacking, is simply to abstain from using public USB charging ports. Instead, invest in a portable charger, or plug your own charger into an actual AC power outlet.

But unoccupied power outlets are notoriously hard to come by in public places, and portable chargers themselves can also run out of battery life. Luckily, there’s a small, inexpensive device called a data blocker that will enable you to use public USB charging ports without worrying about juice-jacking. It looks a little like a flash drive with an extra slot, but it lacks the two wires usually found in USB chargers that can download and upload data. That way, your device will charge without transferring any information.

You can get two of them for $11 from Amazon here.

[h/t Afar]

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Pitch Your Novel Idea on Twitter and You Could Win a Writer's Retreat in the British Countryside

Nomadsoul1/iStock via Getty Images
Nomadsoul1/iStock via Getty Images

Social media is usually a distraction for writers working on their novel, but in 2020, it could be a gateway to quiet and solitude. HolidayCottages.co.uk, a UK-based vacation rental site with a focus on quaint accommodations, is offering one novelist a free writer's retreat. All they have to do to enter is summarize their book in a tweet.

Whether you have an idea for a new novel or you're in the middle of writing one, you can pitch your story using the hashtag #WriTweet. The pitch has to be engaging enough to catch the attention of the competition's judge and brief enough to fit Twitter's 280-character limit. Elizabeth Macneal, writer of the book The Doll Factory, will read one entry per candidate and choose a winner.

The person with the best tweet will be treated to a week-long writer's retreat at their choice of three cottages. The options include cozy homes in the countrysides of East Sussex, England; Carmarthenshire, Wales; and East Scotland. At the end of the writer's stay, Macneal will provide feedback on up to 10,000 words of what they've written so far.

If you're interested in applying, you can pitch your story on Twitter using the hashtag #WriTweet before midnight on January 24, 2020. The winner will be contacted within 28 days of the contest deadline. Looking for inspiration? Here are some creative ways novelists have used Twitter as a medium in the past.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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