This week, the Transportation Security Administration banned certain electronic devices from U.S.-bound planes from several Middle East and African countries. The Department of Homeland Security, of which the TSA is a part, reportedly made the decision in response to increased terrorist threats. This may have you wondering exactly how terrorists could use electronics for an attack.
According to Fox News, the policy change was made after U.S. intelligence picked up "chatter" suggesting that al-Qaeda was attempting to figure out new ways to sneak explosives on board; presumably, officials had reason to suspect that members of the terrorist organization might try and hide said explosives in some kind of electronic device.
And this wouldn't be an unreasonable suspicion, as it's happened before: In early 2016, somebody hid an explosive device inside a laptop, boarded a commercial flight in Somalia, and blew a hole in the side of the plane. Thankfully, the flight hadn't yet reached cruising altitude, so nobody was injured — except for the bomber himself, who was sucked out of the plane and died.
In any event, that's one clear type of threat that an electronics ban would theoretically prevent, if properly implemented. But it's not the only one. There's also the possibility that a plane's control system could be hacked by a passenger with the right laptop, software, and technical know-how.
In 2015, a man on a flight from Chicago to Syracuse tweeted that he had successfully hacked into the aircraft's computer systems. This, he claimed, granted him the ability to drop the 747's oxygen masks at will, direct cockpit alerts, and even direct the lateral movement of the plane by modifying its engine functionality. He was removed from the flight as soon as it landed and questioned by the FBI.
The man wasn't a terrorist. He was Chris Roberts, founder of a security firm that attempts to locate vulnerabilities before they can be exploited, and had consulted with the FBI on security matters previously. He later said that he was able to break into the plane's computer systems by connecting a cable from his laptop to an electronics box underneath the passenger seat, then hacking the plane's in-flight entertainment system.
When the TSA decided to ban electronics from those flights, it may have had incidents like the aforementioned in mind. That said, there may well be more nefarious ways electronic devices could be used on flights that aren't public knowledge, and against which the agency is also trying to protect.
The TSA says that the new policy is temporary. However, it hasn't announced how long it will be in place.