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What should I be aware of when bringing a computer on an airplane?

general answers welcome but...

I'm particularly interested in:

  • Are computers bothered by X-ray machines or anything else that carry-on or checked baggage is exposed to?
  • What kind of red flags would packing a non laptop raise with the TSA?
  • Are there any setups known to work well for packing around larger system (like server scale)?
  • Has anyone seen one of those cases bands use to pack there sound equipment used to mount a server?

(In case you didn't spot it, I'm puzzling out what it would take to build a mobile server farm for fast, short notice deployment. FWIW it's more likely to end up in a story than on a plane)

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Who is the TSA? I'm assuming they're some sort of airport security? – Mark Henderson Dec 14 '10 at 2:38
@Mark I believe the TSA is the United States' Transport Security Administration, contracted out by the airports to administer/run their airport security (just like CATSA in Canada). – squircle Dec 14 '10 at 3:48
up vote 3 down vote accepted
  • Are computers bothered by X-ray machines or anything else that carry-on or checked baggage is exposed to?

No. Magnetic media is not affected. That applies to undeveloped photographic film.

  • What kind of red flags would packing a non laptop raise with the TSA?

Does it look like a bomb? Is it clearly accessable (openable)? Can it hide a bomb? I've seen CPAP machines receive swabs for explosive chemical tests because the TSA can't open it up to look in it.

Pack a regular bag if you can, and unzip it for them to look around. If it looks suspicious, then it is.

  • Are there any setups known to work well for packing around larger system (like server scale)?

Unless you cook up a homebrew setup of some kind (dolly cart, etc.) you're probably going to have a hard time. I certainly wouldn't put a server though luggage, that's a sure-fire way to end up with a box of broken contents. Maybe look into packing a powerful, high-end PC class board into a portable LAN party case that doesn't have blazing dragons and etched tattoos on it?

  • Has anyone seen one of these cases bands use to back there sound equipment used to mount a server?

Mobile 4-post racks, yes. Expensive, but if you do a lot of travel, it might be worth it. And you can certainly mount a 1, 2, 3, or 4u box. If you're willing to pay the price for this, be sure to include a UPS unit in it, there are several to be had that are rackmount-ready. Do this because you don't know the power situation ahead of time.

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Good Idea with the UPS. Plus it would make the box more stable (they would make good ballast). – BCS May 4 '09 at 21:44

What about data? According to this page, the TSA can take a copy of all your data for any reason without suspicion of wrongdoing when crossing the US border. The data may be shared with other agencies.

If you are shipping servers around, are you carrying commercially sensitive data that could harm your business if it got into the hands of your competitors?

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encrypt it and then plan on going to the supreme court to avoid being forced to give up the key? I sooo want to ship a computer across the boarder with about 3TB of encrypted white noise data after I throw away the key. I'd even tell them that. – BCS May 4 '09 at 22:18
How do you prove that 3TB of white noise is just that and not encrypted data? What if authorities detain you until you give up the nonexistent key? – geofftnz May 4 '09 at 22:24
If you're travelling across borders, stick your data on encrypted tapes and express-courier it? – John Fouhy May 4 '09 at 22:46
@geofftnz, that's the point. I can't prove it is noise and they can't prove it isn't. I wouldn't really do it, but if I did, I'd first make sure I'm on a first name basis with a few like minded major media figures that known to make a fuss if I don't show up at the other end! – BCS May 4 '09 at 22:55
The problem is not preventing people from getting your plaintext, it's this: Even worse if you're taking the piss and filled a partition with noise. – geofftnz May 5 '09 at 1:19
  1. No, X-rays are a-okay.
  2. The TSA considers it its job to freak out over irrelevancies (love me some security-theater-of-the-absurd), so expect to have someone poke through your server, probably with a salad fork.
  3. Yeah, FedEx.
  4. No.
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Seriously? I've never heard of a laptop having problems from going through the X-ray. And the TSA insists on running all computers through the X-ray. Additionally, the sometimes want to see that it actually powers on. (assuming carry-on.) For checked baggage, I don't believe you have a real option for "no X-ray" other than don't send it by plane. – Eddie May 4 '09 at 21:05
Yeah, turns out I had been going by urban legend. Fixed. – chaos May 4 '09 at 21:06
Ditto on the "We X-ray everything" bit. Last time I flew, They were explicitly requiring that laptops go through on there own, not even in there bag. (This seems like an ideal way to make them as stealable as possible :b ) I swear, if they were allowed to, the TSA would run the people thought the x-ray machine as well. – BCS May 4 '09 at 21:08
Not true, alienware laptop with extra big heatsink forced a big discussion on what the giant metal thing was inside the laptop. Try explaining what a heatsink does to TSA. Not fun. – Michael Pryor May 4 '09 at 21:24
"It keeps the CPU thing from getting hot and ex... er. It to stop things from burning up... No, you nincompoop, It's NOT an Incendiary Bomb!!!!" – BCS May 4 '09 at 21:50

Modern x-ray machines pose no risk at all to magnetic media, they haven't since the early 80's in fact. What could still be a minor risk are the hand-held scanners that officials use on people but you really should have put anything that you care about in the tray by that point anyway. I have put a variety of laptops, iPods, cameras, camcorders etc. through airport x-ray machines well over a hundred times over twenty years with no issues whatsoever. Of course the proof is that there's no warnings about it being dangerous, no airport in their right mind would risk the law suits against them of not displaying if it was dangerous but they hadn't signposted it heavily. Enjoy your flight.

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All you proof shows is that it's easy to show that it can't be proven that the x-rays caused damage. (that in it's self is a strong argument and your anecdote supports it (+1) but no more) There is motivation to warn people if there is a risk but also a motivation to get people to hurry up and run there stuff through the machine as well. – BCS May 4 '09 at 21:13
  1. I have never heard of a laptop hard disk being bothered by X-rays, and I've known of a lot of laptops going through a lot of X-rays, sometimes carry-on and sometimes checked. I would be very surprised to hear that a 3.5" hard disk is more susceptible to X-rays than a laptop 2.5" drive.
  2. The TSA can and do freak out about minor things, but you're not the only person carrying around a lot of computer equipment. The TSA primarily freaks out about things out of the ordinary. Something they see every week -- like a salesman carrying around a box of computer equipment in checked baggage for demos -- will not freak them out.
  3. When my company sends sales folks for demos, I see large padded boxes clearly made for carrying large heavy equipment. This stuff must be fairly routine for this kind of thing. Big boxes: like 3' high by 5' wide by 3+' deep. I assume they use checked baggage, but it's possible that they FedEx or otherwise avoid the airlines. They probably do whatever is cheapest. I recommend you do the same.
  4. Band equipment I don't know about.

NOTE: After every trip and before you power anything on, open up the servers and ensure that nothing has wiggled loose. I don't say this from experience but from paranoia. There may be some big bumps on the ride.

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Laptop hdd's might be built to take x-rays more than 3.5' ones are. OTOH why not build that into them anyway? Good point on the TSA's freak-out criteria. – BCS May 4 '09 at 21:18

Try to act like a terrorist. Then they'll know you're not really a terrorist, because no real terrorist would actually act like a terrorist. Real terrorists would act like they are not terrorists, and the TSA knows this, so if you are trying to act like you are not a terrorist they will naturally assume you are one. :)

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That assumes the only real threats out there are not complete idiots. The TSA can't and won't assume that. – BCS May 5 '09 at 16:55

I suspect that it may be cheaper to buy a ATA-approved shipping container and send the computer via UPS/FEDEX. I've sent computers overseas this way before. I think we got our shipping container from Time Motion Tools -- or one of the other tool vendors. Try Google with "computer shipping containers."

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If it fits, one of those would work. thrown in a UPS, a drive array, a few more computers the switches needed to hook it all together and it would be a darn tight squeeze. – BCS May 4 '09 at 21:46
I've actually seen bigger ones. What I shipped to Switzerland was an SGI Indy -- probably a bit bigger than on old AT case. I don't recall sending a monitor so they must have had one there. I seem to recall the exterior dimensions of the case were something like 48"x36"x18" -- or maybe bigger. I'd get the case even if putting on the same plane as me, but I suspect the airline will charge extra for it and it may be cheaper to send it freight ahead of you. – tvanfosson May 5 '09 at 11:50

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