Friday, December 10, 2010

Airport Body Scanners: An Old Technology with Gaping Security Shortcomings

I'm not going to rehash all the reasons why these airport body scanners are wrongheaded. For that, check out my article published in the California Progress Report entitled "A Hobson's Holiday Travel Choice: Digital Strip Search or Get Groped."

For the purposes of today I just want to alert everybody to an article I found by Pam Marten's that was published on the excellent website Counterpunch entitled "Fears Mount on TSA Body Scanners".

Granted, I've written on this topic extensively, and have posted a myriad of articles on it too. I don't know if there's anything completely new in this piece, but it does a good job of compiling some important information, particularly relating to the inadequacy of the machines themselves in detecting what they're supposed to.

Also of interest in the piece is the testimony cited that exposes a variety of technical shortcomings, namely the age of this technology itself: 20 years!! Somehow this fact slipped by me over the months. I think this is important because one of the key talking points repeated, over and over, by machine proponents is that these somehow represent "cutting edge" technology that is critical in keeping us safe. Ha!

Here are a couple particularly enlightening clips from the article:

Now documents have emerged, on the government’s own web sites, raising questions as to whether the machines are little more than overpriced metal detectors with a “beam me up Scotty” futuristic design. A scientist associated with one of the body scanner manufacturers, Ronald J. Hughes, has submitted patent documents to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for various devices involved in airport screening of passengers to detect terrorist threats. In those documents, Mr. Hughes details serious failings of the x-ray body scanning equipment, including its lack of reliability to detect plastics or ceramics used in bomb making.


In a detailed report delivered to Congress on March 17, 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) further revealed the limitations of the body scanner machines in use in U.S. airports, originally called “Whole Body Imager” but now rebranded as the more spiffy sounding Advanced Imaging Technology or AITs. The GAO stated in its report (GAO-10-484T): “The AIT produces an image of a passenger’s body that a screener interprets. The image identifies objects, or anomalies, on the outside of the physical body but does not reveal items beneath the surface of the skin, such as implants.” Hiding potentially dangerous objects in body cavities will not be detected by these machines, raising questions as to why our government is spending $170,000 each for the units at an increased staffing cost of $2.4 billion over the 7-year anticipated life of the machines according to the GAO. (Each machine costs $369,764 in staffing costs for operation annually.)

In another GAO report delivered to Congress in October 2009 (GAO-10-128), researchers found that “TSA has not assessed whether there are tactics that terrorists could use, such as the placement of explosives or weapons on specific places on their bodies, to increase the likelihood that the screening equipment would fail to detect the hidden weapons or explosives.” GAO went on to note in the same report: “TSA has relied on technologies in day-to-day airport operations that have not been demonstrated to meet their functional requirements in an operational environment. For example, TSA has substituted existing screening procedures with screening by the Whole Body Imager even though its performance has not yet been validated by testing in an operational environment… Furthermore, without retaining existing screening procedures until the effectiveness of future technologies has been validated, TSA officials cannot be sure that checkpoint security will be improved.” In a footnote to this passage, GAO notes that the specifics of what it’s talking about here has been classified by the TSA.

One of the individuals who has been widely quoted as disputing the effectiveness of the body scanners is Rafi Sela, an expert on Israeli airport security. Mr. Sela has over 30 years experience in security and defense technologies, was a special advisor to the Israeli security agencies for counter terrorism and is a Managing Partner in AR Challenges, a consulting firm for advanced security technology. According to the company’s web site, it has “participated in applied strategic design of the operations and security at the Ben Gurion airport [in Israel], which is now a standard for many other high security airports.”

I wanted to hear directly from Mr. Sela. These are his emailed remarks: “The whole security system used in North America is wrong. The body scanners are just one more obsolete technology that does not provide any more security…it can be circumvented not only in body cavities but in other ways that I do not want to share with the public. This has been a great lobbying-marketing effort on behalf of the manufacturers.” Between 2005 and 2009, Rapiscan spent $1,678,500 on lobbying, according to data compiled at the Center for Responsive Politics ( Michael Chertoff, former head of the Department of Homeland Security, has been a paid consultant to Rapiscan. On January 26, 2010, Congresswoman Jane Harman wrote to Janet Napolitano, head of Homeland Security, noting that Rapiscan was a company in the Congresswoman’s district. She urged Ms. Napolitano to “expedite installation of scanning machines in key airports.” Congresswoman Harman closed with: “If you need additional funds, I am ready to help.”

Another security expert, Bruce Schneier, says what the TSA is increasingly looking for these days is pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN). Writing recently at The Atlantic, Mr. Schneier explains PETN is “the plastic explosive that both the Shoe Bomber and the Underwear Bomber attempted but failed to detonate…The problem is that no scanners or puffers can detect PETN; only swabs and dogs work.” (Puffers were the TSA’s last fiasco. Officially called Explosives Trace Portal or ETP, they puff air at the passenger in hopes of sniffing the air for traces of explosives. A highly critical GAO report found they were rolled out without proper testing.)


That this technology has been in existence for two decades and is just now being rolled out to airports deserves a few moments of equally intense probing. Under what societal norms would there be a market for routinely taking nude pictures of airline travelers via scientifically challenged skin radiation that reveal genitalia; with a necessary back up plan of hand inspections of the buttocks and genitalia for opt outs. This 20-year old technology could only be massively deployed because of a long line of images since 9/11 which has desensitized the American psyche to human rights through a bombardment of human degradations: the images of thumbs up torture at Abu Ghraib; the televised pictures of the hooded prisoners on their knees at Guantanamo or in monkey cages; the endless columns of typeset devoted to waterboarding, renditions, kidnappings and assassinations – all in the name of making us more secure.


Now serious financial damage is looming for the nation’s airlines with Zogby International reporting in a poll taken between November 19 and 22 that 61 per cent of the 2,032 individuals polled oppose the use of body scanners and pat downs. The use of the backscatter x-ray machines and the more aggressive pat down procedures will cause 48 percent of individuals to seek an alternative means of travel. In addition, 52 per cent of respondents think the new security procedures will not prevent terrorist activity, 48 per cent consider it a violation of privacy rights and 32 per cent consider it to be sexual harassment, according to the Zogby poll.

At, the nonprofit organization reports it has received 900 complaints and has posted over 38 graphic accounts that can only be described as sexual molestation. Brief examples include: “The TSA agent used her hands to feel under and between my breasts. She then rammed her hand up into my crotch until it jammed into my pubic bone.” “I cried throughout the groping and have had intrusive thoughts since. It was humiliating.” “The procedure was violating, degrading, invasive and humiliating.” “It was so rough that I felt the effects of it throughout the day.” “I do not feel safer. I feel violated.”

Is this any way to run an airline – or a democracy?

Click here to read the entire piece.

I will admit, I was a little surprised by the Zogby poll numbers she cited, and may need to go see them for myself. If accurate, this is very good news, and tells me that all the outcry, from the public and privacy advocates (as well as others), had an effect. The number I want to confirm is the 61% that now oppose the "body scanners and pat downs" claim. That would be one helluva turnaround being that it the reverse of that in the numbers I've seen.

There is however, more opposition to the pat downs than the scanners, so perhaps by bunching them together that led to the higher figure. AT any rate, this article only strengthens the argument I have been making here for over a year now: these machines need to go.

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