TSA: eliminating backscatter scanners?

While the press has been reporting TSA stories such as the multi-million-dollar shoe scanner debacle and the TSA’s denial of stonewalling a court order to take public comment on the scanners, one story has gone virtually unnoticed.

A July 4th article in Air Transport World revealed that the TSA is replacing the backscatter (x-ray) scanners, the ones that use radiation, with millimeter wave scanners (pictured above). These millimeter wave scanners are equipped with the “Gumby-style” automated target recognition (ATR) — in other words, a generic outline of a passenger’s body rather than the graphic nude image presented by the backscatter scanners.

Each scanner costs approximately $180,000, plus installation. The cost to taxpayers to swap out the 25 backscatter scanners at Boston Logan Airport will be $3.7 million. The cost for replacing all of the 244 backscatter scanners currently in use at 29 U.S. airports would be $44.8 million.

There is no indication on the disposition of the scanners being removed.

It’s possible that replacing all the backscatter scanners has been in the works for over a year, based on a TSA press release on September 7, 2011. The lack of clear information on the number and type of scanners deployed may have enabled this story to be overlooked by media. This would explain the decision by the TSA to stonewall the court order to take public comment on the scanners or to allow testing of them.

The TSA website states that the millimeter wave scanners are equipped with ATR privacy software that produces a Gumby-like image. Conversely, the site offers a weak statement on the backscatter units, for which there is no privacy software, saying that the stranger viewing the naked image is in some back room.

And while the TSA cites privacy enhancements as the basis for this decision at Boston Logan, there is no mention of the backscatter units in use at other major airports including New York JFK, Los Angeles, Chicago O’Hare, Ft. Lauderdale, and the airport that processes the highest percentage of children, Orlando.

What is prompting this redundant expense? Why is the TSA replacing the backscatter scanners? Have Bostonians developed a sudden case of modesty after being seen naked for the past two years? Or is this intended to prevent more children from being unwitting participants in the production of pornography? Is it possible that the TSA has realized that the use of these scanners puts them in violation of federal and state child pornography laws?

Coincidentally, Boston leads in the number of TSA screeners convicted of child sex crimes, with three offenders, Sean ShanahanJose E. Salgado, and Andrew W. Cheever, all being convicted in the two years since the scanners arrived.

Orlando, which sees million of children going to and returning from Disneyworld each year, had two screeners, Paul David Rains and Charles Henry Bennett, charged with child sex crimes in less than two years. The airport also uses back-scatter x-ray scanners without privacy software on children.

Another possible explanation is that TSA is tacitly acknowledging the health risks of the x-ray units. In June of 2011, there were multiple reports of cancer clusters at airports. TSA union reps at Boston Logan asked that the agency allow screeners using x-ray baggage and body scanners to wear radiation-monitoring devices, a request the TSA denied.

The scanners at Logan are expected to be delivered beginning this month. It remains to be seen how the TSA will explain this new expense or whether the new scanners have anything to do with the TSA’s refusal to comply with the court order to hold a public comment period.

Perhaps supporters and opponents of the TSA and its practices will be able to agree that privacy software should be a mandatory requirement for all scanners. Or perhaps they will agree we should at least draw the line where children are involved.

None of this, of course, takes into account the fact that the millimeter wave scanners, with or without privacy software, have a 54% false positive rate. They alarm on pleats, on inseams, on sweat. Therefore, if your “Gumby” image up on the screen alarms, you’ll still be hauled aside for a grope.

So much for technology.

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/Mike Licht, Notions Capital)