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)

  • And now Pro Publica is reporting it, too:

    TSA Removes X-Ray Body Scanners From Major Airports

  • I’ve been receiving pat downs after passing through the millimeter wave scanners since July 15th. The false positive rate with me is over 90%, I’ve also been logging the pat downs, getting a piece of paper from the TSO Supervisor each time I get a pat down and noting the date and his/her name. I’ve also reached out to my US Rep and Senator.

    • Thank you for doing your part to keep the pressure on our Congress. Their rhetoric regarding TSA gets angrier and angrier – but I recommend that you should urge your representatives to just cut off the money. As long as they keep paying TSA to abuse us, the TSA will keep abusing us. We need to defund the TSA.

    • 1amWendy

      Ellis, if you can write that up we will get your comments entered into the official record of the TSA’s Aviation Security Advisory Committee, either through Freedom to Travel USA or the National Association of Airline Passengers. Of course, you can always attend and tell your tale in person – I would like to have a strategy that there is one such tale at every public meeting. You can read prior comments at the TSA ASAC official website (or on this one, for the 9/18 meeting comments are not yet posted). The ASAC website is at http://www.tsa.gov/research/asac/index.shtm.

  • I propose a return to Airport Security to the level that it was pre-2000. This would include:
    100% elimination of the full body scanners
    100% elimination of the enhanced pat down procedures
    100% elimination of the liquids ban
    100% elimination of taking off of the shoes
    Reduction in security force at airports
    Privatization of airport security – Let the airlines handle their own security
    Allowing people to walk with their friends/ family to the gate at airports prior to departure
    Allowing people to meet their friends/family at the gate upon arrival at commercial airports
    100% elimination of baggege inspection without the person being present.

    Not allowing CBP to conficate person’s personal property at the border without legitmiate cause. A laptop is not a cheap toy and also there are often confedential files on a persons compter.

    I remember that it was like to travel in the 80s and 90s by air. Today if you have a flight from SVO – JFK America requires Russia to inspect a persons baggage just like in the USA, but there is one major diffrence. They do it in the presence of the passenger. I think baggage inspection without the passenger being there is wong and should be illegal. That is someones personal property. How does it sound when I tell people “Don’t check anything you can’t live without or replace, like an iPad.” This is so wrong. I personally think that airport security should go back to the level it was as in the 80s or 90s when flying was enjoyable.

    • Dee Jaye, totally agree. But it ain’t gonna happen. Too many Americans think there’s a Big Bad Terrorist hiding around every corner. They are on board with the abuse that is now commonplace.

  • txrus

    Based on my personal experiences w/Gumby, the false+ rate of these things is still in the 50-75% range, which is in line w/the German experience & the reason they got rid of them, as I recall. In sum, neither machine is worth the $$ invested in them.

  • I went through Boston Logan about a month ago, and all of the backscatter machines were sitting unused. Wonder if they’re just taking them offline without saying so….

  • TSAisTerrorism

    It is important to keep in mind that MMW is not safe simply because it isn’t BKSX. This logical fallacy floats its ugly head every time a discussion of both machines ensues.

    Look, MMW may be incredibly safe. Heck, it may even cure diabetes. Who knows? Certainly not TSA. Like BKSX they simply refuse to allow a human health study on this technology.

    It is stupid to say, “Well, BKSX is bad, so MMW is safe.” Not true. We simply don’t know what we don’t know. And what we don’t know is the long-term human health effects of MMW.

    There was a huge push to use CT imaging instead of traditional plain film X-ray because, well, we know X-Ray increases cancer risk ergo use something else. Sound familiar? Well, turns out CT imaging also increases cancer risk. Oops.


  • Bob

    I am shocked Bill. Shocked that you wrote a story around a comment that i posted over two months ago on this blog. As i have written before, yes BSX are being eliminated.

    The BSX scanners do not work with ATR. Simply because the images are not 3D like the MMW scanners are. BSX creates images by having radiation penetrate INTO an object, while MMW bounces off of an object. This has been known for years and was one reason why both type of scanners were introduced without ATR. ATR has always been part of the MMW scanners, but TSA chose not to use it as it showed inequality between both types of machines.

    Secondly they are aware that there is a radiation issue and are more worried about the liability issues. Why do you think they refuse to allow a in service machine to be independently tested? The manufacturer will not allow that to happen. The army study was the only non-manufacturer test of these machines and showed that they do indeed release more radiation then the manufacturer states. And those were done with machines that were brand new. That same study also showed that much higher concentrations of radiation are deposited on critical soft tissue area’s of the body.

    Thirdly there is that pesky EPIC lawsuit. Much of the suit revolved around the nudity and health aspect of the scanners. ATR removes the nudity aspect. MMW removes the health aspect. Again i already mentioned that the TSA response to the court order would be that they were addressing the issues. And indeed that is what their response was.

    The only thing left is the effectiveness question. That is something that the court is more then happy to leave up to the TSA themselves.

    More predictions? Up next you will find further reduction in pat-downs due to the TSA allowing multiple passes through the MMW machine just as they do the metal detectors.

    Oh and if you press them the TSA will simply state that “The machines at Logan are some of the oldest and most used in the system which are end of life.”

    • Bob, we write a lot at TSA News, often about the same story, repeatedly. Not everyone reads every post. Not everyone can keep up with every bit of news. So we repeat, a lot.

      We’ve written about the scanners, the differences between BKSX and MMW, the cancer risk, the fact that they haven’t been tested, the stonewalling of the TSA, the lies of the TSA, the EPIC lawsuit, other lawsuits, more times than I can count.

      The blog started in November 2011. Every time I take something for granted, refer back to a story or stories we’ve already done, somebody comes along who has no idea what I’m talking about. So it pays to reinforce these points and to keep bringing them up.

    • Drontil

      ATR has NOT always been a part of MMW. It was instituted after the uproar over nude pictures took flight.

      • bob

        MMW has always had the ability to do ATR. The TSA did not implement it for the reason I stated. It would have made the BSX look bad out of the box.

        • No, they only started testing the ATR software after they announced in October, 2010 that they would subject the American people (and foreign travelers in our country) to the illegal strip search scanners and criminal genital examination pat downs.

          Regardless, see my other post to your well-written comment.

    • Some Comments.
      1) The Judge in the EPIC lawsuit did not buy into the health and privacy concerns – only the violation of administrative procedures.

      2) REGARDLESS, I have now decided that Gumby pictures still don’t make whole body searches valid. Essentially, the TSA is using a convenient electronic means to perform a physical strip search. There are several problems I have with this.

      a) The search is not justified based on ANY statistical metric. There have been zero fatalities caused by suicidal passengers with WORKING..NON-METALLIC BOMBS…on US Domestic Flights for 50 years.

      b) This is a WHOLE BODY general search – NOT a SPECIFIC SEARCH – which is a different class of administrative search or security search ever approved before.

      For example, a metal detector looks “FOR Metal” under the theory a gun is metallic. It does not examine your body for ANYTHING and then “guess” (such as using a software algorithm like ATR) at whether it found a gun.

      A fire code inspection looks at specific electrical areas in buildings, it won’t look inside a toilet for example or search an ENTIRE building and then look at a subset of the search.

      A health crisis may allow the government to draw blood or swab you. However, they could only test for a specific virus and not the entire spectrum of diseases – such as for HIV, Hepatitis, or Gonorrhea – as part of their “search”.

      c) The privacy of individuals with medical conditions is NOT protected. Unusual testicular damage, colostomy bags, menstruation protection, and other issues are FOUND in a general search.

      d) Here’s a real problem: If they find something in the illegal nude scan, or if the ATR software identifies some unknown object, then they will SWAB you and run it by the Explosives Trace Detection (ETD) machine.

      CONCLUSION: If they use the ETD machine, that implies it works. THEREFORE – they should just swab you instead of illegal and unneeded general search!

      The only purpose of the scanners was for suicidal airline passengers with working NON-METALLIC explosives. If ETD is used, then it must be viable.

      Thus, I could defend an ETD test as equivalent to a Metal Detector test in that it searches for something actually related to an explosive. Since we know Jon Corbett has proven that metallic devices can get through both ATR MMW and AIT X-Ray machines, the scanners are worthless against what is arguably a bigger threat – bombs based on metal components.

      e) The scanners have produced 100% false positives and never detected a threatening non-metallic bomb. Even the C4 was found by baggage screeners, as well as non-live hand grenades.

      So, in summary, the scanners are not reasonably justified based on the 50 year history, including the approximately 1 year AFTER the miserable failure of an underwear bomber with a non-working bomb.

      • bob

        I will respond to both comments here. ATR was available
        before the TSA started testing it in 2010. L3 and Rapiscan wrote the
        requirements for the scanners. ATR was not included in that requirement because
        BSX scanners only produce a 2d image. ATR requires a 3D image as it looks for
        differences outside of the normal body contours. Which is why one study
        theorizes that it can also be easily defeated by placing a pancake explosive on
        a body part. The effectiveness of the scanner is poor when using ATR. That is
        well known. However the scanners are even less effective, because of human
        error, when a person has to manually read the image. This has been demonstrated
        as the TSA has failed to detect even simple object like guns when using the non
        ATR scanners. So 50% failure rate on ATR is better than the failure rate of the
        human operated scanners.

        There is a third scanner that the TSA initially tested the
        ISCON. The ISCON scanner uses IR. The IR scanner can detect metal and
        explosives hidden on the body because each object produces a different IR
        signature. It is also a 360 degree
        scanner, and does not see through clothing. Presumably the Jon Corbett method
        would not work with this kind of scanner. The TSA did test this machine and
        recd positive reports. The drawback of this machine was that it can take up to
        60 seconds and a passenger also has to stand with their hands on a stripper
        pole. Now two things happened to keep this scanner out of airports. First L3
        and Rapiscan set the scan time requirement lower then what the IR scanner could
        do. Second TSA decided to make the body scanners the primary method of
        screening. One min per passenger is too long.

        Opting out throws a huge wrench into the whole equation. I
        am going to guess, as I have no hard numbers, that the TSA needs 99% of
        passengers to go through the scanners to have smooth operations. Absolutely opt
        out pat-downs are retaliatory. They need to be as the goal is to get everyone
        through the scanner. Pulling people aside for ETD add to the amount of screening
        time. It is all about processing people in a reasonable amount of time with a
        reasonable amount of effectiveness.

        Lets talk effectiveness.
        Neither the MMW nor BSX can “detect” anything. The TSA loves to throw that line around, that the body scanners can “detect metallic and non-metallic objects.” All they do is render a
        naked image of a passenger. They can neither
        “detect” metallic or non-metallic objects any more than a psychic can detect
        your future. But they possibly could show a large bulky diaper bomb and ATR
        will pick up a large knife or gun. And that is what the metal detectors were
        put in place to detect. Large knives and guns. They can pick out dumb people. One
        could argue that they are marginally more effective than just using the MD
        alone. Where they fail is in the cost effectiveness category. Is the marginal
        benefit worth the exponential cost? The TSA remember is a completely reactive
        organization. These scanners are nothing more than a knee jerk reaction
        combined with good ole Washington insider lobbying. Effective – marginally. Welfare program. You bet.

        This brings us back to the backscatter x-ray. If these
        machines were properly classified as a medical device, that would require daily
        inspections. That means big cost. It would also kick in workforce safety requirements.
        More money. As long as the TSA refuses to test these machines they have
        plausible dependability from future lawsuits from both workers, passengers, and
        the manufacturer. So they have a growing problem. More passenger opt-outs for
        the BSX (more time screening), calls for testing, and that pesky EPIC lawsuit.
        The solution? Quietly back away from the BSX. If you have noticed for the past
        year all TSA announcements of new whole body image installs have included boilerplate
        language to the effect of “these are new advanced models that do not use x-rays
        and draw a generic outline of the passenger..” The TSA above all does not want
        any legal ruling that might affect how they operate. They will go out of their
        way to avoid this.

        What is an effective screening solution? Metal detectors as
        primary. We know they can detect metal. Explosives detection (dogs, ETD’s) IR
        or MMW scanners as secondary when a passenger fails to clear metal or explosive
        alarms in a reasonable amount of time. Line must be kept moving as long lines
        themselves create a security problem.

        Legality? It is pretty clear that the TSA is conducting an
        administrative search as they have admitted so. They did not want to admit this
        at first as doing so ties their hands. Administrative searches are limited. In
        the case of the TSA they should be limited to searching for things that can
        harm an aircraft. Weapons, bombs, ect. Drugs.. No. Money.. No. Sex toys.. No.
        However nobody has tested this in the courts yet. It costs big bucks to sue the govt. The TSA simply has a
        different opinion on what they consider limits of their search, and nothing will
        change until a judge hears a case. They will bend over backwards to make sure
        that a judge never hears a case. That is how our system works.

        I honestly think that the majority of passengers do not care
        because they want to get where they are going quickly and have an innate fear
        of falling from high places. It looks like they are doing something with big
        machines and blinking lights.

        The TSA is nothing more than a huge welfare program. You
        will not have effective airport security in this country because we have removed
        all liability from the airlines. TSA procedure will not change unless
        passengers start to complain to the airlines directly, and start cutting back
        on air travel. The lobbyists have the DHS in their pocket. They do not work for
        the people. They work for themselves.

  • Drontil

    The reports of the cancer cluster at Logan and the fact that the TSA is replacing all the backscatter units there is no coincidence.

    Add to that the fact that TSA won’t allow independent testing of the machines and has ignored a Court order to test them, all add up to one conclusion:

    The machines cause harm.

    DHS/TSA have known this for years.