TSA finally junks Rapiscan scanners


As we reported here on September 3, 2012, the TSA last year started quietly removing the radiation-emitting backscatter (x-ray) scanners from airports and replacing them with millimeter wave scanners.

This news was kept quiet, of course, only until the press found out about it. Even then, media reports often got the story wrong, implying, or stating outright as this Bloomberg story does, that all “naked-image scanners” are being removed, which is not true. Scanners will still be used at airports, only they will be millimeter wave scanners (also untested), with a generic outline of the body, not backscatter scanners.

While the TSA at first tried to palm off the backscatter scanners onto smaller airports (don’t you know that big-city slickers are more important than small-town peons?), it later became known that the agency was collecting the clunkers in a warehouse. Hey, your tax dollars at work.

And still the story continued. One of the TSA’s favorite contractors, Rapiscan, was accused of falsifying its scanner data. Now it appears that the TSA can no longer pretend that Rapiscan’s machines are viable and will junk all of them. The claim is that the removal of the backscatter scanners has everything to do with their lack of “privacy-enhancing software” and nothing to do with the possibly falsified safety data.

Yet even while the agency is getting rid of one set of machines, it’s busy buying others.

If you’re still not familiar with the two different types of scanners, you might think that a millimeter wave (MMW) scanner is a machine that magically “protects your privacy.” And that’s the story the TSA is pushing.

In fact, as we’ve reported umpteen times, the MMW scanners have a 54% false positive rate. They alarm on seams. On pleats. On sweat. That means that even though you go through a scanner, you can still be hauled aside for a grope.

In addition, the so-called “Gumby” or stick-figure image is merely what you, the passenger, sees. You have no idea if the scanner is still recording a naked image of you. Does it make sense to you that a machine ostensibly designed to look under people’s clothing wouldn’t have the capability of recording that information, if such information were ever to be needed later? That the only image recorded would be a fuzzy, generic image?

Regardless, scanners aren’t leaving U.S. airports. Compliant passengers are still stepping into them and raising their arms in a pose of surrender.

Perhaps that’s appropriate. Perhaps that’s as it should be.

(Photo: wonderferret/Flickr Creative Commons)

UPDATE: Thanks to eagle-eyed commenter RB, we learn that some of the new machines the TSA is buying are still backscatter scanners. Meaning radiation-emitting scanners. These are the ones manufactured by American Science & Engineering. Thanks, RB.

  • Jack

    How does anyone know if a machine is tested or not? Is this just a wild guess because everyone on this blog is a hatter.

    • Jack, none of the machines have been tested by independent sources, as we’ve indicated with supporting evidence umpteen times. If you don’t want to click the links, that’s your businesss. I’m not going to spoon-feed people the information.

      But then, I’m just a hatter.

    • 1amWendy

      It is usually prudent to do a little independent research – it is not difficult to determine whether these machines have been independently tested if one was to simply Google Congress backscatter test – you would find that there has been ample media coverage of the fact that the TSA finally capitulated to Congress and agreed to independent third-party testing. And then within a few months announced that all of the backscatter machines were being decommissioned.

      Jack, sorry to say that you just embarrassed yourself.

  • Deborah Newell Tornello

    Here’s a disturbing YouTube video in which the VP of American Science and Engineering shows off various backscatter applications his company sells: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=7i8WNJNSWuw

    And here is a piece in Forbes about x-ray vans (for “drive-by snooping”) made by the same company: http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2010/0927/technology-x-rays-homeland-security-aclu-drive-by-snooping.html

  • Alorick

    The reaction to this should be not good enough. And the people who keep on flying when they can avoid doing so only lend legitamacy and job security to the corrupt TSA and the complicit airlines.

  • Over at Hacker News this sentence was also highlighted “The TSA is talking to other government agencies with screening needs that might not require the same level of privacy called for in a crowded airport, Sanders said.”, meaning that the rapiscan machines will probably be given to other government agencies for use their.

  • RB

    Actually TSA is only removing Rapiscan backscatter whole body xray scanners. They are also buying more backscatter Xray based Whole Body Imagers from American Science and Engineering, Inc.


    TSA has contracted with L-3, Smiths Group Plc
    (SMIN) and American Science & Engineering Inc. (ASEI) for new body-image scanners, all of
    which must have privacy software. L-3 and Smiths used millimeter-wave
    technology. American Science uses backscatter.

    Never mistake one action taken by TSA to be for the benefit of the public. Nothing TSA does is aimed at improving the safety of the public.

    I think it is time for a Consumer Advocacy Group to sue TSA seeking to outlaw any use of an X-ray device on humans except for medical purposes.

    • Yes, RB, that info and those links are in my post.

      • bob

        TSA has contracted with. Not bought. This means that IF the machine passes whatever non existent test protocol tsa uses they MAY buy them.

        In any case TSA has known from day 1 that the backscatter machines cannot use ATR. It has nothing to do with failure to meet specifications.

        This move will allow them to hold onto certain confidential info that they do not want to give up. As they can now have the lawsuits against them dropped. Demands for radiation testing? DROPPED. Which means DHS can continue to deploy BSX vans.

        KEEP the heat on. This is a strategic move for them. Cut off a fingertip to they can keep their hand. We must continue to call for testing of all BSX machines.

  • Susan Richart

    There is at least one error in the Bloomberg article. The Mike Rogers identified as being a Republican from Michigan is in fact a Republican from Alabama.

    At least this gives the lie to the TSA’s claims that the images are fine for a class of kindergarten students to view – but then again, we all knew that anyway.

    • Susan, the headline is also flat-out wrong. But reporters don’t write the headlines; copy editors do. So this disconnect often happens.