TSA finally junks Rapiscan scanners

by Lisa Simeone on January 18, 2013


UPDATED BELOW.

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.

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