Sorry, but the TSA still wants to scan you

Don’t look now, but the TSA’s full-body scanners are alive and well.

Late last week, news organizations breathlessly reported that the agency’s X-ray scanners were being removed from America’s airports , leaving many air travelers with the impression that the TSA had abandoned body scans as a primary screening method.

It hasn’t.

The agency ended a contract with Rapiscan, which manufactured the X-ray “backscatter” scanners, after it failed to meet a congressional-ordered deadline to install privacy software on the machines. But only 174 units will be affected by the move.

The TSA will continue to scan airline passengers. In fact, the government is doubling down on so-called “advanced” imaging technologies, investing in supposedly less harmful millimeter-wave scanners.

Worse, the TSA seems to have no intention of turning its back on X-ray scanning technology, either. It’s simply switching to a manufacturer that makes better privacy software.

Pulling a fast one?

The initial reaction from readers — and I’ll admit, from me — was relief.

“This is big news,” I emailed to my editor after seeing the first reports.

“Hurray!” exclaimed one reader.

“The scanners are out!” another traveler wrote to me.

We were all wrong, and in a way that only benefited the TSA. The agency couldn’t have planned this one better if it had tried. Think about it: If people came away with the impression that the agency was pulling the plug on all of its scanners after hearing their health and privacy concerns, what a coup. Then, when we question the presence of the millimeter wave machines, it can just say those units are “safer” and that they “protect” your privacy.

I’m not sure we’re that dumb — or that the TSA is that smart.

No, this just looks like the same TSA we’re used to, which throws a lot of untested technologies and screening methods at the figurative ceiling to see what sticks. The current X-ray scanners just peeled off. Time to try something else.

Unanswered questions

TSA’s actions means we may never know how safe, or unsafe, the Rapiscan machines were. The agency reportedly glossed over the scanners’ cancer risks, and critics claim they haven’t been adequately tested. But now that the Rapiscan units are gone, who cares?

“I believe that they are burying potential problems,” says Charles Leocha of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy group I co-founded. Leocha serves on a TSA advisory panel.

“If all of the other studies about safety they claim were done proving the scanners were safe are valid, why not just release those results? Sadly, I have reached the conclusion that TSA has been lying to us and putting Americans’ health in danger,” he adds.

Maybe when TSA agents begin to get sick in high numbers because they worked near an X-ray scanner, we’ll have some idea of how dangerous these decommissioned machines were. But by then it will probably be too late.

We also won’t know what Rapiscan’s X-ray scanners were truly capable of. Critics have likened the machines to a virtual strip-search. Former agents have confessed that they can see almost everything, right down to the stitches in a passenger’s bra, and they aren’t shy about sharing their views about your naked anatomy.

Just last week I heard from a reader whose entire family was screened by the machines. She, her husband, and son walked through the scanners without incident. But an agent asked her attractive teenage daughter to return for a second scan. The reason? The first image was a little “blurry” according to an agent. She suspected (and so do I) that the TSA employees just wanted another look at her nude body.

I’m told that the scanners have several settings, ranging from detailed to grainy. When reporters were shown the technology a few years ago, the TSA used the “G”-rated setting, a colleague told me. Truth is, he said, the machines see everything.

Rapiscan couldn’t develop software that sufficiently obscured our anatomy. That, in itself, should tell you something about what the machines could do. But it also suggests something about the other scanners. Maybe their manufacturers just write better code? Does that mean the privacy software on the remaining scanners is being used as intended? I wouldn’t bet on it.

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that pictures of your naked body are still being taken and possibly stored somewhere.

The TSA should do what everyone thought it did last week. It should scrap all of its scanners and return to the common-sense metal detectors already used as a primary screening method for pilots, flight attendants, elite-level frequent fliers, foreign diplomats, active duty military, and airport workers.

The easily foiled scanners are a waste of your taxpayer money, an invasion of your privacy, and most likely a danger to your health.

  • Never, never walk through a TSA nude-o-scan machine of any flavor whatsoever. The magic words are “Opt Out.” I prefer my fourth amendment violations without the radiation, thank you.

  • Of course, as we suspected:

    1/22, Carl Franzen, Talking Points Memo, Removed Full Body Airport Scanners Being Redeployed By Military, Law Enforcement:

  • RonBonner

    I am not in favor of any form of electronic strip search just to fly on a commercial airplane unless a legal cause can be presented for that action.
    Where BACKSCATTER Electronic Strip Search Machines are used simply Opt Out for your health and safety.

    If TSA places any form of xray device in airports for human screening then either Opt Out or just boycott that airport completely. Let the airlines and airport know why you will not fly into or out of that facility.

    You have two choices, either accept being xrayed by unknown levels of possibly dangerous xrays or refused to be TSA’s lab rat.
    A boycott of all products produced by American Science and Engineering, Inc. (ASE ) might also have an impact on TSA’s plan to purchase more BACSKSCATTER STRIP SEARCH MACHINES.

  • Bob

    The TSA is not switching to a different BSX manufacturer. They have signed letters of intent with several manufacturers for the next gen systems. That does not mean they will buy them.

    As i have said many times. BSX has never been able to do ATR. MMW always has. ATR is based on a 3D algorithm. BSX is a 2D picture. ATR was originally offered to TSA by L3, but was cut out of the original contracts as Rapiscan helped write the specs.

    There is one company that actually developed a full body scanner that CAN detect different materials. That uses IR, and detection is based on the unique IR signatures of different materials. However TSA did not approve it as it could not scan as quickly as the MMW/BSX machines. Coincidence that Rapiscan co-wrote the specs with L3…… Scan from day one folks.

    This is being done simply to release some pressure with the lawsuits and upcoming comment period. They don’t want radiation tests done, they don’t want to face the courts. They are full speed ahead with the BSX vans.

    Keep the pressure up.

    • Bob, thanks, as always, for the more thorough information. For people reading this who are unfamiliar with the acronyms:

      IR = infrared
      MMW = millimeter wave
      BSX = backscatter (x-ray)
      ATR = Automated Target Recognition (the supposedly “privacy enhancing” generic image instead of graphic nude body image)
      And L-3 is a corporation that manufactures security equipment.

    • RonBonner

      “ASEI Just got a $245M contract from DHS”

      Seems a bit more than a letter of intent.

      ASEI (American Science and Engineering) has been contracted to produce Backscatter Whole Body Imagers for TSA.
      BACKSCATTER is alive and well at TSA.

      • Bob

        That is not how Govt contracts work. This is a standard IDIQ govt contract. For accounting purposes a contract is cut for a potential ceiling value for goods and services IF the requirements are met.

        So they cut 3 potential contracts for $245 million. They can mix and match between three vendors or spend it all one one. The AS&E contract is for a minimum of TWO test units, and a max up to $245 million. TEST units as they have not been certified for use. AS&E has been waiting for over two years now to have their machine certified. It is doubtful that that will change anytime soon. I don’t think AS&E will have any better luck at producing a 3D image from a 2D x-ray. The Smiths entry is actually better from a security standpoint. With that unit the passenger does a spin giving a 360 view. That would in theory prevent the “corbett” maneuver.

        • RonBonner

          From the TSA Blog post: “Most of the backscatter units being removed will be replaced with millimeter
          wave units.”
          So if only most backscatter units are replaced with MMW then that leaves two options. Some Backscatter units will not be replaced with WBI or some other type of scanner will be used. Since we know that ASEI has been awarded contract money I think it is clear that those backscatter units will be installed in some locations.

          • bob

            I would not go around quoting the TSA blog as a source of anything. There are no approved BSX units from any other manufacturer. AS&E has been awarded potential contract money.. Like is said their units have not been certified in two years and they still have the same issue that OSI has. Plain old metal detectors will be used in places where no MMW machine is available. Not AS&E or any other BSX unit.

        • Daisiemae

          Bad news for thousands and thousands of people who are not able to do a “spin” due to numerous medical issues. Guaranteed gate rape for all those people every time they fly. Another example of flying while handicapped.

  • Susan Richart

    “TSA’s actions means we may never know how safe, or unsafe, the Rapiscan machines were….

    Maybe when TSA agents begin to get sick in high numbers because they worked near an X-ray scanner, we’ll have some idea of how dangerous these decommissioned machines were. But by then it will probably be too late.”

    Of course it will be too late. TSA has already signed the death warrants for a yet-unknown number of screeners.

    The reactions of the public and the media to the mistaken belief that scanners were going away speaks to how much they are hated. I just wish that more people would express their discontent by opting out each and every time they transit an airport checkpoint.