Sorry, but the TSA still wants to scan you

by Christopher Elliott on January 20, 2013


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.

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