TSA timeline, and the scanner saga continues

by Bill Fisher on January 22, 2013


The news that the TSA and OSI, maker of the Rapiscan x-ray nude scanners, have reached an agreement to terminate the scanner contract has been widely reported.

The contract is ending because of OSI’s inability to meet the privacy requirement mandated by Congress — even though the deadline to meet that requirement had been extended by a year. The TSA will remove the Rapiscan machines from airports by June 2013, and they’ll be replaced by millimeter wave scanners made by L-3 that have a functioning privacy algorithm (so-called ATR, Automated Target Recognition). The scans will remain the same, but our naked images will be concealed by software, at least in the checkpoint display.

It’s been a long journey for travelers who’ve been coping with an increasingly invasive host of technologies and procedures for nearly a decade. This latest announcement marks a significant milestone in the opposition to TSA security, but it’s hardly a victory. Airports will continue to use scanners. And there are x-ray versions available now that incorporate privacy software, which means that untested, radiation-emitting machines could still be used because the TSA can say, “see, we’ve taken care of that little privacy problem.” Travelers will still have to assume the surrender position in scanners and deal with surly screeners and capricious procedures.

Nonetheless, this offers an opportunity to review the long and tortuous path that has brought us to this point:

October 2006
The Puffer Machines Debut
“Across the country, airline passengers continue to jump through the usual security checkpoint hoops—X-ray machines, ID checks, random searches—but now the Transportation Security Administration has introduced a curious new element to the process: the walk-through air puffer portal.”

March 2007
The X-ray Naked Scanners are Pilot Tested
“For the next two to three months, passengers randomly selected for additional screening at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport will have the option of a typical pat down by security personnel or a one-minute, full body scan from a new type of x-ray machine that allows screeners to see through clothes.”

May 2007
Health Concerns Raised Over Naked X-Ray Scanners In UK
New X-Ray scanners at British airports could be exposing passengers to potentially dangerous levels of radiation, according to one senior radiologist. The machines are designed to ‘strip search’ passengers by using low-level X-Rays.”

January 2008
TSA Issues Privacy Impact Statement Whole Body Imaging (pdf)

October 2009
Full-body scanners banned for kids in U.K., likened to child porn
Child protection agencies who have had access to the results of these scanned images have likened them to what amounts to child pornography. Hence, Manchester Airport in the U.K. has been banned from using the whole-body scanners on children under 18 years of age. The Rapiscan machine being trialled at the airport’s Terminal 2 shows up a clear outline of passengers’ bodies as well as breast enlargements, piercings, and false limbs.”

December 2009
Failed Christmas bombing casts spotlight on security at airports
“Advocates for whole body imaging technologies and screening of passengers said the debate has been too dominated by privacy considerations. ‘We need to become a whole lot more skeptical of claims that privacy is always a good,’ said Stewart Baker, a former Homeland Security official in former President George W. Bush’s administration.

December 2009
Chertoff Seeks Full-Body Scanners At Airports
Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is pushing for full-body scanners to be installed at airports in the wake of the attempted terrorist attack aboard an airliner on Christmas Day.”

February 9 2010
GAO: No formal testing for whole-body scanners
“A senior TSA official stated that although TSA does not yet have a written policy requiring operational testing before deployment, TSA is now including in its contracts with vendors that checkpoint screening machines are required to successfully complete laboratory tests as well as operational tests.”

March 2010
TSA moves forward with untested, costly whole-body scanner deployment
“The ETP detects traces of explosives on a passenger by using puffs of air to dislodge particles from the passenger’s body and clothing that the machine analyzes for traces of explosives. TSA procured 207 ETPs and in 2006 deployed 101 ETPs to 36 airports. TSA deployed the ETPs even though agency officials were aware that tests conducted during 2004 and 2005 on earlier ETP models suggested that they did not demonstrate reliable performance.

May 2010
TSA Worker Arrested After Jokes, Fight Size of Genitalia Is Exposed to Co-workers by Scanner
“A TSA worker in Miami was arrested when he ‘lost his mind’ and attacked a colleague who repeatedly made fun of his small penis after the security screener walked through a high-tech scanner that showed his genitalia, according to Miami-Dade police.”

August 2010
No Revival for Airport Puffer Machines Used to Detect Explosives
“The Transportation Security Administration has no plans to continue research into puffer machines that were designed to detect trace amounts of explosives on passengers.
Domenic Bianchini, general manager of TSA’s passenger screening program, said there are no active programs in the pipeline that would improve the technology that was pulled out of airports last year because of frequent malfunctions.”

August 2010
Federal government admits storing some images from security scanners that see through clothes
“Last summer the Transport Security Administration (TSA) claimed the technology to be deployed in airports was not capable of storing images, but it later admitted a ‘test mode’ had in fact been activated in places and stored 2,000 images.

September 2010
Senators Susan Collins & John Kyl Warns of Puffer Machine Failures in Hasty Body Scanners Use (pdf)
Collins: “I too have cited the puffer machines’ failures under real world conditions as evidence of the need for successful completion of operational testing and evaluation of AITs. [Advanced Imaging Technology].”

December 2010
The TSA’s New Scanners Can’t See Your Pancake-Shaped Bomb
“A report in the Journal of Transportation Security looks the efficacy of the TSA’s new backscatter scanners. Turns out the machines might not be able to see your box cutter—or your gun, depending on how you went about hiding it.

December 2010
Auditors question TSA’s use of and spending on technology
“The Transportation Security Administration spent about $30 million on devices that puffed air on travelers to ‘sniff’ them out for explosives residue. Those machines ended up in warehouses, removed from airports, abandoned as impractical.

December 2010
Firms’ lobbying push comes amid rancor on TSA use of airport full-body scanners
“The companies that build futuristic airport scanners take a more old-fashioned approach when it comes to pushing their business interests in Washington: hiring dozens of former lawmakers, congressional aides, and federal employees as their lobbyists.

January 2011
Judge Says No To FOIA Request For TSA Body Scan Images
“A district court judge has rejected an attempt by the privacy-rights group EPIC to force Homeland Security to release some 2,000 full body scans from the TSA’s new airport scanners. EPIC has been suing to get the new scanners banned, saying that the machines violate both the Fourth Amendment (unreasonable searches) and the Administrative Procedures Act, which requires a public review of such plans before the government can implement them.

January 2011
U.S. Airports May Soon Test Body Scanner With Privacy Upgrades, TSA Says
“U.S. airport full-body scanners that show a generic figure rather than actual images of passenger body parts may be deployed to some airports for tests this year, the transportation security chief said today.”

February 2011
‘Inexcusable’ delay on TSA body-scanner safety reports
“The Transportation Security Administration has told members of Congress that more than 15 million passengers received full-body scans at airports without any malfunctions that put travelers at risk of an excessive radiation dose.”

February 2011
TSA Puffer machines pulled from service
“The high-tech $150,000 Puffer machine designed to blast passengers with a puff of air and then analyze the particles were determined to rarely work; after spending nearly $30 million to buy and maintain 94 Puffers, TSA last year retired them from service. More than 200 machines once touted as a high-tech response to keep the skies safe have been removed from service. The 207 Explosive Trace Detection portals purchased by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are now sitting in a government warehouse.”

March 2011
TSA to retest airport scanners after missing data, reporting errors
“The Transportation Security Administration has promised to launch new radiation testing on many airport scanners after finding reporting errors in tests done by contract workers. But an airline passenger group Monday called on the TSA to halt the use of all airport scanners that use low levels of radiation to peek under passenger clothes until the retesting is completed.”

June 30 2011
Did Airport Scanners Give Boston TSA Agents Cancer?
“Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has obtained documents from the Department of Homeland Security, which EPIC says provide evidence that the government failed to properly test the safety of full-body scanners at airports, and dismissed concerns from airport agents about excessive exposure to the machines’ radiation.

July 2011
EPIC: Documents Show TSA Ignored Radiation Warnings
“The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) recently announced that it has obtained documents from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which raise new questions about the safety of the TSA’s full-body scanners. The documents reportedly reveal that publicly mischaracterized the findings of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), stating that NIST ‘affirmed the safety’ of full body scanners. NIST stated that the Institute did not, in fact, test full body scanners for safety, and that the Institute does not do product testing.

July 2011
Federal Court Rules That TSA ‘Naked Scans’ Are Constitutional
“In the opinion from the D.C. Circuit Court, Judge Douglas Ginsburg writes that the advance imaging technology is not unreasonable given the security concerns on airplanes, and that people have the option to opt out for a pat down. The court notes that some ‘have complained that the resulting pat down was unnecessarily aggressive,; but the judges don’t seem overly concerned about that.”

July 2011
TSA told to get public comment on body scanners
“The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered the Transportation Security Administration to start soliciting comments about the machines, which show an image of a person’s naked body.”

October 2011
TSA’s De Facto Phase-Out of ‘Naked’ Scanners
“TSA privacy officer Peter Pietra pointed to the recent purchase of scanners consisting only of millimeter wave machines being a sign. The advisory council member, Barry Steinhardt, then suggested that TSA announce publicly that they would be phasing out the backscatter machines.”

November 2011
Europe Bans Airport Body Scanners For “Health and Safety” Concerns
The European Union issued a ruling this week that bans X-ray body scanners in all European airports. According to the European Commission, the agency charged with enforcing the ruling across the EU’s 27 member nations, the prohibition is necessary ‘in order not to risk jeopardizing citizens’ health and safety.’

January 2012
TSA Relents on Radiation, AFGE Proposes Joint Committee to Provide Dosimeters
“After years of pressure from AFGE, TSA management finally relents and makes plans for issuing radiation dosimeters for TSA officers. Members around the country have expressed concerns for years about the level of radiation they are exposed to from screening equipment. The European Union recently banned certain types of scanners due to radiation concerns.”

January 2012
TSA to Test Its Airport Scanner Operators for Radiation Exposure
“After years of rebuffing health concerns over airport scanners, the Transportation Security Administration plans to conduct new tests on the potential radiation exposure from the machines at more than 100 airports nationwide. But the TSA does not plan to retest the machines or passengers. Instead, the agency plans to test its airport security officers to see if they are being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation while working with the scanners.”

February 2012
New report on TSA scanner safety uses old data
“The report (PDF) dated February 14, cites questionable results displayed on TSA website from 2010 and 2011.
The new IG report notes that unlike traditional x-ray machines like you see at medical facilities which x-ray through the object, the general backscatter technology reflects off the object and therefore exposes individuals to a negligible dose of ionizing radiation.”

March 2012
Passenger slips metal by TSA scanners — repeatedly
“. . . Jon Corbett . . . As he details in this video, he put a little metal case into a side pocket, which didn’t show up on the scan. Why? Because black on black doesn’t show up. You’ll have to watch the video to get the full picture, as it is, indeed, worth a thousand words.”

March 2012
TSA Pooh-Poohs Video Purporting to Defeat Airport Body Scanners
“The government responded angrily Wednesday to a YouTube video allegedly showing a 27-year-old Florida man sneaking a metallic object through two different body scanner devices at American airports. The Transportation Security Administration, though, refused to directly address whether Jonathan Corbett, of Miami Beach, has discovered a method to beat the machines, which number 600 and are in about 140 U.S. airports.”

August 2012
Court orders non-compliant TSA to hold public hearings on full-body scanners
“The US Circuit Court of Appeals is issuing another order, this time demanding that the Department of Homeland Security (which oversees the TSA) explain within the month why it hasn’t obeyed the original order, reports Wired.”

September 2012
Congress Mandates Strengthened Privacy Protections (pdf)
“This report addresses five central themes and makes the following recommendations to TSA towards rebuilding a smarter, leaner organization:
• Implement privacy software on all AIT machines
• Sponsor an independent analysis of the potential health impacts of AIT machines less revealing.
• Enlist the private sector to modernize and, to the extent possible, automate the passenger screening process to reduce pat-downs.”

November 2012
OSI Systems Falls After Hearing on Naked-Image Scanners
“OSI Systems Inc. (OSIS) shares fell the most in more than 15 years after a U.S. lawmaker said tests may have been falsified on software intended to stop the company’s airport body-scanning machines from recording graphic images of travelers. OSI fell $21.40, or 28 percent, to $54.89 on the Nasdaq Stock Market, the Hawthorne, California-based company’s biggest one-day drop since October 1997 and Nasdaq’s biggest percentage decline today.”

January 2013
Naked-Image Scanners to Be Removed From U.S. Airports
“The agency removed 76 of the machines from busier U.S. airports last year. It will now get rid of the remaining 174 Rapiscan machines, with the company absorbing the cost, said Karen Shelton Waters, the agency’s assistant administrator for acquisitions. The TSA will instead use 60 machines manufactured by L-3 Communications the agency’s other supplier of body scanners.”

January 2013
OSI Systems Shares Climbing Higher, Up 4.2% Following TSA Agreement
“OSI Systems (NASDAQ:OSIS) is one of today’s notable stocks on the rise, up 4.2% to $70.50. The S&P is trading fractionally lower to 1,479 and the Dow is trading fractionally lower to 13,595.”

So, after making millions of dollars in profits on $40 million in sales of body scanners, OSI walks away from the scanners for a $2.7 million one-time write-down and $5 million in de-booked sales, sees its stock price rebound, and continues to sell its other x-ray equipment to the TSA. It also pursues other markets for the naked-image scanners.

It pays to be well connected in Washington. OSI demonstrates that for federal contractors, it doesn’t matter who’s in the White House or Congress, as long as former officials take jobs as lobbyists. For the right price, beltway insiders are always available.

(Photo: jamiesrabbits/Flickr Creative Commons)

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