Common Sense and Security: Body Scanners, Accountability, and $2.4 Billion Worth of Security Theater
by Lee Tien
Electronic Frontier Foundation
The Transportation Security Administration is feeling public heat these days over its combination of whole-body-image scanners and heavy-handed pat-down searches, and deservedly so.
There’s no question that reform is needed to curtail TSA’s excesses. We especially applaud the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s efforts to increase public awareness about the body scanners. But will the heat now being generated produce the kind of light we really need?
Consider, for instance, the all-too-common response that we need to
accept the indignity and invasiveness of the body scanners and pat-down searches in order to be safer. That response assumes that body scanners actually make us safer — a dubious assumption that we explore below.
Do Body Scanners Address the Problem They Were Intended to Address?
Body scanners are touted as a solution to the problem of detecting explosive devices that evade traditional metal detectors. The recent hard push for body scanners took off after Christmas 2009, when the so-called "underwear bomber," Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempted to board an airplane while allegedly concealing in his underpants a package containing nearly 3 oz of the chemical powder PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate). Within a few days, Sen. Joseph Lieberman called for more widespread use of the full-body scanners.
Indeed, TSA Administrator John Pistole told Congress last week that body scanners (which TSA calls Advanced Imaging Technology, or AIT) are "the most effective technology for detecting small threat items concealed on passengers, such as explosives used by Abdulmutallab."
Yet there’s no publicly available evidence that body scanners counter the threat from explosive powders. What we do know makes us extremely skeptical.
•A TSA document, which EPIC obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, shows that the scanners were intended to detect weapons, traditional explosives (C4, plastique, etc.), and liquids — but not powder (page 10).
•The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says that "it remains unclear whether the AIT would have detected the weapon used in the December 2009 incident based on the preliminary information the GAO has received."
•Ben Wallace, a member of Parliament who was formerly involved in a project to develop the scanners for airport use, said trials had shown that materials such as powder, liquid or thin plastic — as well as the passenger's clothing — went undetected. According to Wallace, the millimeter waves pass through low-density materials. High-density material such as metal knives, guns and dense plastic such as C4 explosive reflect the millimeter waves and leave an image of the object. He added that X-ray scanners were also unlikely to have detected the Christmas Day bomb.
•German border police recently reported folds in clothing were confusing the body scanners used at Hamburg Airport (the L-3 ProVision Automatic Threat Detection system). "NDR radio said the devices, introduced in September, had repeatedly given warnings about innocent passengers, mainly because of folds in clothes. It quoted guards saying the devices were unreliable in scanning through many layers of clothing too."
The Real Costs of Security Theater
Even assuming that there were some security value to the body scanners, an obvious question remains: are they worth it? The scanners cost about $170,000 each. The number of scanners jumped from 40 at the start of this year to 373 installed at 68 airports across the USA as of last week. The TSA is scheduled to deploy 500 scanners by December 31, and a total of 1,000 by the end of 2011. The GAO estimates the direct costs over their expected 7-year-life cycle at $2.4 billion. That doesn’t include the costs to passengers, such as missed flights and lost dignity.
A former chief security officer of the Israel Airport Authority who helped design the security at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport the scanners are "expensive and useless . . . That's why we haven't put them in our airport."
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