TSA’s nose grows as they explain whole-body scanners

by Edward Hasbrouck on January 14, 2010


Originally published by Edward Hasbrouck on PapersPlease.org.

Already this week the TSA was caught in a lie about what it likes to call whole body imaging (virtual strip search) machines, when the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) obtained documents showing that, despite TSA claims that “this state-of-the-art technology cannot store, print, transmit or save the image,” the TSA actually requires all of these capabilities — image storage, printing, and transmission — as part of the contract specifications for the body scanners.

But the TSA can’t seem to keep their nose from growing: the post in their official propaganda blog responding to EPIC’s analysis of TSA documents contains even more lies about what they see when they look under your clothes with these machines.

According to the TSA blog, “Below, you will see accurate examples of what our officers see while using advanced imaging technology. Anything else you see is inaccurate.”

Above, we’ve linked directly to the images on the TSA website, exactly as sized and posted by them.

In fact, it’s the images posted by the TSA that are inaccurate and misleading. The actual images seen by the people in the back room (they watch you through your clothes, but you can’t watch them) are: (1) full-screen, not thumbnail-sized like those the TSA posted in their blog, (2) higher-resolution than those on the TSA blog, and (3) capable of being zoomed even larger, on the actual TSA displays, using the magnifying-glass tool in the lower right corner of the TSA-provided thumbnails.

Accurate images are visible in this video (although even if you click through to the full-screen version the video doesn’t have as high resolution as the displays used by the TSA, especially when they zoom in on areas of the body that attract their interest).

Note also that the video clearly demonstrates that the TSA policy for pat-down searches to be performed by a person of the same gender won’t be applied to the virtual strip-searchers.

EPIC has now filed another FOIA lawsuit against the TSA for failing to disclose what the images look like. Notably, the EPIC complaint filed in court today confirms that our experience with the ongoing TSA FOIA black hole wasn’t an isolated incident. EPIC’s request for expedited FOIA processing was made on July 2, 2009 — more than six months ago — and referred to the TSA by the DHS on July 16, 2009. On July 31, 2009, EPIC filed an administrative appeal of the constructive denial of its request. An expedited request should have been acted on within 10 days, and an appeal within twenty days. But to date, according to the complaint, the TSA has made no response whatsoever to either the request or the appeal. In our experience, this is typical of the TSA’S complete contempt for the FOIA law.

We aren’t reassured by the TSA’s further claim in the same blog post that, “These machines are not networked, so they cannot be hacked.” Apparently they’ve never heard of an inside job, or anyone hacking a computer from the keyboard. (Security hint to the TSA: The keyboard is the easy way way, compared to having to carry out an attack over a network.) That just reconfirms that the TSA’s threat model is grossly deficient and that they aren’t really even trying to rein in the temptations (can you say, “naked celebrity pix”?) that the virtual strip-searchers inevitably will face.

Finally, the TSA is still saying that “Use of advanced imaging technology is optional to all passengers.” What they don’t say is that your other “option” will be to submit to a full manual pat-down, regardless of whether you would have set off the metal detector. So if the alternative to a virtual strip-search is a non-virtual strip search, can someone explain to us how that’s a “choice” that should make us more willing to submit to either option?

If we have to be exposed to the TSA, maybe we should just expose ourselves when we get to the airport.

P.S. We forgot to mention the TSA claim that no 8-year-old is on the no-fly list, debunked today in the New York Times. Maybe 8-year-old Mikey Hicks isn’t on a watch list, but his name is, and the effect is the same: He can’t fly without getting the 3rd degree. What did that entail? We can’t show you. The TSA demands the right to look (and feel) under your clothes, but they wouldn’t let Mikey’s mother take pictures of how he was frisked.

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  • Joe

    I come to Consumer Traveler for facts, not editorials. The only opinions I’m particularly interested in on this site regard the things I should see and do while traveling. But I can handle editorials as long as the site as a whole is not one-sided. Unfortunately, it seems that the entire group of contributors to Consumer Traveler is opposed to millimeter-wave scanners (unlike the general public, which is largely ambivalent).

    So if you’re determined to change this otherwise useful website to an editorial rag, can you at least invite differing opinions about the issues you raise?

  • Michelle

    can you say, “naked celebrity pix”? — How would I know which celebrity I was looking at based on the scans I’ve seen popping up all over the ‘net these days? Because you tell me it’s so-&-so? Sorry, I don’t believe everything I read. Plus why would I care, but that’s another subject.

    How would the scan reader in the separate room know which xray goes with which body moving through security and know which one was the celebrity? Are travelers’ names attached to the xray? Oh no, I may have just started the next rumor…

  • Hapgood

    The lie about not storing images was obvious from the outset to anyone who spends even a moment thinking about it, even without reading the contract specifications. If the scanner is to have any value, whether as evidence for prosecuting any terrorist suspects it detects or simply for training and evaluation of its (in)effectiveness, it NEEDS to store the images. The lengths to which the TSA has gone to deny this shows not only that they’re lying, but that they’re fully aware people would never quietly accept the truth.

    You’re touching on a more important problem than the spin campaign to get the public to accept strip searches. Because of the TSA’s secrecy and lack of accountability, the agency’s leaders apparently believe they’re free to spin, deceive, or even tell outright whopper lies when it suits their purposes. When they believe secrecy will prevent anyone from noticing or calling them on their lies, it’s an invitation to evade or distort the truth as they deem necessary to keep the public docile and compliant (but sufficiently fearful to accept whatever the TSA does, ignore the obvious failings, and even to defend them from critics like the ever-reliable Joe and Frank). That’s the real story that needs to be told.

    If we can’t believe what they tell us about the invasive technology they want to use, how can we believe their claims of to provide effective protection against the terrorist threat? Their propaganda blog admits they have a credibility problem, but whether by intent or incompetence they’re only making it worse with each outrageous lie they tell.

    And Joe, the TSA’s actions affect every consumer who chooses to fly (or has no choice but to fly). So I believe it’s entirely appropriate for a site devoted to consumer travel issues to “editorialize” about an agency that has such a significant impact on travel. The TSA has their own Propaganda Department to deflect concerns about their performance in a fog of lies and fear. As you correctly note, the propaganda has been successful enough to leave the public “largely ambivalent,” because they don’t recognize the full implications. Consumers need to hear facts and opinions that are outside the official cloud.

  • Hapgood

    More significant is the story that appeared in the New York Times earlier this week. Rather than the millimeter wave scanners they’ve been trying to sell us before, the TSA apparently now plans to use backscatter x-ray scanners. Unlike millimeter waves that have no known risks to health, the backscatter scanners use x-rays. That’s ionizing radiation that definitely carries a risk of cancer.

    In reality, the dose of radiation the scanners use is so low that any such risk is probably too small to identify or measure with any certainty. But radiation exposure is cumulative, so it’s possible that a frequent flyer who has been exposed to more radiation than average for medical purposes may be at risk from repeated backscatter scans.

    The TSA’s quest to subject all passengers to a strip search is one thing. But when you add ionizing radiation and a risk of cancer, it’s time to at least pause the juggernaut. The actual cancer risk is most likely nonexistent to insignificant, but why should air travel carry that risk? Even the manufacturers of the scanners admit that the machines have significant limitations to what they can actually detect. And the TSA’s track record can only raise significant doubt about whether the officers viewing the images can reliably and consistently make effective use of even the limited capability. The TSA wants to add a new level of intrusiveness and risk to all passengers. So we need to ask whether we’re getting benefit commensurate with the cost and risk.

    The risk of CANCER from the radiation may be just what it takes to stir up much-needed outrage. Yes, it’s most likely an irrational fear, but it’s something people fear as much as terrorism. The TSA owes its very existence to irrationality, so irrational fear may be exactly the right tool to finally force the needed review and reform of the dysfunctional agency.

  • http://hasbrouck.org/ Edward Hasbrouck

    Michelle asks, “How would the scan reader in the separate room know which xray goes with which body moving through security and know which one was the celebrity?”

    One easy way would be for a confederate on the screening team to alert them. They have to have communications between the scan-watchers in the back room and the patters-down out front, so they can tell them which people to pat down, and where on that person’s body they saw an “anomaly”. All it would take would be a message to the person in the back room, “Grab the image of the 3rd person from now in the line for your machine.”

    I don’t care about celebrity pix either, with or without clothes, but they are worth a lot of money compared to TSA screeners’ wages.

  • Hapgood

    Edward, it’s easy enough to dismiss your scenario as a wacky conspiracy theory. But the secrecy and lack of oversight and accountability that characterize the TSA provides the ideal environment for such abuses to occur. When publicized abuses are discussed on the TSA’s propaganda blog, the moderators immediately inform us that whatever measures (if any) the TSA took against the perpetrators are completely confidential to protect the privacy and presumption of innocence to which all TSA employees are entitled. In that environment, you have to assume that all manner of abuses are happening behind the veil of secrecy.

    So yes, there’s good reason to believe that if TSA “officers” have the opportunity to profit from abusing the scanners, they will do it because they’ll most likely get away with it. That’s not “paranoia,” but predictable consequence of a culture that prizes secrecy and lack of accountability.

    That said, on the list of concerns about full body scanning (and about the TSA itself), that one belongs near the bottom. A more important consequence of the secrecy and lack of accountability is massive incompetence, ineffectiveness, and waste of taxpayer dollars that could be better spent on keeping terrorist plotters from getting anywhere near an airport.

  • john

    @Joe … I’m with you. This is getting really old.

    I find it interesting that not one of the contributors to the site have put forward an alternative method of screening to catch future bombers using the same methods as the X-mas day bomber. Right now, this is the only technology that I am aware of the would provide the ability to screen for this when intelligence fails.

    Great we understand that the editorial staff of Consumer Traveler doesn’t like this technology. How about you propose something else?

    We have already seen that intelligence fails and for political reasons we can not mandate technology we don’t use ourselves. I’m up for anything that keeps a bomb off an airplane. Its obvious that metal detectors and x-ray machine don’t anymore.

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/leocha Charlie Leocha

    @Joe and John
    What I am against is the mindless introduction of new machinery that will not do the job. Look in all of the media and you will not fine anyone say that thie technology “will” find these illegal substances. No one has dealt with the human element as I have in my columns. If you have ever been watching as passengers go through the luggage x-ray machines, often a group of TSAers get together to look at the monitor to figure out what is on the screen. The man in the booth of the whole body scanner does not have such help. Even with help personnel manning the xray machines miss something like 70 percent of the contraband sent through during testing. It will be worse with the body scanners. This is not the right solution.
    On the dignity issue, I just don’t think I should have to be stripped naked whenever I want to get on a plane. There are other stand-off, non-invasive technologies in Canada that work well, but haven not been introduced by TSA. There is new explosive sniffing technology recently tested that might help.
    The real search should be for people that will do us harm, not for things at the last minute at the airport. The current system forces the bad guys to work hard to conceal explosives. It does its job as a barrier that forces compromises.
    We need to get our intelligence agencies talking to each other rather than protecting turf so that they can be the one to nab the terrorist. Bureaucratic pride and selfishness is the bigger problem.

  • Bela Fleck

    Um…Consumer Traveler is full of editorials. Look around. Like here’s a new travel gotcha and this why it’s “bad.” What’s not editorializing about that?

    Thanks for this article. I’ve been firmly against these backscatter machines since they were introduced, nor do I believe they will do the job the TSA has been spinning them for. This is just more reactionary policy-making and money-spending.

  • Patrick Patterson

    I am a very modest male. However, I fly all over the world and I have no problem with full body scanners. My wife and daughter feel the same way. People seem to have a problem with privacy as they should. However, flying is not a right. Your rights end where mine begin. I want a safe flight with little effort. Pat downs are far more intrusive. If they want to store the image so what. Your name only applies if they catch you with contraband. It is time for people to grow up and get over it. Its only an image. I am not a panicked traveler. I don’t like the so called Patriot act. But a little common sense will go a long way. happy flights.

  • http://www.nslphotographyblog.com Ned S. Levi

    Hi Joe and John,

    As a contributor here, I think we’ve presented many of the facts about “full body screening,” and you are right, we’ve expressed our opinions on the subject too, once we learned the facts and presented them. Many of us believe this is an important issue for travelers, and we want to bring to the issues about “full body screening” and the scanning equipment to do it, into the open.

    As far as the panty bomber goes, I personally doubt, along with many others, that a full body scan with one of these MMW scanners would have actually caught the guy. He had a very thin layer of the explosive, in a power form, sewn into his underpants. That minimized its density compared to having it in its more standard solid block form, and didn’t create a bulge in the appearance of his underpants. Density and an odd physical appearance on the scan are how the agent reviewing the scan of the screen for a few moments determines if something’s up. It’s doubtful the panty bomber would have gotten caught by the scan.

    Considering that intelligence on him failed, there were still 3 things which could have caught the panty bomber before he boarded the plane, 2 direct, 1 indirect. I’ve been advocating each of these for a long time here at Consumer Traveler, and each mentioned was in my open letter to DHS Secretary Napolitano this past Monday, and my suggested new year’s resolutions for DHS/TSA last week.

    1. Use explosive sniffing dogs at security, and if rechecking at the gate, there as well.

    2. A pat-down search would have likely discovered the panty bomb as the explosive power would have felt funny to an experienced agent. Of course, right now TSA doesn’t have a reasonable procedure to determine who should be patted-down for a reasonable suspicion.

    3. Perform psychological profiling (That’s not racial, religious, or ethnic profiling) of passengers to seek out threats among them. Based on El Al’s history of psychological profiling, and having discussed the idea with security people, I believe the panty bomber would have been identified by this method for secondary screening, which would have required a pat-down search, which would have caught him.

    Guys, I’m all for technology which will actually make us safer. To me, the “full body scanner” is all about TSA’s security “theater.” It’s for show, and it’s way too expensive for that. We need to spend our money on security methods which work.

  • john

    Ned … Simple question.

    In order for pat downs to be effective as a fail safe when everything else fails, they have to be done 100% of the time.

    Would you prefer a pat down to standing in front of a machine? Others on here have complained about time to clear security and security times. Which do you think is faster? Personally, I find that having someone look at a blurred image of me is less intrusive than being groped (Think about where the explosives were placed and where you would have to be felt for them to be detected. From photos I’ve seen a pat on the inside of the leg would not of detected them. The explosives didn’t end up there by accident.).

    Dogs are a great tool but not 100% effective either. As a basic training company commander I coordinated with the MPs to run drug dog through my barracks every 10 weeks (once per cycle) to check for drugs. Afterwords, I let them use the barracks for training (ie they had one MP hide drugs in the building and then sent in the dogs). Lets just say that my confidence in dogs to be 100% effective was greatly shaken.

    Let’s be honest… While profiling is a great tool, the elected folks on the hill are never going to let it happen. There are too many negative press releases attached to it. All it takes is one public case and the folks on the hill will be holding hearings. (I’m sorry but profiling looks at the whole person so race, religion, age & ethnic background are part of the equation.) By definition, using profiling will result in certain groups of people having more security checks. (I’d guess Muslim males ages 15 – 35 acting nervous would get the most scrutiny since that’s the profile of the attackers that made it on to planes. Muslim families acting nervous would probably be next since that’s who the UK stopped from bringing liquid explosives on to planes.) How long after the 60 minutes reports that Muslim males get pulled aside for additional checks more often would Congress hold hearings? In addition, profiling is also more art than science. Israel has the advantage of a limited number of airports so covering them would seem to be an easier than covering every airport in the US with enough profilers to be effective.

    The nice thing about back scatter technology is that its quick, more effective than metal detectors and doesn’t care about your background. This makes it the most politically safe technology to use for screening and can be used in conjunction with Ned’s suggestions.

    All I want is a security system that keeps me safe. Period. Metal detectors don’t do that anymore (google ceramic knives) and go back to 9/11 (Granted onboard improvements make this a less likely avenue of attack). The intel system doesn’t seem to be up to doing it yet. We can all agree that TSA doesn’t seem to have enough well trained profilers to cover the country. This is the one technology that, in at least the short term, seems to plug a very large hole in our security net.

  • Joel Wechsler

    Ned Levi could not be more right. Niether of the technologies proposed for full-body screening would show explosives hidden in body cavities, which is the obvious next step for suicide bombers.The
    terrorists must be identified BEFORE they even make it to a security check. Even the conservative George Will calls the TSA’s actions and proposals security theater.

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/leocha Charlie Leocha

    One additional suggestion from Stratfor.com has been to immediately revoke a visa should someone’s name get on any of our watch lists. That way at the very least, it keeps suspects off airplanes until they can be investigated. It is a fairly simple process and would be an effective deterrent. Of course innocent till proven guilty won’t apply, but if the investigation is fine, the person can get their visa back again.

  • john

    Charlie … I completely agree with you that the suggestion is smart. Unfortunately it’s only effective for countries where visas are required (not EU).

    As a six sigma black belt, I can tell you that a system becomes more reliable the more parallel paths (in the case the number of different processes that must fail) that you have. So even if the backscatter technology is only 50% effective at detecting non-metalic objects and 100% effective at detecting metal its better than and greatly increases the system reliablity (ie chance of dangerous object getting through).

  • Frank

    1. Use explosive sniffing dogs at security, and if rechecking at the gate, there as well.

    2. A pat-down search would have likely discovered the panty bomb as the explosive power would have felt funny to an experienced agent. Of course, right now TSA doesn’t have a reasonable procedure to determine who should be patted-down for a reasonable suspicion.

    3. Perform psychological profiling (That’s not racial, religious, or ethnic profiling) of passengers to seek out threats among them. Based on El Al’s history of psychological profiling, and having discussed the idea with security people, I believe the panty bomber would have been identified by this method for secondary screening, which would have required a pat-down search, which would have caught him.
    ===================================================

    Let’s apply these “new” procedures to the shuttle market in the Northeast. The “Acela” train would salivate at the increased market share. AIRPORT SECURITY must compete with other modes of transportation, the public’s perception of safety and the ability to make the experience as fast as possible. That’s why you’re flying, it’s usually a faster mode of transportation.

  • Bob Rini

    What if two terrorists flew on the same plane with one carrying what appears to be a harmless powder and his partner carrying an equally innocuous appearing liquid, both to be mixed onboard to create an explosive device? I doubt TSA would spot them………..

    On a second thought: I have a titanium hip which sets off the scanner whenever I go through security. Would a full body scanner detect this or would I still have to be wanded?

  • http://hasbrouck.org Edward Hasbrouck

    @john – It’s not a question of body scanners *or* pat-downs. Body scanners will only be effective if anyone with anything anomalous visible under their clothes in the scanner image is patted down closely enough to tell what the image anomaly is. So many people with harmless things under their clothes that wouldn’t set off a metal detector — padded bras, mastectomy prostheses, menstrual pads, adult diapers, etc. — will have their breasts and/or genitals palpated after they’ve gone through the scanner. Yes, those numbers may be partially offset by people with metal implants that might set off a metal detector but not be seen by a scanner. But the numbers of women wearing padded bras or sanitary napkins likely exceed the numbers of people with large metal implants. And many implants don’t necessarily require a breast or genital pat-down, but are in less sensitive parts of the body. Scanners will mean more pat-downs, not less, with more of them directed at breasts and genitals.

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