If you’ve been through an American airport in the past few years, it’s likely that you’ve experienced, seen, or least learned about the recent craze in airport security: body scanners, which aim to detect non-metal threats to air security, like dangerous powders or gels. If you assume, as four out of five Americans evidently do, that these machines are just another annoyance that’s necessary to keep us safe in the post-9/11 world, think again.
There are serious questions about whether these machines are effective enough to be worth their cost in privacy, health, and consumption of our national security dollars.
A non-scientist’s primitive explanation of the technology. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) uses two kinds of body scanners: 1) backscatter X-ray scanners, a form of advanced x-ray imaging that creates an image from radiation reflected from the target (the machines where you stand against a wall), and 2) millimeter wave scanners, a technology that creates an image by using high frequency radio waves off the body (the glass booth you step into).
A very brief history of use at airports. Dr. Stephen Smith is said to have been the first to apply this type of technology to personnel security screening. The TSA began using this technology in 2007, and substantially expanded its use after the Christmas 2009 attempt by Nigerian Omar Abdulmutallab to blow up an airplane with explosives he had hidden in his underwear. According to the TSA website, there are now about 700 “imaging technology units” in use at 180 airports around the country. And according to the TSA, these units “can detect a wide range of threats to transportation security in a matter of seconds to protect passengers and crews.”
The critique. From the beginning, passengers and experts identified a number of concerns about the use of this technology for airport security.
- Privacy. The images created by this technology are so detailed that they amount to what has been called a “digital strip search.” What is essentially a naked picture of the air passenger reveals body parts, including genitals, and intimate details like whether the individual uses adult diapers or has a colostomy bag or prosthetic. Individuals who have been humiliated by this technology include a breast cancer survivor at the Charlotte, NC, airport who was ordered to expose and remove her prosthetic breast after the imager showed her breast to be abnormal, and humorist Dave Barry, who was pulled aside for a special pat-down because his image showed a “blurry groin.”
- Religious objections. Muslims in particular deeply object to the exposure of private body parts.
- Health concerns. The TSA asserts that the amount of radiation involved in these searches is negligible and safe for all passengers. But a number of scientists have disagreed, believing that the backscatter x-ray machines can adversely affect health. These concerns have led the House of Representatives and Senate to introduce bills to have an independent laboratory study the actual health effects of the backscatter machines.
- Efficacy. How effectively do the machines expose threats as well as body parts? Many have observed that it is far from clear that the machines would have detected the explosives in Abdulmutallab’s underwear. They cannot detect items hidden in body cavities. The Government Accountability Office, the countries of Germany and Italy, the EU, and others have also questioned whether the machines can detect dangerous liquids, plastics, chemicals, items in holsters not within the body profile, etc., leading some countries to decline to adopt this technology. The Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security has studied this issue and found that the program has some vulnerabilities, but the report is classified. Dr. Smith, creator of the technology, said in an NPR interview that we should not be publicly discussing what the technology can and cannot find because that information could help terrorists.
- Cost. These machines are expensive, with estimates of cost per machine ranging from $100,000-200,000 apiece, and sometimes more. If these machines are to keep the items in question off of airplanes, we would have to install them at all gates in all airports, at phenomenal expense.
- Alternatives. Body scanners are a response to one specific type of threat, but terrorists are adaptable and the number of potential plans is infinite. Even if the body scanners add some modicum of safety, would we buy more safety by improving cargo screening, or training and work conditions for screeners? These measures, like having air marshals on planes and securing cockpit doors, enhance our safety without intruding on our privacy. The body scanner is not as clear a case on either the cost or benefit side. The 2013 DHS budget does not provide for purchase of additional body scanners, suggesting that DHS itself believes that there are better ways to spend our national security dollars.
In addition to dismissing health concerns, the TSA claims to have privacy concerns covered. In July of 2011, the TSA announced that it was rolling out new software on its millimeter wave body scanners (not the backscatter x-rays) that would replace the naked body images with generic outlines of human forms. This was a positive development, in response to hundreds of thousands of people taking action to complain about invasion of their privacy. The agency also says that it will not store the images the technology is designed to capture. These measures, while welcome, do not entirely eliminate privacy concerns.
It is notable that the TSA was slow to recognize safety, health, and relative cost concerns about body scanners. Government officials tend to become attached to whatever system is in use because they quite naturally want to believe that they are effectively meeting the public’s demand for security. The 9/11 Commission astutely commented that “Americans’ love affair with [technology] leads them to regard it as the solution,” even if the technology is expensive and often fails. No technology can keep us 100 percent safe.
Security expert Bruce Schneier regards the body scanner machines as just another player in what he calls “security theater.” Their subliminal message is that we can achieve absolute safety if we are only willing to spend a lot of money and surrender ever-increasing portions of our privacy and dignity. That message is false, dangerous to our civil liberties and perhaps our health, and distracting. Instead of trusting that more expensive, faddish technology will keep us safe, we need to go back to the drawing board and try to get the basics of security right.
© author and Action Speaks, 2012. www.actionspeaksradio.org