TSA Says Scanner Security Breach Unimportant – But Still Insists We Go Through Them

As you can see from the pendant around this lady's neck, suspicious objects are black on an Xray scan. So - can you see any suspicious object at her side? Ooops.

In the past, security breaches have selectively triggered lightning fast reactions from the TSA.  Within almost literally minutes of the foiled plot by Muslim terrorists in London to smuggle explosives on planes in liquid form, there was a liquid ban.  Again, only a few hours passed between the shoe bomber and a requirement for shoes to be removed, and equally quickly, the underwear bomber resulted in additional restrictions on carry-ons too.

The important thing to appreciate is that these events were not successful terrorist attacks.  They were merely events that exposed vulnerabilities in our current airport security procedures.

Other vulnerabilities have, however, been greeted with slower responses.

How many decades had to pass between the destruction of Pan Am flight 103 and the death of 270 people, and the vulnerability that allowed the flight to be blown up in midair (uninspected passenger bags) and that loophole being closed (answer – more than 15 years).

How long is it now taking between the demonstrated loophole that anyone can ‘Photoshop’ a boarding pass to get into the secure area of an airport and to avoid their true identity being exposed to the TSA and a solution to that loophole (answer – it is still open, even now).

There seems to be a logic to these fast and slow responses.  If a security breach can be responded to by inconveniencing passengers, the TSA is right on it.  But if the response would involve inconveniencing the airlines or admitting a mistake on their own part, the TSA switches to ‘go slow’ mode.

Now let’s think about the curious situation surrounding the new Whole Body Radiation Machines that the TSA is so strangely in love with.  The Israelis refuse to use them because they have established they don’t work.  Most European countries have also banned them, either on health/safety grounds or due to them not working adequately.  Independent scientists are credibly concerned that the machines expose passengers to dangerous levels of radiation.

Scientific papers have been written explaining how to hide explosives beneath one’s clothing in a way that the Xray machines won’t detect.

But the TSA continues to press ahead with the deployment of more and more of these machines, ignoring all the critics and concerns relating to their use.

And now a person has exposed another vulnerability of the machines – one so simple and basic that you’ll almost laugh out loud when it is explained to you (assuming you don’t break down into tears of frustration instead).

This person noticed an interesting thing.  On the Xray machines’ scan display, a person’s body is displayed in light colors, which both the background and any objects on the person’s body were displayed in dark colors.

A bit of ‘outside the box’ thinking, and he suddenly saw a vulnerability :  While the Xrays will show if you have something in front of you, because of the contrast between the black object and the white background of your body, they might not show if you have something on your side, and possibly away from your body, because in that case, the object would show as black, but it would be against a black background.

In otherwords, it would be effectively invisible.

Sounds too simplistic to be true, right?  Wrong!  He tested the theory out, by sewing a pocket onto his shirt and then putting a metal case inside the pocket.  He then successfully passed through Xray machines at two different airports without the metal case being detected.

As he points out, anything could have been in the metal case.

So, the dangerous Xray machines are good only for giving us bonus doses of radiation, and/or for detecting if we have something like a handkerchief in our pocket (since when has the safety of our aviation system been placed at risk by handkerchiefs?).

But for terrorists wishing to artfully conceal plastic explosive on their body, or anything at all carried on the inside of their shirt away from their body, these expensive devices are universally recognized as useless.

Well, ‘universally recognized’ means ‘recognized by everyone except the TSA’.

Here’s more information about this loophole and here’s the information as originally posted by the person who publicized his discovery.

Lastly, a question.  This information broke on the internet on Wednesday 6 March, and the TSA were sent advance notice of the pending release of the story.  On Thursday morning, the Drudge Report featured it.  What is the TSA doing?

And, an answer to the question.  ‘Blogger Bob’ – the official spokesperson on the TSA’s blog – made a comment about

some guy claiming he figured out a way to beat our body scanners (imaging technology). I watched the video and it is a crude attempt to allegedly show how to circumvent TSA screening procedures.

Bob tries to imply that the whole thing was made up and goes on to say there’s no need to worry, because the screening is only one of twenty (!!!) different layers of security the TSA has in place, and they’re really good at finding ‘things that go BOOM’ (a claim somewhat negated by various Congressional Budget Office investigations, and of course, the actual video he is talking about).

But – get this – he never actually says ‘this is a hoax video’.  While sneering at the video, he absolutely does not say that the startling vulnerability explained in the video does not exist.

Bob goes on to list three of the other nineteen layers of protection that he suggests guarantees our safety – behavior detection, something that has never worked; explosive sniffing dogs – when did you last see one at any airport other than in the Customs arrivals hall; and Federal Air Marshalls, who are present on something like one out of every hundred flights.

Let’s desperately hope that the other 16 layers are better than the these three….

Bob’s encouragement not to worry needs to be seen in context.  If there’s no need to worry about people easily circumventing the Xray machines, why does the TSA insist we go through them?

Why can’t we say ‘Don’t worry, you have 19 other layers of security which will catch me if I’m a bad guy’?  How do you think the TSA would respond if you said that?

So, the really big question – why does the TSA continue to ignore repeated studies and examples that show the inadequacy of these expensive and dangerous scanners, and why does the TSA continue to add more and more of them, even when in the same breath they say it doesn’t really matter if they work or not?

3 thoughts on “TSA Says Scanner Security Breach Unimportant – But Still Insists We Go Through Them”

  1. Does Michael Chertoff, former head of Homeland Security, still represent RapiScan, one of the manufacturers of the machines? Are there other former government officials also representing manufacturers?

    If the answers to these questions are “yes,” you have your answer why TSA is still buying this extremely expensive equipment. If the answer is “no,” it is possible that once TSA has been convinced of their utility, they will continue to go blindly along despite evidence to the contrary.

    As for me, I always ask for a pat-down in lieu of backscatter X-ray or even microwave scanners. I had a good conversation with a radiation physicist from a major U.S. university hospital about these machines while waiting for almost three hours in line to go through immigration in Lisbon. She said she will not go near the machines because she has no idea who calibrated them, when, or how well, or how well the machines are maintained. Her job is to calibrate and assure compliance of radiation-emitting devices.

    This week during a pat-down, I asked the TSA agent to go through his mandatory spiel as fast as he could since I was already familiar with what he was going to do. He complied and was one of the best speed-talkers I’ve ever heard.

    I predict that in about three years, you won’t see any scanners in use in airports, and they will be a boondoggle of the past.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Roundup Friday 30 March 2012 » The Travel Insider

  3. Pingback: New Study – TSA Xray Scanners are Safe. Or Maybe Not. » The Travel Insider

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