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."

This is especially troubling given that only a year ago, TSA abandoned its vaunted "puffer machines" or explosives trace portals (ETP). TSA estimated the cost of the failed ETP program at approximately $29.6 million, but it’s unclear whether this figure includes more than the cost of the machines (i.e., TSA’s costs of staffing the puffers, or removing them, or the costs to passengers).

We think Professor Jeffrey Rosen got it right when he wrote: "the sacrifice these machines require of our privacy is utterly pointless."

We Should Know the Truth, but We Don’t.

A huge part of the problem is that we aren’t being told the truth about body scanners. This lack of accountability prevents meaningful public debate.

Without objective information about efficacy, we’re easily drawn into an unnecessary and empty battle of buzzwords masquerading as "values": security and safety versus privacy and freedom.

A Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General report evaluating TSA screening technologies is a good example of what the government is keeping secret.

The unclassified summary states: "We evaluated Advanced Imaging Technology, Advanced Technology X-ray equipment, and Liquid Container Screening, all used to screen passengers or their carry-on items. We also tested Transportation Security Officer performance in checking passengers’ travel documents. . . We identified vulnerabilities in the screening process at the passenger screening checkpoint at the eight domestic airports where we conducted testing."

Sounds useful. Unfortunately... "The number of tests conducted, the names of the airports tested, and the quantitative and qualitative results of our testing are classified." Sigh.

Meanwhile, TSA continues to defend the scanners: "This year alone, the use of advanced imaging technology has led to the detection of over 130 prohibited, illegal or dangerous items." TSA would not disclose exactly what those items were, but it said they included weapons like ceramic knives and various drugs — including a syringe filled with heroin hidden in a passenger’s underwear.

Leaving aside the obvious — that "various drugs" have nothing to do with weapon or bomb detection, and that "prohibited, illegal or dangerous items" (say, a Swiss Army knife) don’t equal a true terrorist threat — the public should be offended by TSA’s selective disclosure of information for PR gain.

Good information isn’t just about accountability — it’s also about not wasting money on useless technology. The GAO routinely criticizes TSA for not doing cost-benefit analysis. "While we recognize that TSA is taking action to address a vulnerability of the passenger checkpoint exposed by the December 25, 2009, attempted attack, we continue to believe that, given TSA’s expanded deployment strategy, conducting a cost-benefit analysis of TSA’s AIT deployment is important." (Whether such cost-benefit analysis will ever include the cost to the traveling public of enduring intrusive security checks, we don’t know.)

This rush to install new technology is a large part of why the "puffer machines" failed. As GAO observed: "TSA has relied on technologies in day-to-day airport operations that have not been demonstrated to meet their functional requirements in an operational environment."

TSA’s excuse: "TSA officials told us that they deployed the ETP despite performance problems because officials wanted to quickly respond to emergent threats."

Seems like déjà vu.

Demanding Better Solutions

The opposition to body scanners isn’t opposition to safety or security. As one expert noted, many of the people who have little tolerance for the current iteration of airport security also want the government to work aggressively to prevent terrorist attacks. Joseph Schwieterman, a Chicago-based transportation expert, told The Associated Press. "I think Americans, in their hearts, still feel airport security is just a big show — form over substance. So they're impatient with strategies they feel are just there to placate political demands rather the genuine security threats."

They’re right to be impatient. The current system is exceedingly expensive, has not been proven to be effective and may not even be able to identify "underwear bombers" — the purported reason for all of these invasive scans in the first place. The numbers are in and they don’t add up.

We are sacrificing our dignity and civil liberties for a process that doesn’t work.