Invasion of the Body Scanners

Some say airport security technology now reveals too much

The blogosphere lit up in mid-October when Michael Roberts, a pilot for Houston-based ExpressJet Airlines Inc., refused to submit to a full-body scan or a manual pat down at Memphis International Airport. At issue were the advanced imaging technology (AIT) scanners the airport had only recently installed in place of traditional metal detectors at security checkpoints, manned by employees of the Transportation Security Administration. Roberts said the new system was intrusive, invaded his privacy, and violated his constitutional rights against unreasonable searches and seizures by government agents.

“These devices enable screeners to see beneath people’s clothing to an extremely graphic and intrusive level of detail (virtual strip searching),” Roberts wrote in a post to The Pipe, an online forum for aviation professionals. “Travelers refusing this indignity may instead by physically frisked by a government security agent until the agent is satisfied to release them on their way in what is being touted as an ‘alternative option’ to AIT.”

Portal-bility
The technology, which TSA began selectively deploying in 2007, is designed to detect metallic and non-metallic threats -- think plastic and liquid explosives that evade metal detectors.

It requires passengers to step into a 9-foot-tall glass-walled portal that bounces millimeter waves off their bodies to create a metallic-looking image that screeners view on a monitor in a closed room. The process takes a little longer than metal-detector screenings of yore and yields images that undeniably leave little to the imagination.

Responding to a pro-AIT blog on the TSA website, one commenter countered that the images expose “passengers’ bodies in sufficient detail for screeners to count the change in our pockets and see beads of sweat on our backs -- not to mention intimate, gender- specific details.”

Importantly, TSA says individual faces are blurred and the images are deleted as soon as a passenger is cleared through a checkpoint, but this is an aspect of the system critics simply aren’t buying. On its blog (at http://blog. tsa.gov), TSA notes that the AIT machines do have USB, hard disc, and Ethernet capabilities -- and that in “test mode” the machines definitely have the ability to store, export, and print images -- but the agency insists that this functionality is “disabled” before the machines are delivered and that there is no way for the on-site TSA employees to place them back into test mode.

Invariably, skeptics have focused on the agency’s use of the word “disabled” as opposed to “removed” and, in the comments section of TSA’s blog, written things such as,

“Any function that is disabled can be reenabled at some future time.”

“If there’s a way for someone else to put the machine into test mode, then there’s a way for an unauthorized person to do so, too. That’s how security holes happen.”

“A tech-savvy person with physical access to a computer can make it do almost anything.”

And, “So just how does this technology prevent an operator from taking a picture of the screen?”

Balancing Beams
The safety of the technology has been another source of contention. TSA maintains that the millimeter waves -- essentially low-level X-ray beams -- are harmless. But not so fast, critics protest. The technology has not been around long enough for anyone to say with scientific certainty just how innocuous or dangerous those waves might be -- especially on pilots, who would be exposed to them on an overly regular basis, potentially several times a day.

These concerns notwithstanding, all indicators point to AIT being the wave of the future. TSA already has installed 300 of the machines at some 60 airports nationwide and plans to deploy 150 more of the $150,000 units by the end of 2010. An additional $88 million is included in the 2011 national fiscal budget for 500 more machines.

On Oct. 22, one week to the day after Roberts’ run-in with TSA in Memphis, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was on hand at JFK in New York for the unveiling of the first of a “substantial” number of the machines that will be installed at that airport. Hailing them as a significant breakthrough for airport security and the fight against terrorism, she said, “These machines represent an important way to stay ahead of the ever-evolving threat that faces the aviation industry.” According to the New York Daily News, though, when it came time to demonstrate how the machines work, the secretary opted to allow others to step in the portal.

Meanwhile, as of press time, Roberts has not worked as a pilot since TSA sent him home on Oct. 15.

“So right now, despite management’s strong desire to impale me in front of all my coworkers lest any of them decide to follow my example, the company’s lawyers have advised them to accept my offer to take a leave of absence until my issues with the federal government are resolved and I am able to return to the skies as a free citizen,” Roberts wrote on Oct. 29, in response to an e-mail inquiring about the outcome of his Memphis ordeal. “My battle with them is far from over, though. But at least it’s on a back burner for the time being.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of Security Today.

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