All Commentary
Monday, April 19, 2010

Whole-Body Imaging: Intrusion Without Security

Every time the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) fails to protect aviation, as it did when it allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board a plane last Christmas Day, it punishes passengers with further restrictions and humiliations. Now the agency wants to virtually strip-search us with whole-body imagers. These gizmos peer through clothing to the skin beneath so that we appear naked on the monitor.

Even passengers who most fear terrorism might object that exposing ourselves and our children to government agents is too high a price for safe skies. But whole-body imaging, like all technology, ultimately relies on human operators–such as the ones who missed the many obvious signs that Abdulmutallab wasn’t planning a fun-filled vacation in Detroit.

The TSA already subjects your carry-on bags to X-ray scanning that penetrates the “skin” to show what’s beneath. Yet screeners routinely fail to discern the guns, knives, and other contraband their monitors show. Sometimes undercover federal investigators are smuggling those weapons to test screeners; other times, passengers who’ve forgotten the pistol or ammunition in their knapsack turn themselves in when they reach their gate. Expecting screeners who overlook the hunting knife beside a paperback novel to find the explosives taped near a woman’s . . . well, let’s just say the distractions of whole-body imaging are considerably greater than anything in the average carry-on.

And those distractions will be the stars of the show since scanners are “unlikely” to highlight the plastic and liquid explosives terrorists prefer. That’s according to a British MP and “ex Army officer” who once worked for a manufacturer of whole-body imagers. Ben Wallace told BBC Radio 4 that “the scanners would probably not have detected the failed Detroit plane plot of Christmas Day[,] . . . the 2006 airliner liquid bomb plot and . . . the 2005 bombings of three Tube trains and a bus in London.” He continued: “[T]here is a big but, and the but was in all the testing that we undertook[. It] was unlikely that [this technology] would have picked up the current explosive devices being used by al-Qaeda. . . . This is not necessarily the big silver bullet that is somehow being portrayed.”

The TSA has been aiming that bullet at us since 2002. (Abdullmutallab simply provided the latest excuse for denuding passengers.) To that end, it has long insisted that it protects our privacy even as it virtually strips us naked. But its spurious fig leaves also work against the success of its peep show.

For starters, the agency asserts that the “facial features [of the] three-dimensional image” are “blurred for privacy.” It’s sung a similar song since at least 2006, when USA Today claimed “the machines will show only blurred outlines of travelers but will enable screeners to see weapons.” Supposedly, “‘edge detection’ technology looks for changes in density or molecular structure on the person and draws outlines around those areas [while] eras[ing] anatomical details.” So “a metal object, far more dense than human tissue, is highlighted by a heavy black line. But body contours, if they register at all, appear as faint gray lines because ‘they don’t have edges,’ said Daniel Strom, a scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. ‘It only shows anomalies, like metal and ceramics.’”

Alas, those “modifications could create problems in detecting some plastic explosives that have a density similar to human tissue, said Andrew Karam, a physicist and fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, a national-security think tank. ‘I can smooth [plastic explosives] out like spackle so there really is not a sharp edge. That’s something I think is going to be really hard to find,’ Karam said. [Whole-body imaging] ‘will find obvious stuff,’ Karam added. ‘I don’t know if it will find anything else.’”

Ogling naked passengers is as unnecessary as it is ineffective.

Sharper Images Coming

Nonetheless, we can expect sharp pictures to replace blurred ones. Richard Mastronardi, a vice president at American Science and Engineering (AS&E) in Billerica, Massachusetts, another manufacturer of this equipment, explained, according to a press report, that “the modifications made for the TSA ‘trade off detection for a level of privacy’. . . . When the machine is programmed to maximize privacy protection, ‘you start to lose the ability to see’ plastic explosives.” Regardless of how thoroughly the TSA searches us, prohibited items will still surface aboard planes thanks to human error and corruption. Look for the agency to cover its rear by uncovering ours: It will blame “privacy protection” and push for full clarity.

The TSA has long denied that its gadgets retain the pictures they snap of us. Amy Kudwa is one of the TSA’s many spokespeople insisting that the machines “have zero storage capability, so the images cannot be stored, transmitted or printed.” She told in 2007 that “once the image is determined to be clear of any threat, it is deleted from the screen forever.” But Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), set the record straight: “TSA saying these machines cannot store images is a little like saying a camera can produce pictures without storing an image. . . . We know from the [website of] one of the vendors that these machines can indeed store images.”

We also know they store images from the specs EPIC’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit pried from the TSA last January. “In the documents,” CNN reported, “The TSA specifies that the body scanners it purchases must have the ability to store and send images when in ‘test mode.’” CNN noted that these “written requirements . . . appear to contradict numerous assurances the TSA has given the public about the machines’ privacy protections.”

How long before images of famous passengers, or buxom, expectant, or terribly obese ones, find their way to the Internet, blackmail schemes, or court, as cops try to prove their case against a high-flying drug dealer? Celebrities who cheerfully doff all or some of their clothing for Hollywood’s megabucks may object to doing it gratis at the TSA’s command. The resulting lawsuits may very well sideline these contraptions–but only after the TSA has wasted billions of our taxes on them.

Then there’s the agency’s assurance that “The officer who views the image is remotely located in a secure resolution room and never sees the passenger.” But journalist Charles Leocha of Consumer Traveler “had an opportunity to step into the small video viewing room manned by a single TSA officer” at Reagan National Airport. He estimates the space as measuring “5-feet by 5-feet, a big telephone booth really . . . one wall [was lined] with a table with a monitor, keyboard and communications equipment and a government-issue desk chair. The monitor being used had about a 17-inch screen. . . .” He concludes that fatigue will be an overwhelming occupational hazard: “For me a half-hour shift in this cell would be 30 minutes alone in hell.”

Still, the TSA should have no shortage of eager applicants. Being paid to view naked men, women, and children certainly reverses the usual arrangement and will no doubt appeal to a great many folks–the sort Leviathan otherwise locks up. Indeed, one of the TSA’s employees at Orlando International was “arrested in connection with the molestation of a girl, Orange County sheriff’s deputies said. The man told investigators he planned to make her his ‘sex slave,’ according to a [sic] arrest report uncovered by Florida Today news partner Local 6” earlier this year. Naturally, “TSA takes the allegations very seriously,” TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz wrote. “We will take all appropriate action to address this situation.” The agency has since gone mum on the matter.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Guardian reported that “Ministers now face having to exempt under 18s from the scans or face the delays of introducing new legislation to ensure airport security staff do not commit offences under child pornography laws.” How long until American parents demand similar exemptions? And when they do, will that rescue the rest of us from our compulsive striptease since terrorists would then naturally recruit kids? Or will the TSA continue to humiliate us out of bureaucratic inertia and power lust?

There’s a far simpler, constitutional, and less offensive way to protect aviation than photographing two million passengers in their birthday suits each day: Free the airlines from the federal government’s stranglehold on security. Let each company determine what works best for its routes, customers, and specific risks. Does anyone seriously believe that politicians and bureaucrats know more about securing planes than pilots and executives who’ve spent their lives in the industry? Even baggage handlers could give Congress a lesson in preventing terrorists from hiding bombs in checked luggage–yet the Feds dictate to them instead.

Indeed, federal regulations enabled the 9/11 attackers to kill thousands in the first place. Screeners working that tragic day were “private,” it’s true, but only in the sense that private companies hired them and issued their paychecks. Everything those screeners did, from wanding passengers to confiscating knives while permitting box cutters, came from the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) playbook. Had each airline set its own policies, had it relied on serious security rather than the charade that satisfies political pretenses, 3,000 people might be alive today.

Returning responsibility for protecting its customers and inventory to the airlines also keeps everyone happy. Passengers who will rest easy only when we all fly naked can patronize See Everything Airways, with its motto No Place to Hide . . . Anything. Those who prize dignity and convenience over safety may prefer Tough Guy Air, where pilots not only arm themselves but also welcome passengers to pack heat as well. Since profits nosedive after any attempted skyjacking, let alone terrorism, airlines have all the incentive we could ask to institute practical, effective security.

The government failed to prevent 9/11, failed to thwart shoe-bomber Richard Reid, and failed to intercept Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab even after his own father reported him. Isn’t it time we entrusted our safety to professionals rather than politicians?