One of the Transportation Security Administration’s vaunted 20 layers of security has been looking a little porous lately, and the resulting dust-up is calling into question the effectiveness — and the cost-effectiveness — of post-9/11 airport screening.
I’m talking, of course, about the TSA’s controversial full-body scanners, also known as advanced imaging technology.
Depending on whom you believe, a 27-year-old engineer named Jonathan Corbett this month either exposed the scanners as seriously defectiveor pointed out a minor flaw that insiders had known about for a while. Either way, his actions have raised serious concerns among air travelers, not the least of which is whether we’re less safe now that the bad guys know how to squeak past our shiny new scanners — if indeed they do.
A video clip posted online March 5 purportedly shows how Corbett outsmarted the scanners: He sewed a pocket to the side of a shirt, placed a metal carrying case that he says would “easily alarm any of the old metal detectors” inside it and walked through the two types of full-body scanners now in use, without incident. Corbett’s theory was that the case, hanging to the side of his body rather than in front of or behind it, would disappear into the black background of the scanned image, thus escaping detection. Even though claims of the scanners’ fallibility weren’t new, the video promptly went viral, capturing more than a million views within a few days.
Corbett says that the idea of discrediting the TSA scanners came to him after he read a report saying that the New York City Police Department is deploying similar technology to detect contraband from afar. He wondered whether he could invent something that would render the NYPD scanner useless.
“It didn’t take long to realize that I could apply that same entrepreneurship to the TSA’s nude body scanners and invent a holster that would make its contents invisible to the TSA,” he says.
The TSA quickly posted a response on its blog calling Corbett’s actions “a crude attempt to allegedly show how to circumvent TSA screening procedures.” But the agency didn’t dispute that Corbett had actually done that, leading many observers to conclude that he’d figured out how to thwart the $170,000 machines.
“That’s not a fair interpretation,” TSA spokesman Greg Soule says. “That said, for obvious security reasons, TSA can’t discuss our technology’s detection capabilities in detail.”
Here’s what the agency will say: The scanners are safe and effective, part of a “layered, risk-based approach to security through screening technologies and applying intelligence to our security measures in real time.”
Adds Soule, “Our nation’s aviation system is safer now with the deployment of 600 imaging technology units at 140 airports.”
But not all travelers are convinced. Amy Rubins, a wedding planner and frequent traveler based in Minneapolis, says that she thinks the TSA has been less than forthright in the past about how the scanners would be used and whether they’re indisputably safe. So she’s also skeptical about the agency’s latest assertion. “Mr. Corbett’s video provided simple proof that the scanners are ineffective and can easily be beaten,” she says.