TSA body scanners’ apparent flaw raises airport security concerns

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.

Jonathan Yarmis, a technology consultant in New York, says that his industry benefits from openness and transparency, so when the TSA refuses to discuss its scanners beyond insisting that they’re safe and effective, he’s suspicious. “When people resort to the ‘trust me’ defense, I have the exact opposite reaction: You must have something to hide,” he says. “The only people TSA is fooling are those who don’t actually fly or those who don’t actually care.”

Another frequent traveler who knows a thing or two about scanning technology says that the Corbett video can be explained in one of two ways. “Either TSA knew about this loophole and decided to ignore it because they had already invested political capital in these machines and had to double down,” says Jeremy Thompson, a former airline manager who is now a chiropractor in Atlanta, “or they didn’t know about this loophole. And that shows that they actually don’t understand what they’re doing.”

Thompson believes it’s the latter. “It seems to me that TSA is constantly trying to justify its latest whiz-bang gadget,” he says.

The passengers with whom I spoke told me they didn’t think that the video has affected the safety of air travel. They also agree that the video gives lawmakers, who are under pressure to cut government spending, an opportunity to review the advanced imaging technology program. This particular layer of security will cost taxpayers $2.3 billion in extra staffing over the machines’ seven-year life spans, according to a Government Accountability Office report. The scanners will set them back an additional $289 million or so.

Corbett, who writes a blog called TSA Out of Our Pants!, says that the reaction to his video brings him closer to his goal of revamping the TSA’s screening procedures. This has been his mission since 2010, when he filed a lawsuit against the TSA, claiming that the scanners are unconstitutional. “I want to see the scanners and the pat-downs disappear from airports and to see effective, noninvasive tools replace them,” he says. “It remains to be seen what the TSA will do about the scanners, but I do think this was, at the least, an important step on the path to their removal.”

Yes, but did this video just make air travel a little more dangerous?

That might be the wrong question, because it implies that full-body scanners have made us safer. But there’s no conclusive proof that advanced imaging technology is effective or, for that matter, safe.

Maybe Corbett’s video really established only one thing: that the TSA’s unproven screening technology remains exactly that — unproven.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • TonyA_says

    Investment? Maybe land or gold is. But scanners are merely an EXPENSE – a high tech way to look underneath someone’s clothes. If they fail (in the future) maybe the next step would be to make us disrobe and don a TSA “approved” traveling gown before we can board an aircraft. Now that would be another expense :-)

  • cjr001

    The pornoscanners are nothing more than a way for a select few companies, pushed by former government officials, to profit from fear.

  • http://profiles.google.com/bmgraham Barry Graham

    They just make a few people feel good about perceived extra safety when it fact it makes no difference or makes the situation worse.  People like us that pose no threat get inconvenienced whereas those that do just laugh and invent plenty of ways to do harm just like they did on 9/11 when the existing systems would not have made any difference.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    Never have been, never will be.  Heck, TSA isn’t a good investment, either.  National Guardsmen with dogs – now THAT’S a good investment.

  • Extramail

    I will always insist that my fellow passengers are every bit as effective in thwarting terrorists as any pornoscanner!

  • Annapolis2

    If they want to strip-search passengers, I don’t understand why they need a fancy machine to do that.  Just force people to take their clothes off.  Then you don’t get unnecessary ionizing radiation doses, and the clothes can go through the baggage scanner to find the weapons that body scanners miss.  

  • http://jpportz.livejournal.com/ Jeremy

    There is one good investment, and that is in L-3 Communicatinons, the body scanner manufacturer…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500222631 Reuven Avram

    I’ve been opting out of the scanners ever since the TSA at LAX took advantage of the fact that I can’t see then when I’m in the scanner to steal a $1500 watch. (Eventually, an LAX TSA Officer, Paul Yashau was arrested for stealing watches, but mine was never recovered.)
    See http://shinybadge.com/ to track TSA Agents who have been arrested–more than 400 so far. OUTRAGEOUS

    See http://www.dailybreeze.com/news/ci_18339547 for the LAX Thief. (He should have been charged with treason and executed.)

  • $727739

    Guns getting past body scanners

    21 reasons scientists oppose body scanners

  • TonyA_says
  • http://profile.yahoo.com/UV4YSHAYHNIMYRSDI3DBAASEYI K

    I am going to row a d*mn boat across the ocean the next time I want to go to Europe.  I’ll just make some really big oars and use one of those drifting rafts of Japanese garbage to propel me along.  All those rads beaming through your body is for sure not good for you, when you consider the amount you absorb every year just from being the 3rd closest planet to our sun.  I think I’ll pass on the newfangled Xray device.  I’ve got some advice on what they can do with it, as well.

  • goldenretrievermom

    On a recent flight from Philly, to West Palm Beach, my husband and I had tickets on Southwest, and paid for the “early check in” to be able to get in the “A” lines.  I watched as the TSA agents stood by a table, for over an hour before we needed to board. When the call to board began, we promptly took our places at our assigned numbers. A 21 and A 22, which again..we paid additional for.  We started walking towards the door, and the TSA agents started pulling people out of line to do “random checks.”  They started going through my husband’s carry on, while they told me to board. At this time, I could not lift anything heavy, so I needed to wait for him to be finished being screened…again.  We then had to wait in line, much farther back than we should have.  My anger was…why did they wait until we were boarding to do their random searches?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Markus-Csak/567944939 Markus Csak

    What I don’t understand is why TSA has not thought to “test” these
    systems out with volunteer passengers? It would go something like this:
    set up a new scanner in an open area of the airport, ask passersby if
    they would like to try out the new safety equipment. IT is strictly
    volunteer, you are not required to and will not affect their travels. At
    the same time, TSA and manufactures can tweak and tune the systems and
    have better information for development.
    It would also lighten the
    stigma of passing thru security for one, by letting the public watch the
    screening from the monitor side, they get a better understanding of how
    it works, it shows them what the agents see, and it also will cut down
    on costs of replacing equipment should it not work out. The cost of
    replacing these scanners is great, thus when you have a test market for
    them, it makes it easier to transition into them instead of bluntly
    telling people to step thru and this is the way it has to be. Just a
    thought, and maybe it will be considered.