Originally published in the Wall Street Journal.
Pilots and travelers are rebelling against scanners that douse them with X-rays and reveal their private parts. There must be a better way.
By NOAH SHACHTMAN
In May, Transportation Security Administration screener Rolando Negrin pummeled a co-worker with his government-issued baton. The feud began, according to a Miami-Dade Police Department report, after Mr. Negrin's training session with one of the agency's whole-body imagers. The scan "revealed [Mr. Negrin] had a small penis," the disgruntled co-worker told police. After a few months, he "could not take the jokes any more and lost his mind."
Now the TSA is rolling out these ultra-revealing imagers across the country in an attempt to uncover hidden threats like the so-called underwear bomb found on a Detroit-bound flight last Christmas. The agency and the scanners' manufacturers insist they've installed features and instituted procedures that will make passenger embarrassments impossible.
Privacy advocates aren't buying it. They've sued the Department of Homeland Security, asking a federal judge for a "emergency stay" of the body-scanning program. They're also calling on passengers to refuse the scans next week during a "National Opt Out Day." Separately, unions representing American Airlines and U.S. Airways pilots told their members to skip the screenings—on Opt Out Day and every other.
But the larger question is whether the TSA's tech-centric approach to security makes any sense at all. Even the most modest of us would probably agree to a brief flash of quasi-nudity if it would really ensure a safe flight. That's not the deal the TSA is offering. Instead, the agency is asking for Rolando Negrin-style revelations in exchange for incremental, uncertain security improvements against particular kinds of concealed weapons.
It's the same kind of trade-off TSA implicitly provided when it ordered us to take off our sneakers (to stop shoe bombs) and to chuck our water bottles (to prevent liquid explosives). Security guru Bruce Schneier, a plaintiff in the scanner suit, calls this "magical thinking . . . Descend on what the terrorists happened to do last time, and we'll all be safe. As if they won't think of something else." Which, of course, they invariably do. Attackers are already starting to smuggle weapons in body cavities, going where even the most adroit body scanners do not tread. No wonder that the Israelis, known for the world's most stringent airport security, have so far passed on the scanners.
Today, 373 are installed in 68 U.S. airports. One thousand machines are supposed to be in place by the end of next year. And the Obama administration has requested 5,355 additional employees to man the scanners—at a cost of $219 million in the first year alone. The only alternative to the screeners will be a pat-down from a TSA worker.
The TSA uses two models of body scanner. One zaps the passenger with a tiny amount of X-rays that penetrate the clothes, but stop at the skin. The other scanner uses millimeter waves—a close cousin of microwaves—to pull off the same trick. (Regarding radiation exposure, the FDA says there's "no more than a minimal risk to people being scanned.") By measuring the direction and frequency of the waves that come back, the system can tell what's beneath a traveler's garments.
TSA officials say that's not a privacy problem. Under new TSA guidelines, they point out, the person looking at the scanned image is in an entirely separate room, and the picture is deleted as soon as the next passenger steps into the scanner.
The images themselves are also altered for modesty—at least for the moment. TSA officials even claim that Mr. Negrin's privates weren't really exposed. Rapiscan Systems, which makes the backscatter X-ray scanner, installs one of a series of "privacy algorithms" that can dial up or down the images' resolution. (Of course, the fuzzier the result the harder it is to spot a weapon.) Similarly, millimeter scanner-maker L-3 can blur faces, chests and groins, depending on the customer's preference. Individual employees, the companies promise, will not be able to alter these settings. However, top authorities at TSA will have the flexibility to make a policy change. They can keep the images comparatively blurry—or not.
There may be an important policy shift in the works. TSA has long hewed to an unthinking, unbending approach to security that brought the agency a level of admiration ordinarily reserved for health insurers. But in his first five months running the agency, TSA chief John Pistole has sent some encouraging signs that he's absorbed the arguments of TSA's critics. "We can't just look for prohibited items on a list. We've got to provide the best security while giving greater scrutiny to those who need greater scrutiny, and not using a cookie cutter approach for everybody," he says.
But Mr. Pistole holds to his view about body scanners' "important role in the future of aviation security," adding that the TSA is looking into new privacy enhancements. Unfortunately for Rolando—and the rest of us—the scanners appear to be here to stay.
Mr. Shachtman is a contributing editor at Wired magazine and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.