Fears Mount on TSA Body Scanners

Over the past month, in the face of unprecedented airport screening procedures that left human dignity, radiation concerns, privacy and the Constitution in shambles on the tarmac, Americans have been repeatedly counseled by the Transportation Security  Administration (TSA) that the new body scanner machines and humiliating pat downs are necessary to make air travel secure.  Now documents have emerged, on the government’s own web sites, raising questions as to whether the machines are little more than overpriced metal detectors with a “beam me up Scotty” futuristic design.

A scientist associated with one of the body scanner manufacturers, Ronald J. Hughes, has submitted patent documents to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for various devices involved in airport screening of passengers to detect terrorist threats.  In those documents, Mr. Hughes details serious failings of the x-ray body scanning equipment, including its lack of reliability to detect plastics or ceramics used in bomb making.

Mr. Hughes is not just any inventor.  His patents have been regularly assigned to Rapiscan Systems, Inc., one of the companies which currently has over 200 body scanners in airports throughout the U.S.

The problems are explained as follows in Mr. Hughes’ patent documents.  While metal objects (like guns and knives) can be easily visualized in the body scanner images, there is “poor detection capability for a wide range of dangerous objects composed of low atomic number elements, such as plastics or ceramics, which are often masked by the low atomic number elements which comprise the human body.”

Mr. Hughes goes on to note that “conventional image processing techniques for protecting privacy? tend to diminish non-body images as well, and thus, degrade the image presented to the viewer. For example, but not limited to such example, employing a traditional combination of increased brightness and contrast to diminish anatomical features may also result in the washing out of smaller and thin threat objects, such as plastic explosives, because they have properties similar to human skin?When a filter is applied to the resultant images, using conventional image processing methods, almost all objects that are at the person’s side or located inside of loose clothing tend to disappear.”

In a detailed report delivered to Congress on March 17, 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) further revealed the limitations of the body scanner machines in use in U.S. airports, originally called “Whole Body Imager” but now rebranded as the more spiffy sounding Advanced Imaging Technology or AITs.  The GAO stated in its report (GAO-10-484T):  “The AIT produces an image of a passenger’s body that a screener interprets.  The image identifies objects, or anomalies, on the outside of the physical body but does not reveal items beneath the surface of the skin, such as implants.”  Hiding potentially dangerous objects in body cavities will not be detected by these machines, raising questions as to why our government is spending $170,000 each for the units at an increased staffing cost of $2.4 billion over the 7-year anticipated life of the machines according to the GAO. (Each machine costs $369,764 in staffing costs for operation annually.)

In another GAO report delivered to Congress in October 2009 (GAO-10-128), researchers found that “TSA has not assessed whether there are tactics that terrorists could use, such as the placement of explosives or weapons on specific places on their bodies, to increase the likelihood that the screening equipment would fail to detect the hidden weapons or explosives.” GAO went on to note in the same report:  “TSA has relied on technologies in day-to-day airport operations that have not been demonstrated to meet their functional requirements in an operational environment. For example, TSA has substituted existing screening procedures with screening by the Whole Body Imager even though its performance has not yet been validated by testing in an operational environment? Furthermore, without retaining existing screening procedures until the effectiveness of future technologies has been validated, TSA officials cannot be sure that checkpoint security will be improved.”  In a footnote to this passage, GAO notes that the specifics of what it’s talking about here has been classified by the TSA.

One of the individuals who has been widely quoted as disputing the effectiveness of the body scanners is Rafi Sela, an expert on Israeli airport security.  Mr. Sela has over 30 years experience in security and defense technologies, was a special advisor to the Israeli security agencies for counter terrorism and is a Managing Partner in AR Challenges, a consulting firm for advanced security technology.  According to the company’s web site, it has “participated in applied strategic design of the operations and security at the Ben Gurion airport [in Israel], which is now a standard for many other high security airports.”

I wanted to hear directly from Mr. Sela.  These are his emailed remarks: “The whole security system used in North America is wrong. The body scanners are just one more obsolete technology that does not provide any more security?it can be circumvented not only in body cavities but in other ways that I do not want to share with the public. This has been a great lobbying-marketing effort on behalf of the manufacturers.”  Between 2005 and 2009, Rapiscan spent $1,678,500 on lobbying, according to data compiled at the Center for Responsive Politics (OpenSecrets.org).  Michael Chertoff, former head of the Department of Homeland Security, has been a paid consultant to Rapiscan. On January 26, 2010, Congresswoman Jane Harman wrote to Janet Napolitano, head of Homeland Security, noting that Rapiscan was a company in the Congresswoman’s district.  She urged Ms. Napolitano to “expedite installation of scanning machines in key airports.” Congresswoman Harman closed with: “If you need additional funds, I am ready to help.”

Another security expert, Bruce Schneier, says what the TSA is increasingly looking for these days is pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN).  Writing recently at The Atlantic, Mr. Schneier explains PETN is “the plastic explosive that both the Shoe Bomber and the Underwear Bomber attempted but failed to detonate?The problem is that no scanners or puffers can detect PETN; only swabs and dogs work.”  (Puffers were the TSA’s last fiasco.  Officially called Explosives Trace Portal or ETP, they puff air at the passenger in hopes of sniffing the air for traces of explosives. A highly critical GAO report found they were rolled out without proper testing.)

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC.org) has filed a Federal lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security over the use of the machines as the primary screening device in U.S. airports, charging they violate the Fourth Amendment, the Privacy Act, the  Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act.  In past statements, EPIC had this to say about the limited utility of the devices. “Keeping the radiation dose low enough to skim the skin’s surface means that backscatter cannot detect weapons hidden in body folds. Nor is the technology the functional equivalent of a body cavity search.”

Rapiscan Systems Inc. is a subsidiary of the NASDAQ traded company, OSI Systems Inc., (symbol OSIS). It manufactured a little more than half of the 385 body scanners in use at 68 airports nationwide as of mid November. The Rapiscan machines, called the Secure 1000, use X-ray radiation, which reflects off the front and back of the body, producing separate images of each. This is called the backscatter system.  The other highly visible system in airports, produced by L-3 Communications (New York Stock Exchange symbol LLL), is the ProVision, which uses a millimeter wave.  This system emits beams of radio frequency energy.   Both systems generate nude images of airline passengers, showing private body parts and highly personal details like colostomy bags.

According to the 2010 GAO report, the TSA projects that a total of 1,000 AIT systems will be deployed to airports by the end of December 2011. In fiscal year 2014, TSA plans to reach full operating capacity with a total of 1,800 units.  TSA officials stated that the cost of $170,000 per unit excludes training, installation and maintenance. That would mean a total of $306 million for just the machines, tens of millions more for the peripheral costs, and $2.4 billion for the required increase in staff through the extremely limited anticipated life of 7 years.

Dr. Steven Smith’s name appears on the original patent for the body scanning technology currently in use by Rapiscan.  Dr. Smith explained the history in an email: “I invented the technology in about 1990 and sold it to IRT in 1991, where I became an employee until 1997.  In 1997, IRT divested the technology to Rapiscan, and I left to start Spectrum San Diego.  Last year, Spectrum San Diego became Tek84 Engineering Group, which I still run.  Rapiscan purchased the product and all associated items from IRT, including the patent, existing inventory, marketing information, and so on?I worked as a consultant for Rapiscan on the SECURE 1000 until about 2002.  The products I have developed since that time (CastScope, CarScan, AIT84) are competitive with Rapiscan, so I don’t have much contact with them.”

That this technology has been in existence for two decades and is just now being rolled out to airports deserves a few moments of equally intense probing.  Under what societal norms would there be a market for routinely taking nude pictures of airline travelers via scientifically challenged skin radiation that reveal genitalia; with a necessary back up plan of hand inspections of the buttocks and genitalia for opt outs. This 20-year old technology could only be massively deployed because of a long line of images since 9/11 which has desensitized the American psyche to human rights through a bombardment of human degradations: the images of thumbs up torture at Abu Ghraib; the televised pictures of the hooded prisoners on their knees at Guantanamo or in monkey cages; the endless columns of typeset devoted to waterboarding, renditions, kidnappings and assassinations ? all in the name of making us more secure.

It is apparently not enough that we as a nation are devolving. We now seek to export our devolution devices (ostensibly because that’s all we have to show for the past decade).  Accompanying President Obama on his recent trip to India was Deepak Chopra (not that Deepak Chopra) the Chairman and CEO of OSI Systems Inc., parent of Rapiscan and the glorified disrobing machine. Rapiscan has a joint venture with the Electronics Company of India, an Indian government enterprise, called ECIL-Rapiscan. Rapiscan insiders, including Mr. Chopra and his first cousin, Ajay Mehra, who is Executive Vice President of OSI Systems, Inc., own 15 percent of the joint venture.

This has the familiar ring of Maurice “Hank” Greenberg’s company within a company at AIG. Hank became enormously wealthy from C.V. Starr while taxpayers bailed out a collapsing AIG. For the record, I think it is a decidedly bad idea for the U.S. government to give contracts to companies with crony conflicts of interest. According to SEC documents filed by OSI, the company has “contracted with entities owned by members of our Board of Directors and/or their family members to provide messenger services, auto rental and printing services. Included in cost of sales and selling, general and administrative expenses for the fiscal 2008, 2009, and 2010, are approximately $40,000, $54,000 and $64,000, respectively, for messenger service and auto rental; and $42,000, $45,000 and $60,000, respectively, for printing services.”

The ECIL-Rapiscan web site says it manufactures “the same equipment as that of Rapiscan U.K. and U.S.A with the same state of art technology. Requisite technology is supplied by Rapiscan and the final product is manufactured at ECIL facility.”  If this body scanning equipment was a genuine matter of national security, would the U.S. let the technology be handed over to a foreign government enterprise?

From John Tyner’s warning to the TSA agent not to touch his “junk” or he’d have him arrested that went viral on YouTube around mid November, the TSA has ignored the public outrage over a policy that was not properly vetted or allowed public input at open hearings.

Now serious financial damage is looming for the nation’s airlines with Zogby International reporting in a poll taken between November 19 and 22 that 61 per cent of the 2,032 individuals polled oppose the use of body scanners and pat downs. The use of the backscatter x-ray machines and the more aggressive pat down procedures will cause 48 percent of individuals to seek an alternative means of travel.  In addition, 52 per cent of respondents think the new security procedures will not prevent terrorist activity, 48 per cent consider it a violation of privacy rights and 32 per cent consider it to be sexual harassment, according to the Zogby poll.

At ACLU.org, the nonprofit organization reports it has received 900 complaints and has  posted over 38 graphic accounts that can only be described as sexual molestation. Brief examples include: “The TSA agent used her hands to feel under and between my breasts. She then rammed her hand up into my crotch until it jammed into my pubic bone.” “I cried throughout the groping and have had intrusive thoughts since. It was humiliating.” “The procedure was violating, degrading, invasive and humiliating.” “It was so rough that I felt the effects of it throughout the day.”  “I do not feel safer. I feel violated.”
Is this any way to run an airline ? or a democracy?

PAM MARTENS worked on Wall Street for 21 years; she has no security position, long or short, in any company mentioned in this article.  She writes on public interest issues from New Hampshire.  She can be reached at pamk741@aol.com



Pam Martens has been a contributing writer at CounterPunch since 2006. Martens writes regularly on finance at www.WallStreetOnParade.com.