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December 03, 2010

TSA 'Pornoscan': Here's what it looks like

For all the discussion about whether the body scans by the Transportation Security Administration is appropriate, I have seen few photos. In this case, I think it is important to have this as a data point, so we know what we are talking about as far as an invasion of privacy goes. Then, we can talk about the benefits and tradeoffs.

So, here's a screencapture of a .pdf that was part of a challenge by the Electronic Privacy Information Center against the scanners.  They have copies of their briefs and those filed by the Dept of Homeland Security, so this is a good place to review the arguments for yourself. (I still haven't seen a scan of a female body that I believe was an authentic capture of a TSA scan, but when one is released I sure it will add more fuel to the fire.)

TSA body scan image - front only

Click for a larger version that includes the

person's back side as well


For those interested in some excellent discussion - better than I can provide -- check out the posting by security expert Bruce Schneier.  He is one of the parties challenging the use of scanners, so he is not a neutral party, but his blog and books on security are always thoughtful and deserve consideration. Read, for example, his discussion on airport security generally or "security theater" ("security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security").


1. Is it dangerous? I'm skeptical that the TSA will be candid about the risks.  The best info I have seen is here, noting that the comparison of a scan to a few minutes of actual airplane flight is misleading. The type of radiation is different, and what is put out from the scanner:

this means that the X-ray source used in the Rapiscan system is the same as those used for mammograms and some dental X-rays, and uses BOTH 'soft' and 'hard' X-rays. Its very disturbing that the TSA has been misleading on this point. Here is the real catch: the softer the X-ray, the more its absorbed by the body, and the higher the biologically relevant dose! This means, that this radiation is potentially worse than an a higher energy medical chest X-ray.

The author poses these questions:

Essentially, it appears that an X-ray beam is rastered across the body, ... what happens if the machine fails, or gets stuck, during a raster. How much radiation would a person's eye, hand, testicle, stomach, etc be exposed to during such a failure. What is the failure rate of these machines? What is the failure rate in an operational environment? Who services the machine? What is the decay rate of the filter? What is the decay rate of the shielding material? What is the variability in the power of the X-ray source during the manufacturing process? This last question may seem trivial; however, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory noted significant differences in their test models, which were supposed to be precisely up to spec. Its also interesting to note that the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory criticized other reports from NIST (the National Institute of Standards and Technology) and a group called Medical and Health Physics Consulting for testing the machine while one of the two X-ray sources was disabled (citations at the bottom of the page).

2. Does it make us safer? The explosive of choice at the moment is PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate), which is in the same family as Semtex. Schneier comments that

The problem is that no scanners or puffers can detect PETN; only swabs and dogs work. What the TSA hopes is that they will detect the bulge if someone is hiding a wad of it on their person. But they won't catch PETN hidden in a body cavity. That doesn't have to be as gross as you're imagining; you can hide PETN in your mouth. A terrorist can go through the scanners a dozen times with bits in his mouth each time, and assemble a bigger bomb on the other side. Or he can roll it thin enough to be part of a garment, and sneak it through that way. These tricks aren't new. In the days after the Underwear Bomber was stopped, a scanner manufacturer admitted that the machines might not have caught him.

3. What about privacy? A Washington Post column suggested: 

Although the Supreme Court hasn't evaluated airport screening technology, lower courts have emphasized, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in 2007, that "a particular airport security screening search is constitutionally reasonable provided that it 'is no more extensive nor intensive than necessary, in the light of current technology, to detect the presence of weapons or explosives.'"

In a 2006 opinion for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, then-Judge Samuel Alito stressed that screening procedures must be both "minimally intrusive" and "effective" - in other words, they must be "well-tailored to protect personal privacy," and they must deliver on their promise of discovering serious threats. Alito upheld the practices at an airport checkpoint where passengers were first screened with walk-through magnetometers and then, if they set off an alarm, with hand-held wands. He wrote that airport searches are reasonable if they escalate "in invasiveness only after a lower level of screening disclose[s] a reason to conduct a more probing search."

As currently used in U.S. airports, the new full-body scanners fail all of Alito's tests.

For those who like to protest, there are T shirts with the 4th Amendment printed on them in metallic ink, so they words show up on scans of the body.  (There's a more provocative one - based on the concern that images of kids would constitute child porn - that says "read the 4th amendment, perverts".)

Just so we're all on the same page, the 4th Amendment reads: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." Remember that the framers of the Constitution were overthrowing the English King, whom they described in the Declaration of Independence as a "tyrant," and they had concerns about strong federal government that are reflected in our founding documents. (see earlier blog postings on habeas corpus, aka The Great Writ or “Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Brandeis: “They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty”.)


In a column about the difficulty of securing the Washington Monument, Schneier suggests we close it down "empty and inaccessible, as a monument to our fears" and a symbol of our lawmakers' "inability to truly lead." He continues:

Terrorism isn't a crime against people or property. It's a crime against our minds, using the death of innocents and destruction of property to make us fearful. Terrorists use the media to magnify their actions and further spread fear. And when we react out of fear, when we change our policy to make our country less open, the terrorists succeed -- even if their attacks fail. But when we refuse to be terrorized, when we're indomitable in the face of terror, the terrorists fail -- even if their attacks succeed.

We can reopen the monument when every foiled or failed terrorist plot causes us to praise our security, instead of redoubling it. When the occasional terrorist attack succeeds, as it inevitably will, we accept it, as we accept the murder rate and automobile-related death rate; and redouble our efforts to remain a free and open society.

The grand reopening of the Washington Monument will not occur when we've won the war on terror, because that will never happen. It won't even occur when we've defeated al Qaeda. Militant Islamic terrorism has fractured into small, elusive groups. We can reopen the Washington Monument when we've defeated our fears, when we've come to accept that placing safety above all other virtues cedes too much power to government and that liberty is worth the risks, and that the price of freedom is accepting the possibility of crime.

If the point seems naive, consider the tactics of terrorism and how low-cost attacks (from the terrorists' perspective) cost us extensively in increased security measures (a "security tax" that affects the economy). The thoughtful Global Guerrillas blog noted:

Al Qaeda's choice of a demonstration was to use parcel bombs (called Operation Hemorrhage -- a classic name for a systems disruption attack).  These low cost parcel bombs, were inserted into the international air mail system to generate a security response by western governments.  It worked.  The global security response to this new threat was massive.

Part of effective systems disruption is a focus on ROI (return on investment) calculations.  As paraphrased in Inspire:  it is such a good bargain for us to spread fear amongst the enemy and keep him on his toes in exchange of a few months of work and a few thousand bucks.  We knew that cargo planes are staffed by only a pilot and a co-pilot, so our objective was not to cause maximum casualties but to cause maximum losses to the American economy.  (this shift is a clear attempt to avoid limitations of blood and guts terrorism by adopting systems disruption as outlined in this article)

To demonstrate this ROI, Inspire listed the costs of the investment in the operation:

    • Printers:  $300 each
    • Nokia mobile phones:  $150 each
    • Shipping and transportation:  short $$
    • TOTAL COST:  $4,200

It's pretty clear that the security costs inflicted as a result of this operation are counted in the millions of dollars, making for an impressive return on investment for the operation.  ROIs from systems disruption can reach one million to one.

Bin Laden's plan is to keep poking at us to cause expensive over-reactions. An article in Foreign Policy called "Death by  a Thousand Cuts" noted: 

The economic strategy of jihad would go through refinement. Its initial phase linked terrorist attacks broadly to economic harm. A second identifiable phase, which al Qaeda pursued even as it continued to attack economic targets, is what you might call its "bleed-until-bankruptcy plan." Bin Laden announced this plan in October 2004, in the same video in which he boasted of the economic harm inflicted by 9/11. Terrorist attacks are often designed to provoke an overreaction from the opponent and this phase seeks to embroil the United States and its allies in draining wars in the Muslim world. The mujahideen "bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt," bin Laden said, and they would now do the same to the United States. 

Who can play this game longer: the terrorists or the US/US economy?


My chapter, Demystifying Terrorism: 'Crazy Islamic Terrorists Who Hate Us Because We're Free'? The full text of that chapter is available on this site, and as a preview I answer that they're not crazy.

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