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November 10, 2010


Airport Body Scanners: Questionable Security and Privacy

The idea of naked images of children aside, something about this picture is particularly disturbing to me. I don’t know if it’s the criminal-esque ‘hands-up’ pose the kids are forced to adopt, the big yellow radiation warning sign, the fact that anyone on the other side of the machine has a clear view of the screen, or that the kid in front appears to have taken a bit too much radiation to the head. Ok, I jest with that last one, but there is something inherently wrong with this image.

Anyone who knows me knows that I haven’t been a huge fan of airport security post 9-11. Before that time airport security was rational, and fairly measured and appropriate. While I understand the need for some added safety measures, it reaches a point when the government (or authority responsible for security) tries to take advantage of social fears and uncertainty to implement excessive security mechanisms.

Researchers are starting to warn passengers about the potential health risks associated with backscatter technology used in body scanners. The Allied Pilots’ Associated has recently advised all pilots to opt-out of scans, to avoid having to expose themselves to even more radiation than they’re already exposed to in the sky. Opting out is an interesting procedure in itself. I wish I had the opportunity to do this myself, and report on it first hand, but unfortunately I haven’t yet been invited for a body scan, so I have to live vicariously until then.

The Transport Security Authority (TSA) in the US obviously want everyone to use the scanners, so they’re making the pat-down procedure more awkward for those who opt-out. This involves a more thorough search which includes a pat-down of the breast, buttock and groin areas. For men that means they go up the leg until they “feel resistance”. To me that just sounds like a freebie grope… so sign me up for a permanent opt-out! Also, these scanners only reveal concealed items on the surface of the body, so anything that’s hidden umm… inside… won’t get caught.

I travel a fair bit but still don’t have a biometric passport (sadly I know that won’t last), I’ll always choose to opt-out of of these body scans, and haven’t signed up to use iris scanning booths. They claim that those booths speed things up, but have you ever actually seen someone try to one? They go in, swipe their passport, look into the scanner, machine says “please step back”, they step back and try again, machine says “please step forward”, they try again. I’ve seen this go on for no less than 2 minutes once whilst waiting in line. By that time at least 10 people had gone through passport control. Admittedly a good portion of users don’t have too many issues, but if this happens to a few people ahead of you it starts to slow things down. As soon as a large amount of people start using the booths, this delay overhead will not make them viable as a ‘fast track’ option (unless the technology is improved).

Many of these (expensive) security mechanisms won’t provide the added level of security they’re intended to, and attackers will simply find the next path of least resistance to reach their goal (if that still includes airplanes). If someone wanted to cripple air traffic in a region for a while, they could just blow up the security checkpoint of a large airport. Most airports only have one main checkpoint into the gate area, and you can get to it without any checks. The damage would include significant civilian deaths (as we’re all lined up like cattle), and the destruction of a good chunk of the airport’s security equipment and staff. What would the TSA do to mitigate that risk?

In related news of reactive security theater: Following last month’s thwarted bomb, the TSA has banned toner and ink cartridges over 16 ounces on passenger aircraft. Terrorists will find something else to hide bombs in. Schneier fears end of his in-flight wifi.


1 Comment Post a comment
  1. Bernard
    Nov 13 2010

    Growing backlash against TSA body scanners, pat-downs
    By Phil Gast, CNN
    November 12, 2010 10:02 p.m. EST

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