TSA: Still a Menace


A roundup of some annoying Transportation Security Agency (TSA) news and thoughts:

*Wired has an article raising concerns about the safety of the "advanced imaging technology" full exposure machines the TSA is now using. Highlights:

Of concern…health critics are the backscatter X-ray body scanners produced by Rapiscan Systems…. They constitute about half of the AIT machines deployed.

Unlike the competing millimeter-wave technology produced by L-3 Communications, the $180,000 Rapiscan machines expose travelers to a small X-ray dose. The TSA and Rapiscan say the machines are safe. But in an April letter to the White House, [John] Sedat [a biochem and biophysics prof at U Cal San Francisco] and fellow UCSF academics argued the government did not adequately study the backscatter X-ray devices. The TSA has ordered 500 of the Rapiscan devices at about $180,000 each. About 250 of them are already in use across the country….

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which analyzed the Rapiscan 1000, insists the machines are perfectly safe. But:

Sedat counters that the mechanical beam's intensity level has not been published, making it impossible to evaluate the safety claims. "I want a real hard number in terms of photons per some unit of area," he said. "The one physical quantity that is crucial for determining what dose a person is getting, that data is missing."

Moreover, standard medical X-ray machines disperse radiation throughout the body, whereas the airport scanners penetrate to about skin level. That means there is a high concentration of radiation on a single organ — the skin — which was not accounted for in the Johns Hopkins report, Sedat said.

The "correct way" to test any such technology, he said, is to use mice "and appropriate tissue-culture cells and see if there is a biological response."

"That kind of stuff has never been done," he said.

And a little political science toward the end:

Rapiscan and its parent OSI Systems, and their subcontractors have donated a combined $1.75 million to federal politicians in the past decade, according to data provided by the MapLight Foundation, of Berkeley, California. Rapiscan and OSI also spent $2.2 million in lobbying from 1998 to 2010, MapLight found. (Here is spreadsheet for political and lobbying expenditures (.xls) for L-3 Communications and for Rapiscan-OSI.)

*Andy Greenberg at Forbes on supposed TSA plans to extend their all-seeing see-through eyes beyond just air travel:

Newly uncovered documents show that as early as 2006, the Department of Homeland Security has been planning pilot programs to deploy mobile scanning units that can be set up at public events and in train stations, along with mobile x-ray vans capable of scanning pedestrians on city streets.

The non-profit Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) on Wednesday published documents it obtained from the Department of Homeland Security showing that from 2006 to 2008 the agency planned a study of of new anti-terrorism technologies that EPIC believes raise serious privacy concerns. The projects range from what the DHS describes as "a walk through x-ray screening system that could be deployed at entrances to special events or other points of interest" to "covert inspection of moving subjects" employing the same backscatter imaging technology currently used in American airports.

The 173-page collection of contracts and reports, acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request, includes contracts with Siemens Corporations, Northeastern University, and Rapiscan Systems. The study was expected to cost more than $3.5 million.

One project allocated to Northeastern University and Siemens would mount backscatter x-ray scanners and video cameras on roving vans, along with other cameras on buildings and utility poles, to monitor groups of pedestrians, assess what they carried, and even track their eye movements….

The TSA told Forbes: "TSA has not tested the advanced imaging technology that is currently used at airports in mass transit environments and does not have plans to do so."

*…but the TSA is already doing the intrusive patdown version of the test on train passengers on occasion, as see this account from Savannah, Georgia:

Lt. Brian Gamble, 38, of Leesburg, Florida, posted video of the incident on YouTube. And the TSA is now apologizing.

[Brian] Gamble…was bringing a small group that included other firefighters and policemen to Savannah for a Valentine's Day getaway. They were among 30 or 40 people getting off the train when he says TSA officers ordered everyone into the terminal.

"They sent us all into a roped-off holding area and said 'Y'all are going to be searched,'" Gamble says. "We were getting off the train. This didn't make sense."

Once in the area, the group was guarded while TSA officers began doing what Gamble says were "intrusive"pat-downs.

When he saw a family with young kids in the lineup, he took out his camera and started filming. He does not know the identity of the family….

Nearing the front of the line for his own search, Gamble complained to a TSA supervisor but says he was told to calm down. "They wouldn't give us an explanation for the search."….

the TSA took to its blog over the weekend to explain what happened.

The TSA's Blogger Bob writes that what the Savannah train passengers encountered is known as a VIPR operation, a randomized search "where anyone entering an impacted area has to be screened."….

Gamble's video (without which the TSA would likely have not explained themselves at all):

*…and the TSA isn't very good at their ostensible jobs, as someone gets through screening with three box cutters (you all remember box cutters, don't you) on a flight leaving JFK in New York for the Dominican Republic. (This is not meant to imply I even agree box cutters should be forbidden from flights absolutely. Just to point out we are getting lots of theater without even much of the "security" that's supposed to come with it.)

Reason has been on the TSA's case for a long time, as see this classic February 2004 cover story, "Dominate. Intimidate. Control."