Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Crock of Shit That is TSA Full Body Scanning

Seems like there is a shit storm brewing about the full body scanners being implemented by TSA. Good! I fly frequently and TSA is not security, it is security theater. The hoops they make you jump through to get on a plane continue to increase and are more and more absurd.

Full body scanners are just the latest in a list of ridiculousness. Here are some example images that full body scanners produce. OK, so if these scanners can "see" under your clothes, isn't that good? Won't that help catch bombers? Well, there are several issues, not the least of which are health and privacy.

There are two main types of full body scanner. One uses X-rays while the other uses lower-energy millimetre wavelengths. X-rays are hazardous; they can cause damage to DNA that subsequently leads to cancer. The machines are supposedly safe because the total dose that someone receives during a scan is tiny. But earlier this year a group of scientists at the University of California raised a number of concerns over X-ray scanners. They said the X-rays they use are low energy to ensure they bounce only off skin rather than passing through the body, to produce an image focused on objects concealed beneath clothes. This means that the entire dose that the person being scanned receives is concentrated on the skin rather than spread throughout their body. That could mean the skin receives a dose that is one or two orders of magnitude more than expected. To many observers, the response of the US Food and Drug Administration failed to properly address these concerns.

You can choose to opt out of being scanned and instead be frisked. In the US, one group is hoping to highlight the controversy over full body scanners by encouraging everyone travelling on 24 November to elect to be frisked. Since I fly frequently, I will likely refuse the body scanner and opt for a pat down. Who knows, I might even enjoy the pat down (unlikely)!

The privacy issues are also of concern. The US Transportation Security Administration admits that the scanners have the ability to store and print images. But it says this capability is used only when the machines are tested and is switched off at all other times. Right, like I believe this is not an issue. Now nobody is likely to want to peer at an image of my far carcass, but does anyone really believe for a second that every one of those low level TSA grunts is beyond turning on the save option when an attractive specimen wanders through security? And even if it is difficult to turn on the save capability, what's stopping them from using a cell phone camera to take a picture of the image?

At any rate, the whole shebang is crazy. What is needed at airports is trained detectives who can spot high risk folks and send them through additional screening, while letting others pass through without this added crap. That means letting me keep my shoes on and my bottle of shaving cream in the bag!

The safest airline is El Al and they don't scan everyone or make everyone do stupid, useless things like take off their shoes or belts. It is because they are trained police folks who understand how to spot security risks... and then focus their efforts there instead of making Granny get out of her wheel chair or patting down a 12 year old.

By the way, I was in Europe a couple weeks ago and I didn't have to take off my shoes over there. Just take my laptop out of its bag, metal items out of pockets, and go through the metal detector. And everybody safely flew... We have lost our minds over here... We truly have.