Full Body Scanners: A Security & Privacy Concern


Posted Mar 19, 2010      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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After the attempted Christmas Day bombing, one of the government’s fixes to flaws in airport security is to expedite the installation of full-body scanners, which provide very graphically detailed images of people, to detect non-metallic weapons. News agencies reported at least 11 more U.S. airports will be installing new full-body scanners, with plans to install another 1,000 such machines across the nation by the end of the year.

While all Americans are in favor of detecting explosives and other non-metallic weapons from getting on board aircraft, full body scanners are a poor way to do so, on both counterterrorism and privacy grounds.

Though body scanners and detection devices by their very nature are inherently intrusive, the machines are typically built with a series of privacy controls, to make them legally compliant while maintaining their effectiveness. The Transportation Security Authority (TSA) has claimed that “strict privacy safeguards are built into the foundation of TSA’s use of advanced imaging technology,” which includes the inability to “store, print, transmit or save the image” of the passenger being screened. Due to sharp criticism of body scanners, by inter-faith groups, the TSA also agreed to allow passengers to opt-out of using the body scanners and seek alternative screening. They also agreed to pursue stick-figure technology that would not show detailed body imaging, though it is not yet available for purchase and they have not committed to a timeline for implementation.

However the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a privacy advocacy group, obtained the technical specifications and vendor contract documents for the scanners through a Freedom of Information Act request. The documents actually showed that the TSA-purchased equipment is built to store and send images when put into “test mode.” EPIC says this runs a serious risk of being abused by TSA workers looking at the images and being vulnerable to hacking by outsiders.

This is something that should not only concern the public at large, but also parents. Children as well as adults who go through screening will have graphic images of their bodies seen by TSA personnel. While that fact by itself may be extremely discomforting for many parents, even more will be disturbed by the fact that the full confidentiality of their child’s graphic image is not guaranteed.

However the problems with the full-body scanners don’t end there. In addition to the shockingly easy way to circumvent privacy protections, the effectiveness of the machines is not proven. According to a January 2010 testimony given by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an internal Federal watchdog, it found that the machines’ reliability and effectiveness was not tested under real-world operational conditions. More shocking is that the GAO also found the TSA did not, until the past few months, have a written policy explicitly requiring the machines to be tested under operational conditions before purchasing and deploying them.

While the GAO itself has not said it tested the machines under operational conditions, other countries’ agencies like the UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) have taken the lead. A recent DfT study found the scanners worked against “high density objects” like metal knives, guns and dense plastic (like C4 explosive material). However the devices failed against “low density” materials like plastic, chemicals and liquids—the very types of items that the machines are being installed to detect and which were used in the Christmas day bombing attempt.

The late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote that all Americans are entitled to “a reasonable expectation of privacy.” We would extend the same reasonable expectation to our security. By prematurely expediting the installation of these scanners, the Transportation Security Authority has put the privacy and security of all Americans at risk. The result is that America is now less free and no safer than it was before the Christmas attack. There must be a process that allows for a full investigation into the effectiveness of the scanners and how to ensure our privacy before the scanners are installed in more airports around our nation.