Strong opinions, weakly held

Everything you needed to know about backscatter

Bruce Schneier has rounded up all the links on the backscatter X-ray scanners and related issues. Bullet points:

  • The health risks of the scanners are overblown.
  • The claims that the scanning/groping will make flying safer are even more overblown.
  • The deployment of these scanners has more to do with lobbying than with a rational evaluation of the best way to make flying safer.

In this piece (not yet linked by Schneier), TSA screeners surveyed say that conducting the more invasive patdowns makes their job worse. My inclination in the face of this new scanning is to request the patdown for exactly that reason. Walking through the machine imposes a cost on the person being scanned, and no cost on the person doing the scanning. The patdown sucks for the person conducting the patdown and the person being patted down. Seems more fair to me.

As far as predictions go, my guess is that the money has been spent and we are not likely to see the government back off on the scanning. As irritated as people are now, they’ll eventually come to accept it, and it will become one more permanent contributor to the horrible experience that air travel has become.


  1. They should set up the exact same screening processes and devices at the entrance to the TSA’s HQ building as they do in airports. Live the brand, TSA!

  2. The health risks are overblown for nominal operations, assuming that the machines are calibrated properly and the software is well-designed with appropriate safety checks, that users are well-trained, that proper maintenance is done, and so on. And we believe that’s the case… why, now?

  3. That’s a good point about the health risks.

  4. A direct comparison of the radiation levels of backscatter X-ray scanners to dental X-rays is misleading. As pointed out here: http://www.news.com.au/travel/news/naked-scanners-may-increase-cancer-risk/story-e6frfq80-1225868706270

    “University of California biochemist David Agard said that unlike other scanners, the radiation from these devices is delivered at low energy beam levels, with most of the dose concentrated in the skin and underlying tissue.

    “While the dose would be safe if it were distributed throughout the volume of the entire body, the dose to the skin may be dangerously high,” Dr Agard said.”

    “David Brenner, the head of Columbia University’s Centre for Radiological Research, says the concentration on the skin – one of the most radiation-sensitive organs of the body – means the radiation dose is actually 20 times higher than the official estimate.”

  5. The only potential remedy – assuming, of course, that there is one – lies in the economics. Working against the case for redress are the sunk costs of the machines (100-200K per: http://epic.org/privacy/surveillance/spotlight/0605/#footnote1) and training. A formidable sum, particularly when aligned with the aforementioned lobbying efforts.

    But consider the broader economic picture. The machines are currently only present in 68 of the nation’s airports, and they are not the sole screening option in most. If we accept that one purpose of the investments to date are to insulate the TSA from future criticism and censure in the event of an attack, it logically follows that the TSA must equip the entirety of the public air travel system with these devices, lest it leave itself open to Maginot line accusations of incompetency. Which means that there are dozens if not hundreds of remaining airports which must be provisioned with one or more machines, at the cited costs.

    That future cost might easily eclipse the sunk costs, creating a problematic economic picture for an agency which – if nothing else – has become high visibility due to the current controversy. Procuring public funding for airport safety is one thing; procuring public funding for devices which have been discussed on the nightly news as “naked scanners” quite another.

    There are additional economic arguments to be made for potential loss of travel related revenue, but those will involve projection and be necessarily indirect, and therefore less convincing to a mainstream audience.

    The best hope lies in educating the public on what this system is likely to cost in future, because in the current economic climate, that could well prove damning.

  6. My concern with the X-ray machines is what Medley said above: after a decade of being used and abused by TSA staff, do we know they’re still going to be safe? How will we know if something breaks and a machine is delivering an unsafe dose?

    I’ll request the gropes until then. I don’t like dental X-rays either, but at least they cover my nads (that’s a technical term) with a lead apron. I’m not done having babies yet!

  7. “Given that there will be 600 million airplane passengers per year, that makes the machines deadlier than the terrorists.”

    I guess deaths only matter when they are caused by the terrorists?

  8. It looks like NC’s very own Representative David Price is one of the instrumental Pols in getting these rolled out. It turns out both parties love to cozy up to the military-industrial complex.

    “Rapiscan got the other naked-scanner contract from the TSA, worth $173 million. Rapiscan’s lobbyists include Susan Carr, a former senior legislative aide to Rep. David Price, D-N.C., chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee. When Defense Daily reported on Price’s appropriations bill last winter, the publication noted “Price likes the budget for its emphasis on filling gaps in aviation security, in particular the whole body imaging systems.”

    Read more at the Washington Examiner: http://washingtonexaminer.com/nation/2010/11/naked-scanners-lobbyists-join-war-terror#ixzz15nTZzGJs

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