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Airport scammers or scanners?

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image Illustrations courtesy of Marian Kamenský. www.humor-kamensky.sk

Full body scanners were offered as a quick-fix solution to show the government is responsive to terror threats, but the technology carries many unresolved issues.

Plenty of people have misgivings about full body scanning technology. Some doubt its effectiveness in preventing terrorist attacks, others believe it’s an invasion of privacy, some think it will increase racial profiling and preliminary studies by physicists suggest the full body scanners, which employ non-ionizing submillimeter microwave radiation, may introduce serious health risks for travelers.

Despite a marked absence of thoughtful analysis of either the technology’s safety or effectiveness, full body scanners are coming to an airport near you. With 19 already in place, the Department of Homeland Security intends to have 300 scanners installed by the end of the year and President Obama’s budget request for nearly a billion more for 1,000 additional scanners is a slam dunk. No one in Congress wants to be accused of standing in the way of America’s security, particularly in an election year. (It matters not that they voted overwhelming against full body scanners just last year.)

Despite its $43 billion price tag, the DHS has yet to prove it’s a worthwhile investment and not just a heavy-footed elephant stamping out civil liberties.

The DHS was the brainchild of former president George (Junior) Bush. It was created during the chaos after 9/11 ostensibly to improve information sharing between America’s information gathering agencies. Among other promises, such as preserving civil liberties, the agency was to coordinate the flow of information between federal agencies and between local and federal law enforcement through “fusion centers.”  It was to be an ombudsman of spook liaison-ship.

As became blaringly apparent in the days following the attempted detonation of an explosive aboard an international flight bound for Detroit last Christmas, the agency has failed to rise to its mission. An agent in a Washington, D.C. office quietly sat on the information that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a terror risk to the United States. The information had come from an extremely reliable source. Abdulmutallab’s own father had personally warned the U.S. embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, about his son’s growing anti-American sentiment and his intent to do harm, and soon.

Perhaps if the agent had alerted someone in another agency, ideally someone like former FBI agent-turned-whistleblower Coleen Rowley, Abdulmutallab might have been tagged on the 1.3 million strong terrorist watch list, a good share of them added without any apparent rhyme or reason. If there was a reliable, meaningful no-fly list he would have been frisked, his background checked, and he would have been thoroughly inconvenienced and interrogated for hours like so many others on the list. Maybe an alert TSA would have prevented him from boarding the plane. Thwarting Abdulmutallab’s plan before he got on the plane could have given a touch of legitimacy to the watch list.

Instead, in a move that is starting to feel familiar, the government is throwing more money at the department that was created to prevent the sort of incompetence that it just displayed.

So -- like it or not -- full body scanners are here. They come as a quick-fix solution to show the government is responding to terror threats, but with many unresolved issues.

Privacy issue: It’s a virtual strip search

Apparently, the scans are more revealing than Janet Napolitano, the current Homeland Security chief, and Michael Chertoff, the first security czar who pushed for them, are letting on. The images are high resolution and crisp enough to reveal genitalia.

If you’re a vain person that travels a lot, you might want to start that diet and fitness program today because Transportation Security Administration staff are going to see you without your clothes on. On the other hand, if you look like you might have rolls of midriff fat, saggy breasts and small reproductive organs it might win you a pass-through wave by TSA staff. Not so fast if you’re a shapely woman or a buff-looking man.

Currently, U.S. citizens can opt-out of the scan and instead “receive an equal level of screening and undergo a pat-down procedure,” according to TSA’s website. What, exactly, is this alternative screening that’s on “an equal level” with being viewed without your clothes on?

The TSA says only 10 percent of travelers through the 19 U.S. airports that already have body scanners have bothered to find out. A testament to Americans’ acceptance of full body scanning, says the agency. Or maybe they were just feeling lonely.

That’s quite a choice.

Cub Scout Mikey Hicks, an 8-year-old on the passenger watch list, received his first TSA pat-down when he was 2 years old. The experience made him cry, his mother told the New York Times

“Up your arms, down your arms, up your crotch — someone is patting your 8-year-old down like he’s a criminal,” Mikey’s mom told the Times. “A terrorist can blow his underwear up and they don’t catch him. But my 8-year-old can’t walk through security without being frisked.”

Speaking of children, the United States might want to follow Britain in exempting children under 18 from the scans. Britain's 1978 Protection of Children Act makes it illegal to create an indecent image or a “pseudo-image” of a child. Child protection advocates think the scans will tempt pedophiles to distribute childrens' images to the child pornography market.

Yes, they are that revealing.

After airport staff at Heathrow airport printed out sexy body scans of  Shah Rukh Kahn, the Bollywood star reportedly autographed some for the fun-loving fans.

“I'm always stopped by the security, because of the name,” Khan said during an appearance on British television. 

“I was in London recently going through the airport and these new machines have come up, the body scans. You've got to see them. It makes you embarrassed - if you're not well endowed.” Such a braggart.

Whole body scanners can “record, store, and transmit digital strip search images of Americans,” according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) which received information from the DHS through Freedom of Information Act requests. In its technical specifications and vendor contracts, TSA specified that the scanning devices must have hard disk storage, USB access, and Ethernet connectivity. That’s curious since DHS has assured the public that it will not save, store, upload or transmit the scans.

“Computer processing partially obscures the image that is available to operators,” says the EPIC. “TSA states that the agency will delete the raw images, but there is no law or regulation that prevents the agency from saving the original, detailed images.”

Safety issues

While Britain and the Netherlands have already installed full body scanners, most European countries are waiting to dive in until there’s been more analysis of health and privacy concerns. The EU report is expected to be completed in April.

The safety concerns arise from the use of backscatter X-ray systems, one of two types of scanners used for screening passengers. These $100,000 machines, similar in size to a stand-up tanning booth, use "backscatter" technology, which bounces low-radiation X-rays off a traveler to produce high resolution images that makes clothing transparent.  

The other type of body scanner uses millimeter wave technology. The TSA website explains that the “machine beams millimeter wave radio frequency (RF) energy in the advanced imaging spectrum over the body's surface at high speed from two antennas simultaneously as they rotate around the body."

No one pushing for widespread use of these machines expects that the low level radiation from the scanners will be harmful. But the result of repeated exposures to the technology has not been studied. Even at extremely low doses radiation accumulates in the body. How much is too much?

A study published this month in Physics Letters journal suggests that terahertz (full body) radiation exposure could interfere with gene expression and DNA replication.

Commenting on the paper, Physics arXiv blog wrote that “Alexandrov and co have created a model to investigate how THz fields interact with double-stranded DNA and what they've found is remarkable. They say that although the forces generated are tiny, resonant effects allow THz waves to unzip double-stranded DNA, creating bubbles in the double strand that could significantly interfere with processes such as gene expression and DNA replication. That's a jaw dropping conclusion....a new generation of cameras are set to appear that not only record terahertz waves but also bombard us with them. And if our exposure is set to increase, the question that urgently needs answering is what level of terahertz exposure is safe.”

Racial profiling

After the Christmas near-detonation the TSA labeled 14 countries as “state sponsors of terrorism” or “countries of interest.”  People traveling from or passing through Afghanistan, Algeria, Cuba, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen will be subject to enhanced screening the TSA said. Enhanced screening may include full-body pat downs, thorough bag searches, and body scanners.

In addition, airport security workers are being given additional training in profiling. Travelers exhibiting “certain behaviors” or holding a suspicious appearing bag will be subject to intensified screening. Looking like they might belong to one of the “countries of interest” is also cause for enhanced screening.

Effectiveness questioned

Security experts and others knowledgeable about the capabilities of full body scanners have expressed doubts about the scanners’ effectiveness. Ben Wallace, a member of the British parliament who at one time worked for a defense contractor who made body scanners, said it was unlikely that a scanner would have revealed the explosive powder Abdulmutallab had hidden in his underwear.

We’ve been aware for years that drug mules have smuggled toxic amounts of narcotics drugs into the country by carrying them in body crevices and by swallowing drug-filled balloons. Why wouldn’t a suicide bomber transport explosives the same way? What do they have to lose? They’re suicide bombers.

Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical intelligence at Stratfor, a global security company, said terrorists will figure out a way to outmaneuver the technology. He told TIME magazine that use of full-body scanners will divert limited resources away from proven measures like training airport staff to “detect suspicious behaviors in would-be attackers before they board planes.”

Get back to the basics

The introduction of full body scanners is going to introduce a host of new problems: scans of children and adults being leaked on the Internet, diplomacy setbacks, humiliation, law suits over privacy infringement, loss of tourism dollars and possibly health effects down the road. It’s just more diversion from the stated goal of preventing acts of terrorism.

We’ll never be successful at preventing terrorist attacks until the government puts an end to the spook turf wars. It could be that there are just too many government agencies (and contractors) focused on high tech surveillance to be effective.

If specialized information gatherers won’t analyze and share the information that comes from foreign embassies with the law enforcement official across the street, what is their value?

Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, stated it quite well: “Our limited security resources should be invested where they will do the most good and have the best chance of thwarting attacks, and that means developing competent intelligence and law enforcement agencies that will stop terrorists before they get to the airport.”

Subscribe to comments feed Comments (22 posted):

Sandy Sand on 02/23/2010 14:23:08
I don't trust medical x-rays or the amounts of radiation they use, [i.e. several Los Angeles hospitals caught recently using way too much radiation] and I'm supposed to trust these things?

Drawback: I far as I understand, they don't show the body's interior, so you know what's coming next. A terrorist will swallow or "shove" a plastic bomb.

Next. Cavity searches, anyone?

They are scammers not scanners and with a whopping price tag for the unproven and most likely ineffective.
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Mike Hanley on 02/24/2010 17:40:14
www.xrayrisk.com has more info on radiation and cancer risk from ct scans, xrays, and also has information about airport scanners.
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john on 02/24/2010 17:53:56
"Even at extremely low doses radiation accumulates in the body."

No it doesnt. So if you go out in the sun you start glowing. You use a mobile phone you become some kind of glowing beacon!

There are no scanners that emit Terahertz radiation they read your bodys own natural emission. Which is high. Radiation is emitted by all things. Heat is infra red radiation and Terahertz is just long wavelength Infra red. Heat if you like. So when these equipment emit less than is already in nature there is no need to test their effect as sitting out in the sun would subject you to 10000's times the radiation of a 30 second scan.

Radiation is NOT radioactivity! Its all around us, live with it.
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Kathlyn Stone on 02/25/2010 07:12:54
John: thanks for your "expert" opinion. Millimeter wave scanners use waves known as as tetrahertz radiation. We can't be certain that either of the two types of scanners are safe because they have not been studied. Some skin cancers are caused by radiation in the environment and that is something we do have to live with. But we don't have to expose ourselves to risks in return for a false sense of security.
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john on 02/26/2010 06:17:58
Well Kathlyn there is no need to be scartastic. I am actually an expert in this area am a qualified physicist and have been working in Terahertz several years so am qualified to comment. Terahertz (not tetrahertz as you say) covers the region 600Ghz to 10 Thz and is therefore sub millimeter in wavelength. The airport scanners are microwave and cover mm wavelengths and above. So they are not in the Thz regime and a different region of the spectrum (despite what non scientific press or blogs might say). Microwaves are commonly used in all communications your mobile emits mm wave radiation at high doses compaired to scanners. (especially as it has to pass through your body and walls to get to the cell tower not just a coat). Terahertz has been tested for safety at large intensities with no measureable effect on cells and it is promising as a security screening technique. The only Thz systems available for security are passive so they only detect your bodys natural emission (See Thruvision Ltd) but they dont give "strip searches" as the wavelength only allows poorer resolution images. Some scanners using Thz may be developed but the power will be lower than you get sitting next to someone due to the detection technique. The DNA work was a mathematical model and indicated what power was needed to cause any affect. As yet there is no system that can deliver anyware near those power levels required. Its almost like comparing a a torch to a high power CO2 laser that could punch a hole in your chest. No one suggests torches should be tested for safetly as light is all around us, well, so are all forms of radiation (including Thz) we cant see. So the extra exposive is actually so small it irrelivent. Equivilent to probabally 10 seconds sun exposure on a sunny day. Blimy even using sticky tape emits Terahertz

Also the resolution of the image is dependant on the wavelenght so the mm wave systems will only give blurred images with only items bigger than a few cm visible so hardly titilating. The x ray scanners are the ones that give the clear image and their dose is a 1000 times less than a medical xray (afterall its only looking through your clothes not at your bones).
There is a lot of missinformation in the press and internet on this issue and as an "expert" I find it annoying as most of the science is school level.
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Kathlyn Stone on 02/27/2010 10:45:21
Welcome back, John! Maybe you should take it up with the physics guys at MIT who wrote: "How Terahertz Waves Tear Apart DNA" http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/arxiv/24331/
I referenced what has already been written. They have a blog and I'm sure the folks there will be more worthy debate partners since I am not a physicist nor an expert in the field. I do, however, know a scam when I see one and the long history of lobbying for the scanners, carried forth today by Michael Chertoff, dba the "Chertoff Group" which has a financial stake in the technology, certainly qualifies as a scam. You can read about Chertoff’s failure to disclose his financial relationship with Rapiscan at the Washington Post.
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john on 03/02/2010 09:14:24
I am familiar with the DNA work.It was done by Los Alamos Labs not MIT. The refence to MIT was that it was picked up by a journalist writing for an MIT magazine and then picked up by others. Its a case of chinese whispers I am affaid. The origional scientific paper doesnt even reference tearing apart DNA. It talks about vibrations within the DNA and its nothing new. Light interacts with matter, its a fundamental of physics. Molecules vibrate and absorb energy - the science of specroscopy - and its what generates colour in the visible spectrum. If you have enough intensity lots of things can happen. Its like saying if you fire a laser at somone it will cause a nasty burn. Thats distroying DNA, but is shining a torch ok? The fact is there is more Thz radiation around us than any scanner and also because its a resonance effect it only causes vibrations at a particular frequency which no scanner operates at. I am afraid there is NO scientific reason to not have these scanners so if campainers dont want them at airports dont use the science excuse as this article suggests. Do use Civil liberties, political, privicy, corruption etc but if you use the science as an excuse especially from a non scienfic educated point of view. You end up looking stupid when the arguments fall flat. The other arguments are much harder to disprove and have much more mileage.
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Kathlyn Stone on 03/05/2010 12:25:06
John...what is your point about Los Alamos? This blog is clearly identified under the MIT banner. A simple point for you to ponder so YOU don't look stupid: Lead pipes and lead-based paint were once considered "safe" by so-called experts, too. I just don't understand why people, including yourself, expend so much effort discouraging further analysis of what could be unsafe for many. Unless you have a personal stake in it. Then it makes perfect sense.
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John on 03/06/2010 01:16:29
The point is that science is based on accuracies and there are several innaccuracies in this article. The question is why scientists have to try so hard to correct peoples innaccuracies but still people think the so called "truth" is some consiracy theory. It's because science education is so poor even amongst journalists that no one can spot it. My point about MIT was that they didn't do the research it was just a MIT blog and nothing to do with MIT scientists. Also there is no system that emits Thz light they only recieve them from a persons warmth. A light bulb gives out much more radiation than a scanner so there is no need for extra research unless we start researching the dangers of light bulb exposure in public buildings. Other scanners use xrays which are less safe but xrays use is well tested and exposure represents a fraction of the exposure on a flight itself. The reason why I wrote on here is to defend scientific truth not hearsay and false reporting. Oh and watch out for that 400Thz light that might upset your DNA it's the coulour red!
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dennis on 03/06/2010 14:01:03
I was exposed to massive amounts of radiation from a level indicator where I work over more than 10 years. Also many Xrays and a CT scan. Now this. Is this "small" dose, the "straw that broke the camels back?". I refuse ALL Xrays at this time. If I want (or need to) fly, this is forced upon me. I would prefer an option for a strip search, although it really is not necessary. Isreal has have ZERO problems and they have even MORE determined enemies. I will be leaving my work early and will move overseas, NEVER to return to this police state.
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Gosthunter on 03/06/2010 14:24:18
Don't fly then as 10 mins in the air is more exposure also don't go in the sun and turn down the room lights also don't use it mobile or pc
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randy on 03/08/2010 07:13:23
Dr.Daniel Mittleman of Rice University, who has been involved in thz research for many years responds to the DNA damage claim on my blog. In particular read the last paragraph. I believe the claim terahertz damages DNA is very weak, in light of the facts.

I have seen that report about the idea of DNA damage by THz radiation. I remain skeptical. The experimental evidence for any kind of THz-induced damage (other than merely by heating) is so far not repeatable. This recent paper is purely theory, assuming a very specific and detailed model for the dynamics of a DNA chain which may not correspond to reality. The way that they include the solvent damping (i.e., the effects of all those water molecules lying around) is not clear. In fact there doesn’t seem to be any accounting for the fact that the water is going to absorb most of the incident field, which might heat up the water but would have no other effect on the solvated DNA. I can’t say that they’re wrong, but being an experimentalist, I am going to need to see experimental results before I buy this mechanism.

The bottom line here is that the world is awash in THz radiation. Every room-temperature object is emitting THz radiation just by virtue of being at room temperature. In fact, the power (per unit bandwidth) in that ambient THz field is larger than the power in most (though not all) artificial THz sources. This makes it hard to imagine how a typical (weak) THz source could give rise to any biological effects. It could be that this mechanism is relevant to real-world situations, but I think the burden of proof remains in the camp of those who say there is a non-thermal effect.
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on 03/09/2010 14:47:45
Thanks, Randy. I appreciate your comment and further I respect the expertise of Dr. Mittleman.

But seriously, I doubt there will be any studies on the safety of scanners anytime soon, at least not in the United States. Most research, including that overseen by NIH and others public agencies, is currently funded wholly or in part by industry, no? Studies tend to focus on what is good for business, not what is good for public health.

Some decades down the road, if we ever again become "flush," we might see some studies on the safety of repeated exposure to full-body scanners.

In the meantime, as Dr. Mittleman points out, the burden of proof is on others. There is no requirement placed on those who benefit from scanner sales.
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john on 03/11/2010 07:39:17
Why should you have to prove the safety when it adds no more radiation than is around you every day. You are exposed to this radiation all the time. Its not a "special kind" of radiation its just we now can use it due to advances in detectors. Its like asking a light bulb manufacturer to investigate the biological effects of light. It aint going to happen. What about scotch tape paying for research! http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20327195.500-sticky-tape-emits-useful-terahertz-rays.html

Its all about levels and whats around us and if any exposure adds any measureable increase in radiation. As also been said for the X ray scanners 10mins up in the air is a similar dose to a scanner. Do we ask airplane manufacturers to research the effects of this? Funny how the people who think that radiation is all bad, love a healthy outdoor life and as soon as the sun shines go outside for a quick blast of visible,UV,THz,Gamma,Cosmic,microwave,IR radiation and say how heathly they feel for getting a bit of a tan! Thats way,way more radiation than any scanner and proven to really damage your DNA! Astromonoy has been using Thz telescopes for years so its all around us, nothing new in it.
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iedge on 03/18/2010 03:27:46
Take some currency with you when you go, so you don't have to exchange at the airport. When you do need to change money, go to a bank or a recognized brand-name exchange bureau. Hotels are usually reliable too but their exchange rates are often poor.
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psp memory on 03/18/2010 23:05:09
the "straw that broke the camels back?". I refuse ALL Xrays at this time. If I want (or need to) fly, this is forced upon me. I would prefer an option for a strip search, although it really is not necessary. Isreal has have ZERO problems and they have even MORE determined enemies. I will be leaving my work early and will move overseas, NEVER to return to this police state.
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virtual office london on 03/31/2010 03:14:22
Same thing that happened to a Malaysian couple few months back at the same airport. Someone is collaborating with the police and using this business model to earn a living in Bangkok. Just be careful at the DFS in the airport.
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Dean Graziosis Scam review on 05/24/2010 00:02:17
Some airports use millimeter wave as my point of view x-rays provide a sharper image.
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dresses on 06/14/2010 20:36:37
Some airports use millimeter wave as my point of view x-rays provide a sharper image.
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Indianapolis Contractor on 06/28/2010 19:25:14
Indianapolis just opened up a new airport about two years back and it's amazing. It's basically a public art gallery. However, we've yet to see any boby scanners or thermal imaging devices. That's not to say they won't show up but I can tell you right now, naptown will probably be scandalized by the whole thing.
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Indianapolis Contractor on 06/28/2010 19:27:35
That's funny. The "website" area adds on the HTTP and you don't need to. Bummer man. Sorry, for the quick second post. I'm just curious to see how it works.
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sennheiser microphones on 07/01/2010 21:46:37
The introduction of full body scanners is going to introduce a host of new problems: scans of children and adults being leaked on the Internet, diplomacy setbacks, humiliation, law suits over privacy infringement, loss of tourism dollars and possibly health effects down the road. It’s just more diversion from the stated goal of preventing acts of terrorism.Scammers are really very terrible.
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