TSA Backscatter X-ray Backlash
Things are happening so fast that I don’t know if I should bother. But here are some links and observations.
This first-hand report, from a man who refused to fly rather than subject himself to a full-body scan or an enhanced patdown, has been making the rounds. (The TSA is now investigating him.) It reminds me of Penn Jillette’s story from 2002.
A woman has a horrific story of opting-out of the full body scanners. More stories: this one about the TSA patting down a screaming toddler. And here’s Dave Barry’s encounter (also this NPR interview).
Sadly, I agree with this:
It is no accident that women have been complaining about being pulled out of line because of their big breasts, having their bodies commented on by TSA officials, and getting inappropriate touching when selected for pat-downs for nearly 10 years now, but just this week it went viral. It is no accident that CAIR identified Islamic head scarves (hijab) as an automatic trigger for extra screenings in January, but just this week it went viral. What was different?
Suddenly an able-bodied white man is the one who was complaining.
Seems that once you enter airport security, you need to be subjected to it—whether you decide to fly or not.
I experienced the enhanced patdown myself, at DCA, on Tuesday. It was invasive, but not as bad as these stories. It seems clear that TSA agents are inconsistent about these procedures. They’ve probably all had the same training, but individual agents put it into practice very differently.
Of course, airport security is an extra-Constitutional area, so there’s no clear redress mechanism for those subjected to too-intimate patdowns.
This video provides tips to parents flying with young children. Around 2:50 in, the reporter indicates that you can find out if your child has been pre-selected for secondary, and then recommends requesting “de-selection.” That doesn’t make sense.
Neither does this story, which says that the TSA will only touch Muslim women in the head and neck area.
Nor this story. The author convinces people on line to opt-out with him. After the first four opt-outs, the TSA just sent people through the metal detectors.
Yesterday, the TSA administrator John Pistole was grilled by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on full-body scanners. Rep. Ron Paul introduced a bill to ban them. (His floor speech is here.) I’m one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to ban them.
Good essay from a libertarian perspective. Two more. Marc Rotenberg’s essay. Ralph Nader’s essay. And the Los Angeles Times really screws up with this editorial: “Shut Up and Be Scanned.” Amitai Etzioni makes a better case for the machines.
Michael Chertoff, former Department of Homeland Security secretary, has been touting the full-body scanners, while at the same time maintaining a financial interest in the company that makes them.
A typical dental X-ray exposes the patient to about 2 millirems of radiation. According to one widely cited estimate, exposing each of 10,000 people to one rem (that is, 1,000 millirems) of radiation will likely lead to 8 excess cancer deaths. Using our assumption of linearity, that means that exposure to the 2 millirems of a typical dental X-ray would lead an individual to have an increased risk of dying from cancer of 16 hundred-thousandths of one percent. Given that very small risk, it is easy to see why most rational people would choose to undergo dental X-rays every few years to protect their teeth.
More importantly for our purposes, assuming that the radiation in a backscatter X-ray is about a hundredth the dose of a dental X-ray, we find that a backscatter X-ray increases the odds of dying from cancer by about 16 ten millionths of one percent. That suggests that for every billion passengers screened with backscatter radiation, about 16 will die from cancer as a result.
Given that there will be 600 million airplane passengers per year, that makes the machines deadlier than the terrorists.
Nate Silver on the hidden cost of these new airport security measures.
According to the Cornell study, roughly 130 inconvenienced travelers died every three months as a result of additional traffic fatalities brought on by substituting ground transit for air transit. That’s the equivalent of four fully-loaded Boeing 737s crashing each year.
Jeffrey Goldberg asked me which I would rather see for children: backscatter X-ray or enhanced pat down. After remarking what an icky choice it was, I opted for the X-ray; it’s less traumatic.
Here are a bunch of leaked body scans. They’re not from airports, but they should make you think twice before accepting the TSA’s assurances that the images will never be saved. RateMyBackscatter.com.
The New York Times on the protests.
Common sense from the Netherlands:
The security boss of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is calling for an end to endless investment in new technology to improve airline security.
Marijn Ornstein said: “If you look at all the recent terrorist incidents, the bombs were detected because of human intelligence not because of screening … If even a fraction of what is spent on screening was invested in the intelligence services we would take a real step toward making air travel safer and more pleasant.”
And here’s Rafi Sela, former chief security officer of the Israel Airport Authority:
A leading Israeli airport security expert says the Canadian government has wasted millions of dollars to install “useless” imaging machines at airports across the country.
“I don’t know why everybody is running to buy these expensive and useless machines. I can overcome the body scanners with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747,” Rafi Sela told parliamentarians probing the state of aviation safety in Canada.
“That’s why we haven’t put them in our airport,” Sela said, referring to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, which has some of the toughest security in the world.
I’m quoted in the Los Angeles Times:
Some experts argue the new procedures could make passengers uncomfortable without providing a substantial increase in security. “Security measures that just force the bad guys to change tactics and targets are a waste of money,” said Bruce Schneier, a security expert who works for British Telecom. “It would be better to put that money into investigations and intelligence.”
I’m quoted in The Wall Street Journal twice—once as saying:
“All these machines require you to guess the plot correctly. If you don’t, then they are completely worthless,” said Bruce Schneier, a security expert.
Mr. Schneier and some other experts argue that assembling better intelligence on fliers is the key to making travel safer.
and once as saying:
Security guru Bruce Schneier, a plaintiff in the scanner suit, calls this “magical thinking . . . Descend on what the terrorists happened to do last time, and we’ll all be safe. As if they won’t think of something else.”
In 2005, I wrote:
I’m not impressed with this security trade-off. Yes, backscatter X-ray machines might be able to detect things that conventional screening might miss. But I already think we’re spending too much effort screening airplane passengers at the expense of screening luggage and airport employees…to say nothing of the money we should be spending on non-airport security.
On the other side, these machines are expensive and the technology is incredibly intrusive. I don’t think that people should be subjected to strip searches before they board airplanes. And I believe that most people would be appalled by the prospect of security screeners seeing them naked.
I believe that there will be a groundswell of popular opposition to this idea. Aside from the usual list of pro-privacy and pro-liberty groups, I expect fundamentalist Christian groups to be appalled by this technology. I think we can get a bevy of supermodels to speak out against the invasiveness of the search.
On the other hand, CBS News is reporting that 81% of Americans support full-body scans. Maybe they should only ask flying Americans.
I still stand by this, also from 2005:
Exactly two things have made airline travel safer since 9/11: reinforcement of cockpit doors, and passengers who now know that they may have to fight back. Everything else—Secure Flight and Trusted Traveler included—is security theater. We would all be a lot safer if, instead, we implemented enhanced baggage security—both ensuring that a passenger’s bags don’t fly unless he does, and explosives screening for all baggage—as well as background checks and increased screening for airport employees.
Then we could take all the money we save and apply it to intelligence, investigation and emergency response. These are security measures that pay dividends regardless of what the terrorists are planning next, whether it’s the movie plot threat of the moment, or something entirely different.
And this, written in 2010 after the Underwear Bomber failed:
Finally, we need to be indomitable. The real security failure on Christmas Day was in our reaction. We’re reacting out of fear, wasting money on the story rather than securing ourselves against the threat. Abdulmutallab succeeded in causing terror even though his attack failed.
If we refuse to be terrorized, if we refuse to implement security theater and remember that we can never completely eliminate the risk of terrorism, then the terrorists fail even if their attacks succeed.
What else is going on?
EDITED TO ADD: (11/19): Lots more political cartoons.
This has to win for DHS Quote of the Year, from Secretary Janet Napolitano on the issue:
I really want to say, look, let’s be realistic and use our common sense.
The TSA doesn’t train its screeners very well. A response to a letter-writer from Sen. Coburn. From Slate: "Does the TSA Ever Catch Terrorists?" A pilot’s story. The screeners’ point of view. Good essay from the National Post.
Fun with the Playmobil airline security screening playset.
EDITED TO ADD (11/20): I was interviewed by Popular Mechanics.
Here’s an alert you can hand out to passengers at security checkpoints where there are backscatter machines.
EDITED TO ADD (11/21): Me in an Associated Press piece on the anti-TSA backlash:
“After 9/11 people were scared and when people are scared they’ll do anything for someone who will make them less scared,” said Bruce Schneier, a Minneapolis security technology expert who has long been critical of the TSA. “But … this is particularly invasive. It’s strip-searching. It’s body groping. As abhorrent goes, this pegs it.”
President Obama comments:
“I understand people’s frustrations, and what I’ve said to the TSA is that you have to constantly refine and measure whether what we’re doing is the only way to assure the American people’s safety. And you also have to think through are there other ways of doing it that are less intrusive,” Obama said.
“But at this point, TSA in consultation with counterterrorism experts have indicated to me that the procedures that they have been putting in place are the only ones right now that they consider to be effective against the kind of threat that we saw in the Christmas Day bombing.”
TSA sendup on Saturday Night Live yesterday.
EDITED TO ADD (11/22): The thing about Muslim women being exempt seems to be based on a misreading of this press release. What they seem to be saying is that if you’re selected because you could have something under your hijab, then they only need to just pat down the area the hijab covers. It’s not a special exemption.
TSA Administrator John Pistole comments:
We are constantly evaluating and adapting our security measures, and as we have said from the beginning, we are seeking to strike the right balance between privacy and security. In all such security programs, especially those that are applied nation-wide, there is a continual process of refinement and adjustment to ensure that best practices are applied and that feedback and comment from the traveling public is taken into account.
Yesterday I participated in a New York Times “Room for Debate” discussion on airline security. My contribution is nothing I haven’t said before, so I won’t reprint it here. The other participants are worth reading too.
More from Nate Silver, on public opinion and the likely TSA reaction:
It is perhaps foolish to predict how the T.S.A. will respond this time—when they have relaxed rules in the past, they have done so quietly, rather than in response to some acute public backlash. But caution aside, I would be surprised if the new procedures survived much past the New Year without significant modification.
CNN’s advice to the public.
Things are definitely strained out there:
Through a statement released by his attorney Sunday night, Wolanyk said “TSA needs to see that I’m not carrying any weapons, explosives, or other prohibited substances, I refuse to have images of my naked body viewed by perfect strangers, and having been felt up for the first time by TSA the week prior (I travel frequently) I was not willing to be molested again.”
Wolanyk’s attorney said that TSA requested his client put his clothes on so he could be patted down properly but his client refused to put his clothes back on. He never refused a pat down, according to his attorney. Wolanyk was arrested for refusing to complete the security process.
From the same article:
A woman, identified by Harbor police as Danielle Kelli Hayman,39, of San Diego was detained for recording the incident on a phone.
That’s much more worrying.
Interview with Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior advisor at the RAND Corp. and a former member of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security.
Here’s someone who managed to avoid both the full-body scanners and the enhanced pat down. It took him two and a half hours. And here someone who got patted down, and managed to sneak two razor blades through security anyway.
How the TSA will deal with people with disabilities. How the pat downs affect survivors of sexual assault. (Read also the comments here.) Juan Cole on how airport security has shifted from looking for people with guns and traditional bombs to looking for people with PETN. And TSA-proof underwear.
EDITED TO ADD (11/24): Information on the health risks of the backscatter machines. And here’s a woman who stripped down to her underwear before going through airport security. This comes from a perspective I generally don’t buy, but it’s hard to dismiss his writing. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy, but I do think it’s a trend. “This Modern World” has a comic on the topic. Slate on the lack of guidelines. Why the TSA should be privatized.
EDITED TO ADD (11/25): I was on Keith Olbermann last night.