The Threat of Terror, the TSA, and the Violation of Individual Liberty

Posted originally November 28, 2010 

“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” -Benjamin Franklin.

On December 25, 2009 Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber”, boarded a flight traveling from Amsterdam to Detroit with an incendiary device in his underwear.  In the middle of the flight passengers heard popping noises, smelled a foul odor, saw Abdulmutallab’s pant leg and the wall of the plane on fire.  Passengers worked together to subdue Abdulmutallab and used fire extinguishers to douse the flames.

Though Abdulmutallab didn’t have enough explosives sewn into his underwear to bring down the airplane, only a few days later, Congress and the TSA called for wide scale implementation of the naked body scanners.  They argued that metal detectors were not enough in detecting powder and liquid placed on the body.  On January 7, 2010 President Obama authorized the roll out of the naked body scanners nationwide at the at the cost of $734 million, less than two weeks after the incident.

How it works

Before boarding a flight, a passenger has the options of either going through the naked body scanner or ‘opting out’.  The machines work by using either x-rays or millimeter radio  waves. The x-ray technique, the one getting the most  publicity, uses beams of low-power  x-rays similar to a laser beam in dimensions, scanning across your  body, left to right, and top to bottom. The machine uses detectors to see  how many of the x-rays scatter off each point of your body. Certain  materials, like clothing, don’t cause much scatter at all. Skin has a  certain characteristic scattering effect, as do different metals and  certain explosives. The machine paints an image of the back-scattered  results point by point, and an agent looking at the image can see things  like metals, ceramics and explosives attached to a passenger’s body.  The other type of naked body scanner is the millimeter wave security system.  They work differently than the x-ray, but millimeter radio waves or non-ionizing electromagnetic  waves that bounce off the human body and the energy that bounces off  generates an image. There are two types: active systems which expose the  screened individual to tiny amounts of millimeter wave energy, and  passive systems that sense naturally occurring millimeter wave emissions  that radiate from a warm body.  From both machines the agent can also see an image that comes back of the naked human body.  If you would like to opt out from the full body scan, the alternative is an intrusive full body pat down, including breasts and genitalia.

The Debate

The requirement of this new process at airports has been controversial.  The primary debate has centered around three points.  The first being the actual effectiveness of the scanners in detecting explosives.  The second point is the health safety question of being x-rayed, particularly with frequent fliers.  The final point is the intrusive and abusive nature of both the scanners and the pat downs.

Is it effective?

he naked body scanners are obviously more effective at detecting objects than the traditional metal detectors.  But the whole point in its implementation is in detecting powder to be used as an explosive.  There is no clear data released by TSA that the body scanners are able to detect this.   In TSA’s own document that EPIC obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that scanners were built to detect weapons, liquids, and traditional explosives (plastique, C4, etc).  But can the x-ray scanners detect low density material like powder?  The TSA has yet to reveal data that supports this.  After trials and tests, the millimeter wave security systems have proven ineffective, or as Jane Merrick from the Independent reported, “Tests by scientists in the team at Qinetiq, which Mr Wallace advised before he became an MP in 2005, showed the millimeter-wave scanners picked up shrapnel and heavy wax and metal, but plastic, chemicals and liquids were missed.  If a material is low density, such as powder, liquid or thin plastic – as well as the passenger’s clothing – the millimeter waves pass through and the object is not shown on screen.  High- density material such as metal knives, guns and dense plastic, such as C4 explosive, reflect the millimeter waves and leave an image of the object.”  According to this information, the full body scanners would not have detected the incendiary powder in undergarments of the ‘underwear bomber’ in either the x-ray version (in question) and the millimeter wave scan (doubtful).

Is it safe?

There are differing viewpoints on this matter. One side argues that being scanned at an airport by a body scanner emits such a tiny amount  of radiation, that there is no threat to health, as long as the machine is working properly.  Manufacturers say the radiation dose is one-thousandth of what one would receive during a dental x-ray.  These figures only refer to machines that are working properly and do not jam.  With the technology unproven and the sheer volume of its use at airports, there is a chance that the machines could break down and people could be radiated to unhealthy levels.  As a precaution the Inter-Agency Committee on Radiation Safety advise that small children and pregnant women should not be subject to scanning.

The argument against this is that, yes, the levels of radiation exposure is minimal compared to an x-ray through the entire body.  But the naked body scanners emit most of the energy to the skin and the underlying tissue level, which makes the levels of radiation high, threatening passengers with the risk of skin cancer.  A group of scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) wrote a letter to the White House conveying their concerns, “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.”  The White House responded that these machines have been “thoroughly tested”, but data on the levels being emitted have not been released to the scientific community and the public.

Whether it is the question of the machines functioning properly for an extended period of time or that radiation levels are dangerous to the skin, there are concerns from both sides of the argument.

Is it right?

The 4th amendment of the Constitution on Search and Seizure reads, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses,  papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall  not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause,  supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place  to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The police can search your house, but need to justify their case to a judge and get his/her signature on a warrant.  The authorities can search your car if there’s probable cause, like, drugs visible on the dashboard or a gun on the passenger seat.  Before you enter prison you are strip searched.  All these scenarios involve a process in which a crime is apparent.  The only crime here is a desire or need to board an airplane.  It is guilty until proven innocent.

There is also the question of abuse.  There have been complaints of more women being subjected to the naked body scanner and of inappropriate comments.  The images themselves are being saved.  The choice is a naked picture of your body, or your spouse’s body or your child’s body… or a pat down and groping of your crotch and chest area from a TSA agent.  This is inherently wrong.

The Corporate Angle

One of the biggest advocates of the manufacture and implementation of the naked body scanners by the TSA has been Michael Chertoff.  Michael Chertoff was the former Secretary of Homeland Security (of which the TSA is a subsidiary) under former President George Bush and served as Associate Attorney General under the Clinton administration.  He is currently the head of the Chertoff Group, a private security and risk management firm.  The Chertoff group has a partnership with Rapiscan Systems, one of the largest manufacturers and distributors of the naked body scanners.

The TSA initially used $25 million from Stimulus Funds to buy 150 scanners from Rapiscan.  The machines sell individually for around $170,000.  After the underwear bomber incident, two major contractors, one of whom was Rapiscan, lobbied Washington DC and received contracts for around $160 million  each to build body scanners for airports across the country.  On January 7, 2010, almost two weeks after the underwear bomb incident,  President Obama approved the wide scale use of the naked body scanners  at airports nationwide.  He committed $734 million to their implementation.

Concluding points

Sometimes decisive decisions are not the most well thought out.  It took the President less than two weeks from the date of “underwear bomb” incident to authorizing the widespread use of the naked body scanner.  The stakes are high when it comes to safety, but the stakes are just as high when it comes to a violation of the integrity of the citizenry.  Safety will always be in question, but what is the cost?  There needs to be a balance.  There was a rush to judgment for technology to solve a problem.  An unproven technology.  A technology in which it’s very effectiveness is in question and it’s health effects uncertain.  A technology that violates the right of privacy.  There is also financial motivations involved and  its political connections… which is at the very least, questionable.  The use of these machines as a security precaution is wrong on multiple levels and perspectives.  The naked body scanning machines must be recalled.


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