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The Ineffectiveness of TSA Body Scanners 494

Posted by Soulskill
from the they're-expensive-therefore-they-work dept.
TheNextCorner points out a video that lays bare a glaring flaw in the TSA body scanners used in airports to detect weapons and explosives. In such scans, citizens are depicted in light colors, while metallic objects show as very dark. The problem comes when you consider that the images are taken with a dark background. From the transcript: "Yes that’s right, if you have a metallic object on your side, it will be the same color as the background and therefore completely invisible to both visual and automated inspection. It can’t possibly be that easy to beat the TSA’s billion dollar fleet of nude body scanners, right? The TSA can’t be that stupid, can they? Unfortunately, they can, and they are. To put it to the test, I bought a sewing kit from the dollar store, broke out my 8th grade home ec skills, and sewed a pocket directly on the side of a shirt. Then I took a random metallic object, in this case a heavy metal carrying case that would easily alarm any of the “old” metal detectors, and walked through a backscatter x-ray at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. On video, of course. While I’m not about to win any videography awards for my hidden camera footage, you can watch as I walk through the security line with the metal object in my new side pocket."
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The Ineffectiveness of TSA Body Scanners

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  • Stop aiding (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @01:23AM (#39271465)

    the enemy by pointing out stupidity!

  • SSDD (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Johann Lau (1040920) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @01:25AM (#39271477) Homepage Journal

    As far as I'm concerned, all of this airport security--the cameras, the questions, the screenings, the searches--is just one more way of reducing your liberty and reminding you that they can fuck with you anytime they want. Because that's the way Americans are now. They're willing to trade away a little of their freedom in exchange for the feeling---the illusion---of security.

    -- George Carlin

    • Re:SSDD (Score:5, Insightful)

      by aztektum (170569) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @03:54AM (#39272337)

      Sometimes I remember George Carlin & Hunter S. Thompson are both dead now.

      I get sad when I do that.

      • Re:SSDD (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @06:03AM (#39272885)

        And Vonnegut.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @07:08AM (#39273139)

        I read somewhere that he shared me own diagnosis of Schizoaffective Disorder. That's a bad diagnosis if You Are The NRA.

        I have an Idaho state gun safety card and my father was a Naval officer so I know how to handle a gun with complete safety. but I don't go near the things not because I would fail the background check but because I know very well that the day would be bound to come when I start shooting at my own hallucinations.

        I have a close friend who is licensed for concealed carry because her clients are suchnwarm fuzzy people. She takes all the same medicines I do yet is completely unaware that she is severely in the grip of paranoid schizophrenia.

        I hallucinate on a regular basis but for reason I have been struggling to figure out for decades I always can readily distinguish between what I really see and what my mind makes me experience as seeing. note that that does not make the hallucinations go away, it just enables me to sanitize my input.

        But rather frightening to me is that a whole bunch of times my friend gas pointed out her hallucinations to me then either gone chasing after them or fled from them.

        The federal gun background check is completely cool with batshit crazy people purchasing all manner of powerful firearms. bur perfectly sane people check into psychiatric inpatient units for reasons that are completely resolved upon their discharge. At that point they are not permitted to possess firearms for the next five years. Not only may they not purchase any they must surrender any guns already in their possession.

        I've been struggling desperately to clue my friend into the fact that she is paranoid and that she hallucinates. Even more frustrating than the drug addict's denial is that she readily agrees and in fact can discuss her madness quite insightfully, yet she remains unaware if what her medicines are prescribed for. Once we stop actively discussing her paranoia she becomes completely enmeshed in it again.

    • Re:SSDD (Score:5, Funny)

      by mSparks43 (757109) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @07:03AM (#39273117) Homepage Journal

      I'm still waiting to get asked to go through one of these scanners (UK doesn't send everyone through them).

      I can get naked in under 5 seconds, and plan to demonstrate this skill as soon as they request naked pictures of me.

      Only fair I share the wealth of my gorgeous nakedness with everyone in the airport when requested to do so by airport staff.

      My wife panics everytime we get near them, she knows I'll do it, and is obviously petrified I'll get mauled by all the sex hungry girls in the vicinity.

  • Test First (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Rtarara (1806850) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @01:25AM (#39271479)
    Go back to the old scanners. Try again in a few years with better tech if you actually create some. Actually test the tech out next time, preferably with open field testing. Geeks can break most anything and it's best to see how they can BEFORE you implement the "important terrorist stopping scanner".
    • Re:Test First (Score:5, Insightful)

      by 0123456 (636235) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @01:30AM (#39271537)

      Go back to the old scanners. Try again in a few years with better tech if you actually create some.

      Why would you do that when you can sell useless machines now and then sell slightly less useless machines again in a few years?

      You seem to be under the impression that the scanners are supposed to achieve something other than enriching the people who make them.

      • Re:Test First (Score:5, Informative)

        by Mitreya (579078) <mitreya&gmail,com> on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @02:14AM (#39271875)

        You seem to be under the impression that the scanners are supposed to achieve something other than enriching the people who make them.

        The one thing I do not understand is why is this happening in so many countries. Is it that easy to get rich everywhere - just make ridiculous, useless, 6-figure machines? In London, there is not even a pat-down option if you are selected (so I am not flying out of there).
        And who benefits from the ridiculous 3-ounce liquid rules, besides the vendors inside airports??

        • Re:Test First (Score:5, Interesting)

          by wvmarle (1070040) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @04:26AM (#39272463)

          The one thing I do not understand is why is this happening in so many countries. Is it that easy to get rich everywhere - just make ridiculous, useless, 6-figure machines? In London, there is not even a pat-down option if you are selected (so I am not flying out of there).

          The skill is not in the making of the machines. The skill is in selling them.

          And who benefits from the ridiculous 3-ounce liquid rules, besides the vendors inside airports??

          The machine vendors, for example. They benefit from the whole fear-mongering that's going on here. Because liquids are forbidden because they're so dangerous, and can not be detected by metal detectors, so you need a machine that can detect them.

          Or if you would like to truly enter conspiracy theory terrain: maybe the whole liquid-explosives scare was just a scam. After all not a single plane was blown up. The liquids were not even mixed to explosive yet. They weren't even taken to the airport yet. No they were found in someones home instead! Wasn't this maybe a plot of corrupt government people colluding with naked body scanners?

        • by hey! (33014)

          And who benefits from the ridiculous 3-ounce liquid rules, besides the vendors inside airports??

          While I generally agree with you, I can see the point of the 3 oz rule. It has to do with what in the software world we call "non-functional requirements" -- mainly cost and performance in this instance. While the *functional* requirement of preventing liquid explosives from being smuggled on a plane could be met with a much more lax rule, enforcing that rule in a way that allows many people to be processed fast enough, cheaply enough is a challenge.

          So as system designers, how would we write the requiremen

          • Re:Test First (Score:4, Interesting)

            by rjstanford (69735) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @09:44AM (#39274105) Homepage Journal

            All of which goes out the window when you realize that you can easily bring an unlimited amount on board as long as a) you're willing to separate it into 3oz containers, and b) if you end up with more of them than will fit in a ziplock, you need to bring a friend.

            Security is a good thing. Security theater is not.

      • Re:Test First (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Jafafa Hots (580169) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @02:47AM (#39272053) Homepage Journal

        You seem to be under the impression that the scanners are supposed to achieve something other than enriching the people who make them.

        They ARE intended to do something else. Actually it's their main intent - to keep people simultaneously scared shitless and give them a feeling of security if they are nice and submissive.

        And they work extremely well at this. Just look anywhere there are skeptics and you'll see people crying "as long as it keeps me safe on my flight from Omaha to Kansas City!"

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        You seem to be under the impression that the scanners are supposed to achieve something other than enriching the people who make them.

        Well, they do. Specifically, they condition the general population to accept such scanning without question. In a few decades, the lack of terrorist attacks will be credited to the machines, and in the interests of public safety they will begin to be placed into our public schools to save the kids from other kids. Eventually you will have to pass through them in any place which now requires a metal detector scan, such as sporting events, courthouses, federal buildings, public libraries, etc.

        No, I'm not pull

    • Re:Test First (Score:5, Insightful)

      by TheSpoom (715771) <slashdot@ u b e r m00.net> on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @01:30AM (#39271541) Homepage Journal

      Testing would have delayed the goal of making Michael Chertoff more money.

    • Re:Test First (Score:5, Interesting)

      by TheRaven64 (641858) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @07:24AM (#39273217) Journal
      The thing that really irritates me about these machines is that both the privacy issues and the uselessness are results of poor UI. The images that the TSA operatives see are false colour images. It would be trivial to map the range for biological matter to the background colour so that the only things that the operative sees are metal items. Then there would be no privacy issue (people wouldn't see you naked - they wouldn't see you at all) and you wouldn't have this kind of failure.
  • by wvmarle (1070040) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @01:27AM (#39271499)

    The only surprising thing here is that it took so long for such an easy work-around to come to light. It's not that there are very few people working with those scanners on a daily basis, and I bet plenty of TSA front-line personnel will discuss those scanners and how they work with their friends.

    • by Hognoxious (631665) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @01:34AM (#39271565) Homepage Journal

      plenty of TSA front-line personnel will discuss those scanners and how they work with their friends.

      What friends?

    • by Sneeka2 (782894)

      The only surprising thing here is that it took so long for such an easy work-around to come to light.

      Exactly, come to light. The real terrorists have been doing this for years. And they have some ass kicking to do now, 'cause this little punk revealed the trick.

    • by dgatwood (11270) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @02:37AM (#39271991) Journal

      We were pretty sure that there was a problem with metal objects taped to the inside or outside of people's bodies when Adam Savage [arstechnica.com] walked through with two 12" razor blades. This story just provides an explanation of why the scanners don't work.

    • by Sique (173459) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @04:49AM (#39272555) Homepage

      Why long? Two years ago (Jan 2010), a guy in german TV demonstrated [youtube.com] how to get enough stuff past the body scanners to build a thermite bomb, including the lighter. And the body scanner was operated by a service person from the manufacturer during the demonstration.

  • Scanner image hoax (Score:5, Informative)

    by sixtyeight (844265) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @01:33AM (#39271559)

    Images purporting to show what TSA scanners actually get have been demonstrated to be fakes:

    http://forum.prisonplanet.com/index.php?topic=154635.0 [prisonplanet.com]

  • by prehistoricman5 (1539099) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @01:37AM (#39271607)

    Since obviously a metal detector will detect that sort of thing, the tsa will now buy new millimeter wave/backscatter x-ray scanners with a traditional metal detector integrated into the system. The only reason they're going to give up their toys is because they can get better ones.

  • by GmExtremacy (2579091) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @01:39AM (#39271615)

    They invade citizens' privacy, and because of that, I think they should be gone.

    "For the children," "to stop the terrorists," "ban technology X because of the actions of a few," they're all the same thing. All that's needed is increased cockpit security and citizen awareness. No privacy violations are necessary or even wanted.

  • Disheartening (Score:4, Interesting)

    by slasho81 (455509) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @01:45AM (#39271661)
  • by wbr1 (2538558) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @01:48AM (#39271675)
    It should simply read, "The Ineffectiveness of the TSA"
  • yup (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @02:00AM (#39271765)

    I was part of a team bringing forward a competing technology to those scanners (standoff biometrics, no weird imaging, ~5 different measurements, easy to beat one, hard to beat them all). We thought we had won the tests. At least, we found all the people sneaking stuff in during our test and we knew they couldn't have detected certain things - like explosives, which they still can't see.

    Due to the nature of my sensor work, much of my clothing is covered in explosives residue. A good scanner should really pick me out every time, but I only ever get "caught" when I'm selected for random screening.

    We were pretty surprised when we found out they were selected. I guess we should have worked harder on our lobbying and less on our engineering.

    • Re:yup (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Sir_Sri (199544) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @02:14AM (#39271877)

      do you have a proven track record of being able to produce 100 000 units? What's your typical cost/cost overun on a project that size?

      Business is business. Engineering is part of business, but if you're advertising the greatest thing ever for 100 dollars that is supposedly 10x than what everyone else is selling for 1000 people are rightfully skeptical that you can actually deliver the product on time, and on budget. That doesn't mean you can't, and yes in any business advertising (or in the case of the US government lobbying) matters tremendously, but there can be non obvious factors at play.

      As with anything you might really have been trumped by 'strategic concerns' (you weren't going to create enough jobs, in the right districts, or pay the right campaign kickbacks), but you might have just not seemed honest, being the only honest one in a room full of crooks.

  • by Okian Warrior (537106) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @02:26AM (#39271917) Homepage Journal

    The inquisition (yes, that one [malleusmaleficarum.org]) was an expense account scam. Since the accused was required to pay for their own inquisition, the system simply padded the expenses to the limit of the available money.

    The TSA is the same thing. People wail and moan about how stupid/intrusive/incompetent/useless they are, and miss the larger picture.

    The TSA sends money to corporations, and the corporations grease the political wheels.

    There's no rocket science, no ulterior motive, nothing else to consider. Like the inquisition, the TSA doesn't need to justify expenditures with usefulness or effectiveness. The more they spend, the more they get to spend. Cause and effect.

    Why do you think they spend billions on technology, but pay only slightly above the minimum wage and spend so little on training?

    People keep grousing about the TSA as if that will make a difference. It won't. They have been generally incompetent from the start, and there's nothing that people can do to unseat them from their position.

    Voting hasn't helped. Contacting representatives hasn't helped. Complaining to the TSA or their employees hasn't helped. Legal action hasn't helped.

    There's one obvious remaining course of action we can take to rein in all the government waste and corruption. Can anyone think of things to try before we take that last drastic step? I'm out of ideas...

    • by dgatwood (11270) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @03:02AM (#39272103) Journal

      There's one obvious remaining course of action we can take to rein in all the government waste and corruption. Can anyone think of things to try before we take that last drastic step? I'm out of ideas...

      Yes, but you're not going to like it. It involves people like you banding together to run for office, then passing laws banning all non-medical use of X-ray or millimeter wave imaging within the bounds of your community or state. If every state did this, the TSA and the companies it supports would eventually wither and die on the vine. Even if they started overturning the laws in the supreme court, after about the twentieth state passed such a law, they'd have their hands full in court for decades—a big enough money sink that it just might be enough to extricate their crania from their recta.

      Remember: soap, ballot, jury, ammo. Soap hasn't worked. Jury hasn't worked. Yet we as a society seem to have skipped over the most important one on our way to the fourth. Never forget the second.

      • by dkleinsc (563838) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @08:49AM (#39273679) Homepage

        There's something missing from your prescription: Ensuring that the new laws that get passed actually get enforced.

        That is unfortunately not a minor issue. For instance, Massey Coal has routinely violated laws on mine safety for decades, and donated heavily to the campaigns of the state prosecutors and judges to prevent those laws from ever being enforced - it took the bad press of the Upper Big Branch deaths to put the CEO (who had specifically told his subordinates to break the law) on trial. Similarly, Goldman Sachs probably (although they've never admitted it in court, they're willing to settle the case) committed fraud worth billions, and is going to be let off with paying a fine that's a fraction of the revenue they received for the fraud. And Dick Cheney told the world he committed war crimes (specifically, he ordered torture of prisoners, using the definitions of torture the US used after WW II) on national television, and is still free.

    • Voting hasn't helped. Contacting representatives hasn't helped.

      You are an example of the problem. There have only been five Congressional elections and two Presidential elections since the TSA was established. In the first two Congressional elections and the first Presidential election, reining in/getting rid of the TSA was not even one of the issues on the table. Even in the last Congessional election and in the OWS protests, the TSA has not been a significant part of the issues people were concerned about. If you want to fix this, you need to make people aware of the

  • Security theatre (Score:5, Insightful)

    by quarkoid (26884) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @03:12AM (#39272151) Homepage

    It seems obvious to me that the TSA knew the machines didn't work effectively, but that this didn't matter to them. Airport security isn't about making the skies safer, it's about scaring (some would even say terrorising) the public in order to give the government more power and control. In his video he even says that there was no threat with the old metal detectors...

    There are so many ways one could commit an act of terrorism at an airport without getting on a plane if one were so inclined (I'm not, by the way!) and every time I fly I see more. The full body scanners do nothing to increase a person's safety.

    Let's face it - the terrorists have won. The public are terrified. Sadly it's their own governments which have done the terrorising.

    • by BiggerIsBetter (682164) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @05:02AM (#39272621)

      There are so many ways one could commit an act of terrorism at an airport without getting on a plane if one were so inclined (I'm not, by the way!) and every time I fly I see more.

      The fact that you and others here feel the need to add disclaimers like "(I'm not, by the way!)" says a lot about the oppressiveness of the current regime. People are constantly aware that their comments may be monitored and there may be implications to speaking the truth.

      I think I've heard this story before somewhere...

  • by cbope (130292) on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @04:27AM (#39272467)

    I'm glad the EU has declared backscatter X-ray scanners to be illegal to use in European airports. I work in a radiation industry and know a considerable amount about X-ray physics and medical imaging, and these scanners should never have been taken into use for public screening.

    I love going through the US airports and requesting a manual search when they try to put me through the backscatter machines. They always make a big drama over it, but I explain that I work in a radiation industry and I will not subject myself to additional radiation given a choice. Backscatter machines fall into this category, and so far I have not been through a single one. If they try to force me to go through one or not pass the security checkpoint, I will take it all the way to the top if needed. I will not tolerate being scanned by a backscatter machine, nor should anyone else. It's not been proven safe for human use or effective at increasing security.

    And let's not even get started about the fact that the TSA have been caught multiple times storing images from the backscatter and millimeter wave machines, when they say publicly that the images are not saved. There is a reason why they earned the nickname, pr0n scanner. There is no valid reason to save the images after you pass screening, unless they are simply playing the CYA game. This should not be allowed.

    Note, the backscatter machines are far different than the millimeter wave scanners used in some airports. Millimeter wave is known to be safe. Backscatter is NOT and should never be used on the public.

  • TSA safe (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @05:05AM (#39272639)

    If I needed a firearm on an airplane, I would probably use the 33 gram CO2 cartridges from the life vest conveniently located under my seat. Put it in a fitting pipe, and all you need is a crude firing device to pierce the seal - blunt force will do.

    The TSA lines are there for your illusion of safety. Your real safety lies in the fact that it is rather unusual for people to conspire to kill a plane full of people, themselves included.

  • Easy fix (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dunbal (464142) * on Wednesday March 07, 2012 @06:47AM (#39273057)
    Great, now we'll get a bigger dose of "safe" radiation as they take side pictures as well.

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