X-RAYS, BODY SCANS AND THE TSA
By Joe Brancatelli
November 24, 2010 -- Just in time for the busiest travel period of the year, critics opposed to the government's new regimen of full-body scans and intrusive pat-downs have dubbed the day before Thanksgiving National Opt-Out Day. Still others are urging travelers to boycott flying altogether.
But does the newest "new normal" of air-travel security in the post-9/11 world deserve such attention or as much media coverage as it has received? Do any of the partisans on either side really care whether you're fully informed about the issues?
Rather than cast my frequent-flying lot with one side or the other, allow me to offer some facts about the situation and answer some of the larger questions as objectively and fairly as possible.
Unlike too many in the debate, I trust your judgment to make the right call for your travel needs.
How'd We Get Here?
The current outrage against the Transportation Security Administration is in stark contrast to the overwhelming demand for federalization of airline security after terrorists hijacked four airliners on September 11, 2001. The bill that created the TSA passed unanimously in the Senate and without objection in the House of Representatives. President George W. Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act on November 19, 2001.
Before the TSA, security rested with the airlines, and they farmed the job out to private firms. The track record of the rent-a-cops was atrocious: Private screeners missed all manner of weapons and other contraband. Over the years, a small number were revealed to have criminal records or be illegal aliens. The turnover of the workforce averaged 126 percent annually. It was 200 percent at Boston's Logan Airport, where two of the aircraft were hijacked on 9/11.
Contrary to popular belief, however, commercial airports are not required to use U.S. government screeners. The 2001 legislation allows airports to operate with private firms. Just 16 of the nation's 450 or so commercial airports have gone that route. Orlando's lightly used second airport, in Sanford, Florida, announced last week that it would go private.
Also worth noting: Although high-profile critics like Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) claim the government should be out of the airport-security business because it is best left to private industry, the nation's carriers were among the biggest proponents of federalizing the task. No carrier has ever asked for the responsibility back, either. And most Americans continue to believe that airport security is a national securit matter, much as seaports and navigable waters are handled by the U.S. Coast Guard.
How Has the TSA Performed?
The TSA can claim statistical success: No U.S. aircraft has been successfully attacked since it took over security. And no matter what more sophisticated analysts believe, the public has always judged aviation security by the numbers: No incidents means the system is "safe."
TSA critics claim other post-9/11 security improvements deserve the credit, however. They point specifically to the reinforcement of cockpit doors (and the order requiring doors to remain locked during flight) and new rules that permit pilots to carry firearms in the cockpit. The critics also insist that flight attendant and passenger awareness have foiled the most serious post-9/11 incidents, including the "shoe bomber" Richard Reid and last Christmas Day's attack by "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
The TSA's track record for catching contraband at security checkpoints isn't appreciably better than private screeners. But until the current controversy, most criticism has been levied at the TSA's data-mining and watch-list tactics. Several TSA plans to identify potential security threats via information collected before departure collapsed because the agency was unable or unwilling to keep data private or misused it.
Why Does Security Work That Way?
Some procedures at U.S. airport-security checkpoints date back to the 1960s, when the major threat was hijackers intent on diverting aircraft to Cuba. As threats morphed over the next 40 years, security screening became more involved and intrusive. The adjustments were almost always reactive. Officials introduced methods to stop a future incident that would be patterned on the previous attack.
After 9/11, for example, many additional items were prohibited from aircraft because the hijackers' suspected weapons of choice, box cutters, had not been previously banned. Passengers were required to remove footwear for scanning after the December, 2001, shoe-bomb attempt. Most liquids were banned, and carry-on toiletries were required to meet so-called 3-1-1 rules, in 2006, after British authorities claimed they foiled a plot to detonate liquid explosives aboard transatlantic flights.
Why Use Full-Body Imagers?
The full-body image scanners and pat-downs are not a reaction to last year's "underwear" bombing attmept, however. In fact, a recent report by the Government Accountability Office questions whether the scanners would have detected the weapon in Abdulmutallab's pants.
The new scanners are just one of a series of devices the TSA has tested and deployed to augment the traditional X-ray machines. Most have quietly disappeared after proving too expensive or no more effective than existing technology. That includes the much-heralded "puffer" machines that shot air at passengers' clothing at they passed through security.
One point to keep in mind: The scanners may be coming on line now, but have been in the works for years and were first approved during the last Bush administration. Michael Chertoff, President Bush's then-Homeland Security secretary, is now a lobbyist for one of the device's manufacturers.
Originally conceived as a secondary screening method, the imaging devices were given top priority by the Obama Administration after the 2009 Christmas incident. Both Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and TSA Adminstrator John Pistole have endorsed and defended them.
What and Where Are Full-Body Scanners?
Full-body imaging devices actually consist of two separate technologies: "backscatter" and "millimeter wave" scanners. Machines of these types were first deployed at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport in 2007. A plan to place them at all Italian airports and train stations was abandoned two months ago because Italian security officials concluded they were "slow and ineffective."
The TSA expects 500 of the machines in place by the end of the year, another 500 by the end of 2011, and 1,800 in use at airports by 2014. That's nearly double the number of machines originally envisioned and some of the devices were purchased with funds allocated by the 2009 stimulus bill.
The TSA has been installing full-body scanners since late 2007. As of November 22, the TSA website says 385 machines are in place at 68 airports. Your chances of actually confronting the machines? According to TSA officials, it's about one in three. But it could be as high as 90 percent if you fly from the nation's busiest airports. However, there is an additional wild card: Not all of the imaging devices are currently operating. An unknown number remain off-line because the TSA doesn't have enough trained personnel.
How Does the System Work?
When you approach the security-screening checkpoint, you may be able to avoid the full-body imagers simply by tarrying or fussing with your carry-ons. Since virtually all airport checkpoints with full-body scanners continue to have traditional X-ray machines too, assignment to one or the other system is random.
If you refuse a full-body scan, the TSA has the right to give you the new pat-down regime instead. You have the right to insist that it is done by a screener of the same sex, and you have the right to request the procedure occur in a private room. You also have the right to have a traveling companion present during the pat-down.
Keep reading to find out why some flyers dislike the scanners, what triggers a pat-down, and whether Americans are really opposed to the TSA's methods.
Why Do Some Flyers Dislike the Scanners?
Why would you decline the full-body scan? Objections fall into several broad categories:
• Medical concerns about the amount of radiation used. Here's what the TSA claims: "A single scan using backscatter technology produces exposure equivalent to two minutes of flying on an airplane, and the energy projected by millimeter-wave technology is thousands of times less than a cell-phone transmission." But critics claim the dosages are much greater. The prevailing tests, especially one conducted by the Johns Hopkins University, are being used by both sides to support their claims.
• Logistical objections due to the fact that you lose sight of your carry-on items while you are in the scanner.
• Privacy reasons surrounding the clarity of images that the devices produce. The devices reveal substantial detail about your body and anything under your clothing, including prosthetic devices. The TSA has set up a system where the images are viewed in a booth by a screener who never sees you. It also claims the devices are unable to store the images, but that is not totally accurate. The devices can store images, but the TSA says the storage capacity has been disabled and cannot be activated by airport personnel.
• Constitutional reasons based on the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. Despite the claims of those who insist the machines are unconstitutional, however, legal scholars are less sure. They point to the fact that courts have traditionally given government agencies wide latitude to search for contraband at borders. They also say that a court might rule scanners and pat-downs are not unreasonable given the terrorist acts carried out against aircraft. And they point to the fact that there is no constitutional right to travel by air. The issue will surely be litigated in coming months.
When Do You Get a Pat-Down?
So what about those pat-downs? They are "demeaning," according to TSA Administrator Pistole. First tested months ago but widely adopted in October, the new TSA pat-down is now a front-of-the-hand examination that runs along your body, up both sides of your legs, along your chest and back, and up and around your genitals.
There are three situations when you would receive the pat-down:
• You decline the full-body scanner if asked to use one.
• You set off an alarm when passing through the old-style X-ray machine, or there is something the screener cannot identify when you receive the full-body scan.
• You are randomly chosen for secondary screening.
The TSA claims fewer than 2 percent of travelers receive a pat-down each day. But even that number is substantial: about 40,000 flyers daily.
Those opposed to the aggressive pat-downs raise the same Fourth Amendment objections as those who oppose the full-body scanners.
Are Americans Opposed to Scanners?
The media has naturally highlighted some travelers' objections to the full-body scanners and pat-downs. Objectively speaking, however, it's increasingly difficult to separate the hype from the reality.
An oft-quoted CBS News poll revealed that 81 percent of Americans support the use of full-body imaging. Those results are in line with an earlier poll conducted by Gallup. And when the media send reporters and film crews to the airport to interview travelers, most flyers give the TSA the benefit of the doubt because they claim they want to be safe.
Those opposed to the scanners and pat-downs tend to be more frequent travelers, commercial pilots and flight attendants, small-government activists, security experts who claim the new measures aren't effective, and those who believe Constitutional issues are at stake. Each interest group claims more expertise and savvy than the average American. After some debate, pilots and flight attendants have won an exemption from the full-body scanners, and they have now gone silent.
Is There a Better Way?
The limited exemption issued to pilots and flight attendants--they will still be required to use traditional X-ray machines and show several forms of identification--raises the obvious question: Is there a better way to handle security? Must all Americans be considered a possible terrorist until proven innocent?
The bill that created the TSA in 2001 also envisioned a privately operated "trusted traveler" program that would exempt low-risk flyers from repetitive, full-bore TSA scrutiny. But the only attempt at a trusted-traveler scheme, the Clear plan created by journalist-turned-entrepreneur Steve Brill, collapsed in 2009 without enrolling a substantial number of travelers or being permitted to offer any substantive security bypass. Clear was revived last month, but so far it only operates in Orlando and still cannot offer any security bypass.
Many travelers who have experienced airline security in the Middle East espouse the Israeli approach, which relies heavily on profiling, in-person interviews, and other unique tactics. The problem? Israel's largest airport, Ben Gurion near Tel Aviv, processes around 11 million passengers a year. Two dozen U.S. airports handle at least that many, and the nation's busiest, Atlanta-Hartsfield, processes nearly eight times Ben Gurion's volume. Israeli-style security probably isn't scalable for a nation where nearly 1 billion travelers board planes each year.
So the question remains: Is there a better way?
The Fine Print...
Despite arguments over their effectiveness as a security device, full-body image scanners do pick up things as small as a tissue in your pocket. Make sure you know the procedures and rules that will speed your trip through the full-body imagers.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.