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Mar. 6 2010 - 6:11 am | 866 views | 2 recommendations | 12 comments

11 more airports get body scanners despite privacy, effectiveness concerns

ARLINGTON, VA - DECEMBER 30:  Transportation S...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

On Friday, transportation officials announced that 11 more U.S. airports will begin receiving full-body scanners. The units are made by the California-based company, Rapiscan, and will be used at airports in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles and Oakland, California; Columbus, Ohio; Charlotte, North Carolina; Cincinnati; and Kansas City.

Rapiscan has a Bush administration connection in Michael Chertoff, who has been busily whoring himself on national networks for the full-body scanner technology. The former Homeland Security secretary advocates the installation of these scanners while his security consulting agency’s clientele includes Rapiscan.

Chertoff’s advocacy for the technology dates back to his time in the Bush administration. In 2005, Homeland Security ordered the government’s first batch of the scanners — five from California-based Rapiscan Systems.

Today, 40 body scanners are in use at 19 U.S. airports. The number is expected to skyrocket at least in part because of the Christmas Day incident. The Transportation Security Administration this week said it will order 300 more machines.

In the summer, TSA purchased 150 machines from Rapiscan with $25 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. Rapiscan was the only company that qualified for the contract because it had developed technology that performs the screening using a less-graphic body imaging system, which is also less controversial. (Since then, another company, L-3 Communications, has qualified for future contracts, but no new contracts have been awarded.)

Currently, L-3 and OSI Systems Inc. (OSIS) are the only two companies certified to make full-body scanners for the U.S. government. Fun fact: L-3 was named in a lawsuit brought forth by a former Abu Ghraib prisoner who claims L-3 provided translators (CACI allegedly provided interrogators) to run his torture sessions.

Chertoff talks about the need for expanding the use of scanners in airports because the technology could detect bombs like the one Abdulmutallab carried. Yet, the effectiveness of these machines, which cost $170,000 apiece, has been called into question, and some experts claim the machines would not have stopped the underwear bomber.

Ben Wallace, a Conservative MP, who formerly worked on a project for a leading British defense research firm to develop scanners, said trials had shown that low-density materials like the stuff used by Abdulmutallab went undetected.

If a material is low density, such as powder, liquid or thin plastic – as well as the passenger’s clothing – the millimetre waves pass through and the object is not shown on screen.

There was also this embarrassing moment caught on German TV when a scanner failed to detect bomb components hidden on a man’s body. (You can figure out what’s going on even if you don’t speak German):

Then there are all the well-documented privacy concerns citizens have about being photographed naked by strangers. But just in case anyone has a problem with being digitally strip-searched, TSA wants passengers to know they can be taken into a back room and fondled by annoyed agents.

Under existing protocols, full-body scans are optional at airport checkpoints. Travelers who decline the scans are funneled to a location where they may be given a pat down and subjected to other tests such as swabs that can detect minute traces of explosives on hands or luggage.

The TSA said most passengers prefer a body scan to a pat down.

I’ll bet. Future lawsuit prediction: a TSA agent tries to explain to a traditional Muslim woman she has to decide between being groped by a stranger or being photographed naked. Things go awry. Litigious unpleasantries ensue.

The TSA has ordered $165m-worth of scanners from L-3 Communications when it’s not even clear these things could have stopped the underwear bomber. In addition to that, terrorists have a way of attacking their targets even when countries spend millions of dollars on security trying to prevent attacks.

Even if a country manages to foil hundreds of would-be attackers, one overlooked terrorist means the Neo-Cons start banging the drum for more security, and more sacrificed civil liberties in the name of — what? Perhaps a little more illusional security until another terrorist slips through the cracks, and then we’ll be queued naked in airport lines because — you know — there’s no Constitutional right to clothes during war time.

Take England, for example. There are an estimated 1.5 million police cameras along the country’s streets, buildings and mass transport systems, and yet in 2005, four men were able to coordinate suicide attacks on London’s subway system, killing 52 people and injuring 700 others. CCTV cameras captured the damage from the blasts, and the subsequent chaos. The surveillance cameras even caught glimpses of the bombers, but authorities only found the images after the terrorists successfully executed the attacks. The police state couldn’t completely squash Danger.

The attacks of 9/11 followed a similar pattern. America spends far more on defense than any other country in the world, and yet a catastrophic intelligence failure led to the deaths of 2,973 Americans. Danger outlived the police state.

The point is Danger is always with us. Shane Harris, author of The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State, and National Journal correspondent, spoke to the key architects of the US government’s surveillance programs over the past quarter-century. Harris writes that spying on US citizens has become something of a favorite past time for administrations, including Obama’s national security team, and yet by spying on millions of Americans, it is much harder to identify actual dangers. Think: oversaturation.

[The NSA] in around 2004 and 2005, experimented with a very sophisticated and terribly expensive kind of new database that would allow them to just ingest huge quantities of information from telecom networks and then just sort of monitor that traffic as it was moving and kind of pulsing in real time. And it sort of sounds like something that you would imagine that they would already be able to do, but the scale of the information that we’re talking about here is literally so large that it even choked NSA’s computers, which were fairly sophisticated after the 9/11 attacks, that they had at the time. They had to actually build new computers just to take in all this stuff.

But after they built those really expensive, new, shiny computers, everything worked out fine, right?

Well, how that’s actually worked out is that there are more than two dozen different networks run by these different agencies, none of which are actually all connected. And these are networks on which they’re running their own particular intelligence, whether that be signals intercepts from NSA or reports from human sources at the CIA. And then, within those networks, there are something like eighty different data streams of unique kinds of intelligence. None of that has really been merged and collected in a way that analysts can search through all of it at once.

Some observers seized upon this oversaturation of information to call for newer, bigger computers to store and process the deluge of information collection whilst spying on citizens. Yet, these demands fail to acknowledge that Danger is — and will always be — with us, and the only known way to decrease Danger is to remove the incentives for attacking the United States.

What are the terrorists’ motives? Most claim the U.S. occupation of the Middle East, or the U.S.’s unwavering and unquestioning support of Israel. Then there’s this NYT quote from an anonymous Yemeni official (h/t Greenwald)

The problem is that the involvement of the United States creates sympathy for Al Qaeda. The cooperation is necessary — but there is no doubt that it has an effect for the common man. He sympathizes with Al Qaeda.

That is quite a problem, isn’t it? The occupation and attacks of the Middle East fuel the terrorism that serves as the rationale for the US occupying and attacking the Middle East. This leaves ones with the impression that the killing could go on forever.

And through it all, Danger will be with us even if the U.S. bombs Iraq (and Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and Yemen, and Iran) off the map, the U.S. military kills as many Muslims as it can, citizens surrender every last civil right their ancestors fought and died for, and the government invests millions of dollars in airport scanners that may not work.

Danger will remain. Some terrorist, somewhere — some “lone wolf” — will figure out how to build an undetectable bomb.

Then what? What more can citizens sacrifice in the quest for the unobtainable Foreversafe?


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  1. collapse expand

    I’ve yet to see this in Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson or Ronald Reagan Washington and respectively they are the world’s busiest airport and one of the most important airports. If these things are so great I’m wondering why these two have yet to invest?

  2. collapse expand

    This is absolutely a violation of civil liberties & rights to privacy, & sadly no one seems to care whatsoever. Furthermore, ALL it does is changes the scenery & not the situation. Next the terrorist targets will be conveyances of mass transit such as buses, subways, etc. Mainly those who may not be able to afford airline tickets, or cars will be “threatened”, potentially injured or killed. Once again the tyranny aristocracy rears it’s ugly head…

    Perhaps if we (& by we i mean: the collective of apparent sheeple which constitutes the vast majority of U.S. population) were less insecure on a personal/individual level; if we were less violent, ignoranant, & afraid, & more intelligent, the possibilities for actual solution would likely be greater.

    • collapse expand

      Next the terrorist targets will be conveyances of mass transit such as buses, subways, etc.

      That’s exactly right. We saw how terrorists could theoretically attack all kinds of targets in London (subway and buses). Unless we’re willing to submit to some kind of eternal police lockdown, Americans will never be fully protected from the murderous intentions of a handful of determined “baddies.” It’s a futile battle.

      It makes much more sense to educate the citizenry about why the terrorists want to attack us so as to prevent that kind of malice in the first place.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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