Why You Can’t Smuggle ‘Anything’ Through TSA Scanners

Earlier this week Jonathan Corbett, creator of the TSA Out Of Our Pants blog, posted a video entitled How To Get Anything Through TSA Nude Body Scanners. In Mr. Corbett’s video he show images from Rapiscan Secure 1000 Backscatter scanners and then describes how items placed along the side of a person would appear dark, blending into the background and be undetected by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Transportation Security Officers (TSO).

 

In some ways Mr. Corbett’s experiment to sneak items through TSA Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) scanners is correct … but in other ways it is very misleading.

 

Since the TSA’s implementation of AIT scanners it has known about the possibility of items blending in with the ‘x-ray’ image produced by the Rapiscan Secure 1000 Backscatter scanners. Initially security experts within the TSA has wanted protocol to be that each passenger be screened in two directions, allowing TSOs to view all angles of the passenger.  The procedure of screening each passenger from two angles was never implemented due to the amount of time it would take to screen each passenger.   Time and practicality gave way to an effective use of the Rapiscan Backscatter scanners.

 

In practical applications, items that can be concealed in the Rapiscan Secure 1000 backscatter scanner generally pose minimal threat to security, especially because these items need to be thin and present the same ‘shade of black’ as the image background. Yes, a long knife can be hidden down the side of a shirt, but it would be far easier to conceal a long knife inside a piece of baggage, or use a hardened and lethal non-metal blade. Should the blade of a knife be turned more than 1º off its parallel axis  creating a different shade of black it would be detected. Smuggling a bomb through an AIT scanner inside a hidden jacket is impractical, as a bomb requires the explosive agent and detonator. There are far more effective ways to evade TSA scanners than to place a bomb within a hidden side pocket. Try concealing a gun through an AIT scanner and the shape and width of the gun would be revealed when a person raised their hands over their head, not to mention its profile would be detectable with a pattern, even a minimal pattern, appearing against the black screen background.

 

Should a passenger turn slightly off their center axis in any direction, or the hidden item touches the passenger’s side directly, whatever they are smuggling would be detected if it didn’t present a different shade of black against the background.

 

There are other factors that need to be taken into account when looking at the effectiveness of TSA AIT scanners. Referring to these scanners as “nude-o-scopes’ is in fact a misnomer. While Rapiscan backscatter scanners show an x-ray image, the TSA’s L3 Communications ProVision Millimeterwave scanners is not an x-ray system, they are based on millimeter wave technology and do not show a physical image of a person being scanned.

 

Back in February 2011 the TSA and L3 began rolling out the ProVision ATD millimeterwave software, a version of AIT scanning software that had been in place in Amsterdam’s Schiphol International Airport for roughly 18 months prior to the TSA’s integration. L3 Communication’s ProVision ATD software does not show a physical image of the person being scanned, rather it shows “ginger bread cookie” outline and displays a yellow block marker over any detected object on the person.   Any object hidden within a person’s clothing would be detected by the L3 Systems ProVision ATD millimeterwave software and shown as a yellow marker, triggering a pat down of the traveler.

 

With the TSA using both the Rapiscan Secure 1000 and L3 Communications ProVision ATD scanners at airports throughout the United States a passenger would need to know exactly which scanners were installed at each checkpoint, and in some airports determine when each  scanner was in use to ensure they ended up in a line with a Rapiscan scanner rather than an L3 Communications scanner or walk through metal detector. With all of this planning, it is far easy to smuggle contraband items through TSA checkpoints in other ways … because what happens when you step through the Rapiscan Secure 1000 with your smuggled item then get selected for a pat down?

 

Below is an x-ray image from the Rapiscan Secure 1000 and an image from the L3 ProVision ATD.

 

Happy Flying!

 

@flyingwithfish

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Comments

  1. Ick. I TRULY hate the TSA’s invasive policies of scanning, and opt out every time. If more people know how truly nude these images are, and the completely unknown risk of the x-rays, I think more people would (instead of just raising our arms as if we’re guilty-until-seen-naked).

    Also, there are a few fun facts that anyone with a high school education would know. One, you should worry more about checked bags than anything carried on a plane. Remote detonation is far more possible than carrying on a weapon. Two, many of the ground staff at airports (the ones on the tarmac) are not security screened every day the way the crew and passengers are. Three, basic chemistry says that there are plenty of perfectly legal substances that explode on contact with plain water — solid sodium? Easily bought as a classroom supply? And four, it is insane that we care this deeply about our airports but not our train or bus stations.

    This security theater is purely reactionary, and that’s why it will never work.

  2. Julia,

    The L3 Communications ProVision ATD is not nude or invasive, secondly the L3 Communications AIT is millimeterwave and does not utilize X-rays or ionizing radiation. The Rapiscan Secure 1000 does in fact depict an x-ray image. I don’t find it invasive, I find it ineffective. As for radiation, the Rapiscan emits less than 10 microRem per capture, far less than what a passenger is exposed to after just a few minutes in flight.

    As for explosives in flight, I have written about this extensively over the years and yes they are a significant threat. If someone is going to do harm to a flight, they will not do it by being brazen.

    Happy Flying!

    -Fish

  3. Yeah, there exists no scientific evidence to back that the radiation is harmful.. But do you know what, my grand father’s doctor told him the same thing regarding smoking! So if you want to be go through radiation that is uncalled for, so be it. Stop pretending that it is safe!

  4. Silence,

    I did not miss the point. I am sticking to the facts, and have no emotional investment in this either way.

    If you want to change the TSA it needs to be done through consistent facts and coming up with solutions to the problems, not just standing outside the fence and screaming inwards.

    Happy Flying!

    -Fish

  5. Thanks fish for the information. I used to do a lot of travelling pre-9/11 , and always wondered about the lack of security at the airports. We may have gone overboard nowadays (depending on your perspective) but things are never going to be the same post 9/11.
    Even before 9/11 , many countries already have massive passenger checks at airports. I remember when I was younger, travelling in asia, all luggage were hand searched.
    As for X-rays and microwave, I am not a physician or physics major, but before we rant on and on about dangers of x-rays and microwave let’s do a little research on how much radiation we get on a daily basis versus what we get from these machines.

    -Andy

  6. re: 7.flyingfish
    March 8th, 2012 at 1:03 pm Silence,

    I did not miss the point. I am sticking to the facts, and have no emotional investment in this either way.
    If you want to change the TSA it needs to be done through consistent facts and coming up with solutions to the problems, not just standing outside the fence and screaming inwards.

    Happy Flying!

    -Fish

    TSA has had hundreds of suggestions, some good, some not so good but TSA refuses to listen to the public.

    It is TSA that has put up the fence that leaves the public standing outside shouting all while TSA employees humiliate, embarrass, and abuse people who travel.

    Corbett has shown a fatal weakness in the very expensive Whole Body Scanners that TSA uses yet the TSA response was immature and dismissive.

    TSA has a broken complaint process, a broken screening process, a broken training process and a broken management process. I would say that TSA is broken.

    RB

  7. A few notes:

    TSA’s strategy is not about 100% reliance on detecting the weapon or bomb itself. Many of the technologies are a way of increasing the difficulty of staging an attack, not absolutely preventing them. Higher difficulty means longer staging, which gives intelligence more time to track bad guys. Higher difficulty also means a better chance of detecting behavioral “tells.”

    This is ultimately a battle of imagination and understanding how the other side thinks, not a battle of technology. The unusual but “legal” stuff that TSA finds is much scarier than the bozo who forgets about the 9mm in his gym bag. The bad guys do their fair share of “threat theater,” but there is a purpose to it. Same for TSA.

    @Julia: Yes, there are many ways to make an explosive substance, but there are not many ways to make an explosive substance that can bring down a plane AND are easy to conceal. On the other hand, the bad guys in this subspecialty know their stuff at a very advanced level.

    @Bill: Millimeter wave is not microwave. Different wavelengths. But point taken.

    Fly on,
    -H.

  8. RB:

    I am not addressing the TSA response. I am addressing that Mr. Corbett did not expose a fatal weakness in the Rapiscan Secure 1000 backscatter scanners. Mr Corbett highlighted a weakness that has been known and been disclosed and discussed in public forums since 2010. The weakness was discovered by TSA technology analysts during the testing and selection process. The reason the Rapiscan Secure 1000 system was selected was not incompetence or conspiracy … it is political in-feeding due to the company’s ties to Fmr. Sect of Homeland Security Chertoff and George Soros.

    The TSA is broken. I have been covering the agency since November 19 2001 and written about internal issues with the agency consistently since 2006. The agency needs a change, from the inside, but the exposure of something that has been known, and the selective omission of important details does not help change the agency.

    Happy Flying!

    -Fish

  9. “The procedure of screening each passenger from two angles was never implemented due to the amount of time it would take to screen each passenger.”

    Never mind that it would DOUBLE the amount of radiation that you are exposed to.

  10. @WorldwideViking
    I hate to break it to you, but EM with millimeter wavelength is microwave.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microwave

    And if you go to the wikipedia entry on millimeter wave scanners:
    “While the majority of animal cancer studies show no response to chronic exposure of microwave radiation, some show an increased rate of tumor growth. The same increase also occurs in chronically–stressed animals not exposed to radiation.[14][15]”

  11. Hate to break it to you millimeter radiation haters, but millimeter radiation is neither microwave nor infrared, but rather in a very narrow band right at the border between the microwave and infrared bands. It has properties different from both thermal infrared, and microwave radio transmissions. Learn the science before you criticize it. Microwave ovens transmit at 2.4ghz and this happens to be near the resonantfrequency of water molecules so they vibrate strongly and get very hot, and cook food. Milimeter waves are around 1000ghz, and so they do NOT cook stuff. And that means the will not fry you. x-rays are ionizing radiation. That is they will knock an electron out of an atom. If this happens in a DNA molecule it can trigger a chemical reaction that alters the DNA molecule in a given cell. Said alteration has the potential to lead to cancer.

    Yeah, I most certainly would take a millimeter wave scan over an x-ray scan ANY DAY. One is safe, the other is most certainly NOT safe.

    Please for all you dummies out there who don’t know science, don’t talk. All it does is show your ignorance, and even worse has the potential to effect official policies. Of the few times the government does listen to the people, I don’t want them to hear the rantings of the not-so-science-minded folk because that will cause them to make science decisions based on the PSEUDOSCIENCE of you ignorant people. I want them to hear ME or others who actually KNOW SOME SCIENCE so the government can make the CORRECT decisions.

  12. Ok, I’m no science graduate, but if you thought you had a broken arm – you’d get an X-Ray, I know people who twist their ankle and get an X-Ray. The people who DO know there stuff (See Videogamer555 above) are telling us this thing isn’t X-Ray. Now… I happen to work at an airport, at a screening point, and yes, a lot of stuff that gets picked up on is stuff that was brought accidentally. Occasionally, I even spend my hard-earned so that my family and I can go on holidays, and if that means I have to be subjected to someone patting me down (happens daily because EVERYONE is screened except the Federal police) or once this tech comes in, if I have to stand on a platform and be “backscattered”, so that when my family flies, I can even be SLIGHTLY more confident that some terrorist isn’t going to push a button and erase their lives – then the 1 in a billion chance I could get cancer from that machine (rather than the million other ways the human race is subjected to cancer inducing radiation) then it will have been worth it. Did you ever stop to think that plummeting to the ground from 35 thousand feet because the pilot has been injured in some fashion because someone carried a weapon onto the plane, could POSSIBLY be more hazardous to your health than a NON-X-RAY. Furthermore, the option is always yours, you have the right to say no to any search, remembering of course, the airline also have the right to say no to any passenger who doesn’t pass screening.

  13. The odds of cancer from backscatter are in the low millions: 1. The odds of a terrorist attack on a plane are currently about 70 million: 1, given the number of attempted (But not necessarily successful) attacks since Sep 11. So you are more likely to get cancer than attacked by a a terrorist.

    None of which addresses the fact that checked bags, air cargo and air freight all fly in the same plane and cannot possibly get inspected sufficiently to stop a bomb.

  14. I would. Rather go thru the scanners (even the Nudy ones) because I don’t want to to be sexually assaulted by these morons.

  15. I was flagged going thru scanner..I stepped out put my feet in markers and asked to put my right leg behind me and then scanned it a yellow blocked showed what does it mean? I had a dress on so everything was visible. Does it mean I have metal in my leg? Many years ago..I also beeped..with no visible metal anywhere..can you explain..thank you

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