Last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit handed down a ruling requiring the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to seek out public comments on the use of Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) scanners.
While the Court of Appeals ruling stemmed from a lawsuit brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, arguing that TSA AIT scanners violated the Fourth Amendment, religious freedom and personal privacy, the Court of Appeals did not find that the AIT scanners violated the Fourth Amendment and are an essential part of airport security. With this ruling however the TSA must now begin the process of collecting the opinions of the general public on the scanners.
While there are many dissenting opinions on the TSA and the use of AIT scanners, the reality of what a TSA AIT scanner is, what it does, how it does it and its pluses-&-minuses are not known by the vast majority of the general public.
The Court of Appeals ruling mentions TSA AIT scanners displaying nude images of those passing through the scanner … yet this ruling comes at the same time the TSA is expanding its use of L3 Communications ProVision ATD software with its millimeter wave scanners, which shows a generic outline of a person being scanned, rather than a graphic image of a person. The TSA began field-testing the L3 Communications ProVision ATD software in February of 2010 and planned to begin widely deploying the software six months from the time the testing began.
As the Court of Appeals was unaware of changes in the TSA’s AIT scanner software when making its ruling, how will the general public weigh in on the use of TSA AIT scanners when there are aspects of the technology that most people simply don’t know of understand.
For starters, there is not one type of AIT scanner in use with the TSA. The TSA presently uses two different types of AIT scanner, the Rapiscan Backscatter scanner and the L3 Communications Millimeter Wave scanner. The technology behind these two scanners is quite different, as is the software driving the hardware.
Many take issue with the ‘radiation’ emitted by the TSA’s AIT scanners, however research by the U.S. Army’s Public Health Institute, as well as other independent studies, show that a single pass through the current TSA AIT scanners is the equivalent of the radiation an airline passenger receives from two minutes of flight at 30,000 feet or above. Given that passengers boarding flights will all expose themselves to radiation while in flight, far greater than the radiation emitted by TSA AIT scanners, is the emitting of radiation truly a risk to the health of the traveling public?
The general public is probably unaware that the TSA has previously tested, and trained Transportation Security Officers (TSO) on, non-radiation emitting thermal AIT scanners from Iscon. These scanners were highly praised by the TSA’s own internal experts, however the TSA chose to pass on these scanners in favour of the larger and more expensive Rapiscan Backscatter scanners. While the TSA distances themselves from the Iscon 1000D thermal scanners, internally it is believed these scanners ultimately were not selected due to political reasons rather than technology and hardware reasons.
Other factors that directly impact public opinion of the TSA AIT scanners is the rampant misinformation that these scanners store images, when in fact the hardware used by the TSA is incapable of storing images in a ‘live setting.’ This myth surrounding the TSA’s AIT scanner hardware is constantly circulated and is significant cause for the public mistrust of the TSA’s AIT scanners.
Aviation security is vital. Airliners are terrorism targets, they have been for a long time … but the potential fate of the TSA’s AIT scanners according to the U.S. Court of Appeals is being based on the opinions of the general public, a general public that has little factual knowledge of what they are commenting on.
What is my opinion? Well my opinion is long and complicated, but let me sum it up by sayig this:
The TSA must create a uniform security environment based on a single line of technology per application, with uniform standards and protocols for training and field deployment. The TSA must reevaluate all of its technology options for effective AIT scanners, as stand-alone hardware and as part of layered security environment. As the TSA reevaluates its use of AIT scanners it needs to change its technological focus towards detecting the likely threat of explosives through integrated ‘puffer’ technology. All of the hardware changes are nothing without a revised evaluation of training the agency’s human assets and working towards transparency and accountability in regard to its use of specific technologies.
So … what is your opinion on the TSA’s AIT scanners? More importantly, on what factual basis are you basing your opinion? Leave your emotions at the door, step inside and rethink how you’ve based your opinion of AIT scanners.