Is TSA Removing Backscatter Scanners? Nope

This morning ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize winning non-profit news organization, wrote about the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) quietly swapping certain Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) scanners from airports around the country, replacing them with other AIT scanners, implying that this is being done for health reasons.


ProPublica journalist Michael Grabell writes, “The TSA is not phasing out X-ray body scanners altogether,” a completely misleading statement,  the TSA is not phasing out backscatter (X-Ray) scanners at all.


Over the past few years there has been considerable controversy over the TSA’s installation and use of AIT scanners to screen passengers at airports.   The TSA’s AIT scanners have made headlines due to producing ‘nude images,‘ their costs, the emission of ionizing radiation, and being banned for use in airports by the European Union … but what most people don’t know is that not all AIT scanners are the same.


When the TSA began installing AIT scanners in 2010 the agency wanted a significant number of scanners quickly, resulting in a split contract for two different types of technology. The AIT scanners the agency selected were the L3 Communications ProVision scanners, using millimeter-wave technology and the Rapiscan Systems Secure 1000 scanners using backscatter technology.


While the TSA publicly defends its continued use of the Rapiscan System’s scanners, they have been a thorn in the TSA’s side since their original purchase. The TSA’s selection of Rapidscan’s technology has been mired in stories of political back room dealings due to the association of former Secretary of Homeland Security’s Michael Chertoff with Rapiscan, the issue of backscatter scanners emitting ionizing radiation, visually invasive software that shows “nude” images, as well as an increased rate operational failure and internal reports from the agency’s Transportation Security Laboratory showing false alarm rates averaging 38%.


But does this mean the TSA is removing the Rapiscan scanners from service at certain airports as the ProPublica report implies, due to health issues?  No, it does not.


Michael Grabell implies radiation is a factor in the TSA’s decision to shuffle its hardware, stating,” The Transportation Security Administration has been quietly removing its X-ray body scanners from major airports over the last few weeks and replacing them with machines that radiation experts believe are safer.


The shuffeling of hardware and technology does not reduce the number of Rapiscan Secure 1000 backscatter scanners, it just allows for more L3 Communications ProVision scanners to be installed at more airports throughout the United States.  The reasoning behind the TSA swapping Rapiscan for L3 scanners at higher volume airports around the country is primarily to streamline the software and implement scanners that facilitate a quicker processing time.


This “strategic reallocation,” as the TSA is calling it, is due to the superior speed at which the L3 Communications scanners screen passengers, the more effective software interface for operators to quickly determine if a physical search of a person is required, a higher in-service reliability rate and a lower false-alarm rate. An important software aspect in play is the certification of the Automated Target Recognition (ATR) software, which removes the need for a Transportation Security Officer (TSO) to directly view the screen.  The Automated Target Recognition software is fully operational with the L3 Communications ProVision hardware.


As the TSA is removing Rapiscan backscatter scanners from Category X airports such as Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles International Airport and New York’s JFK International Airport, they are moving them to smaller airports that do not require the same speed of screening and operational reliability as these major airports. Presently, 96 Rapiscan Secure 1000 scanners are being temporarily removed from service to be upgraded to handle ATR software technology, once these scanners are upgraded they will go to Category 3 and 4 airports, as on the whole, the Rapiscan ATR software has not been certified for use due to reliability issues.


If the TSA was removing backscatter scanners from airports and placing them in warehouses, beside the failed Explosive Trace Detection Portal (puffer) scanners, there would be cause for investigation into the agency’s longstanding stance on the health implications and deployment of the Rapiscan scanners … but the TSA is merely doing what any agency, or business, would do when it needs things to be reliable and faster, bring in newer more effective technology to major operations and move the less effective and slower technology to its smaller operations.


The issue of the TSA denying any health related issues related to Rapiscan’s backscatter scanners needs to addressed by the U.S. House & Senate, where in reality it will likely never be addressed as the agency is overseen by 108 committees and sub-committess who are compartmentalized and who appear to have little control or oversight over the TSA.


Happy Flying!




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