TSA Technologies, Security Theater & Oversight Failures

For years I have actively avoided using the term “Security Theater” when discussing the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).   Over the years I have torn the TSA apart as well as defended them, as the agency has good and bad, while most people just focus on the bad.   Today however, looking at technologies the TSA is exploring and the financial and human resources it is investing in these future technologies I find myself needing to use the term I have long detested when describing the agency …


… the future technologies are entirely Security Theater.


The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Transportation Security Administration is exploring molecular scanners, in conjunction with In-Q-Tel, a private company originally founded at the request of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The new molecular scanner is not a traditional walk through scanner, but a compact laser scanner capable of aiming its beam 50 meters out (164 feet) to detect traces of explosives, drugs, adrenaline levels and the contents of your diet.  Currently, In-Q-Tel claims its molecular scanner is 10,000,000 times faster and 1,000,000 times more sensitive than any other threat detection system available. Remotely collected data would be collected for threat assessment without anyone’s knowledge at any vantage point in an airport … or anywhere else for that matter.


The current plan for the DHS and TSA is to utilize these new molecular scanners at airports throughout the United States and at and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (US CBP) outposts.


While the In-Q-Tel’s new application of the Genia Photonics laser scanner is impressive in that it is completely portable, requires no calibration alignment and collects data in a mere picosecond, this is a significant overreach for the TSA boundaries.


The TSA is so focused on gadgets and showing off the latest technologies that it has forgotten the warehouses full of US$160,000 Explosive Trace Detection Portals they purchased from General Electric Infrastructure and Smiths Detection in 2004.   These 95 initial machines, installed in 34 airports, required passengers to stand still in an enclosed area while bursts of air detected trace elements of contraband items.   These machines came with a price tag far greater than the $15,200,000 hardware costs, as many airports needed to invest in modifying their security areas to include the Explosive Trace Detection Portals … which were then tossed out by less than four years later in 2008 because of the high rate of false positives, the extensive maintenance costs and their ability to be completely rendered useless by humidity.


From the Explosive Trace Detection Portal the TSA moved onto Advanced Imaging Technology Scanners (AIT).  The AIT scanners are both Backscatter and Millimeter Wave.  These two types of scanners provide a complete body scan of a person passing through it to detect any hidden items … of course the Rapiscan Backscatter Scanners emit radiation, are banned in the European Union and elsewhere due to health concerns. While internal TSA reports show the L3 Communications millimeter wave is more effective, less prone to operator error and less risky in terms of health factors, it still maintains its US$173,000,000 contract with Rapiscan for its backscatter scanners.


How did the TSA manage to get the x-ray emitting Rapiscan Secure 1000 scanners approved for use, when x-rays for purposes other than medical usage on humans is illegal in most states?  Simple, The Rapiscan backscatter scanners are not medical devices, so they are not subject to the strict medical diagnostic regulations for medical equipment.   Had the backscatter scanners selected by the TSA been classified as a diagnostic device it would have been required to show clinical data proving safety and effectiveness through a regimented Food and Drug Administration process.   As the backscatter scanners do not contain any radioactive material they do not need to be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) either.


As the TSA Rapiscan backscatter scanners do not fit into a defined category, they are merely classified as an “electronic product” by the U.S. Federal Government.  The FDA, while overseeing x-ray devices for medical usage, does not oversee such products in other applications.  While the FDA does require radiation-emitting devices provide safety reports explaining dosage and notify the agency should any overexposure occur. As of now, no incident reports have officially been filed with the FDA. As such, the agency has chosen to not issue a mandatory safety regulation.


Why is the FDA oversight of the TSA’s Rapiscan backscatter scanners important?  Because the agency has issued safety regulations for the x-ray screening of baggage … but not the direct x-raying of people within airports.


On the surface the TSA’s is great at having a show of force.  The image of presence gives the sense of heightened security … but it seems to avoid lower cost, often more effective technologies.


The agency has been reluctant to trial the Suspect Detection System’s VR-1000, an automated interrogation and background check system.  The VR-1000 works in a similar manner to a polygraph machine for identifying potential threats, and assumes that viable threats are likely not already known to Homeland Security or other law enforcement.  The VR-1000 is innocuous, it requires passengers merely press their fingers to a screen (it doesn’t even scan finger prints) and answer questions. There is no profiling, threat detection is based on assessing physiological and psychological cues that a person seeking to do harm is likely to emit.


With the TSA claims it is looking for explosives (as seeking out drugs is outside the scope of the TSA’s defined mission statement), the agency has been surprisingly hesitant to fully take advantage of  TraceGuard .  TraceGuard is a safe chemical process designed to free particles from fabric for quick analysis.   TraceGuard’s benefit is that it does not provide false positives for benign particles, only alerts for explosives or biological agents.   TraceGuard, which the TSA has deployed in a limited capacity, can be integrated into existing scanners, as well as into the hand-held metal detectors TSA Transportation Security Officers (TSO) use during secondary screening.


So … where does this leave the TSA?


The agency needs to return to achieving its core mission which is The Transportation Security Administration protects the Nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.”


The agency is not responsible for drug interdiction. The agency is not responsible for general law enforcement. The agency is not responsible for warrant apprehension.


Before the TSA focuses on using a laser at 50 meters to detect a person flying with marijuana, or a person with high adrenaline from a long kiss goodbye at the curb, someone’s sweat indicating they are a nervous flyer, or a nervous flyer having just taken Xanax … they may wan to focus on the basics, like detecting explosives.


An agency tasked with the monumental task of protecting every single commercial airline flight departing in the U.S. shouldn’t miss a significant amount of explosives being sent through their system during tests, or U.S. Army mechanical engineers with anti-personnel land mines in their carry on baggage.


Before any entity can move forward it must master the basics, it must build from a solid foundation, not a foundation of sand.


The TSA needs to push the reset button, take a step back, define who they are, what they do, what they seek to achieve and how to best achieve that.


As of now, the agency has no direction and is putting on a show of Security Theater in the same way a kid reads a comic book inside a science textbook.


Happy Flying!





  1. I think TSA may have just met its maker. In the case below, the TSA knew that what they found was not an explosive, but decided to search the bag anyway. Not a good idea.


    TSA search of defendant’s bag at Oakland airport was not for explosives or other threat to airline security, and the motion to suppress is granted. The TSA officer’s report said that he concluded the dark mass on the screen was not an explosive before the search; he just didn’t know what it was. To be a valid administrative search, it has to be consistent with TSA’s mission; otherwise, it’s just a general search. United States v. Fulgham, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93909 (N.D. Cal. July 5, 2012):

    In McCarty, the Ninth Circuit recently explained the scope of a lawful airport administrative search. “[U]nder federal law, TSA agents could legally search [Defendant’s] entire bag for explosives or other safety hazards.” 648 F.3d at 831 (citing 49 U.S.C. § 44901; 49 C.F.R. § 1540.111(c)). “However, because warrantless, suspicionless administrative searches remain subject to the Fourth Amendment, a particular search is constitutionally reasonable only where it is no more extensive nor intensive than necessary, in the light of current technology, to detect the presence of weapons or explosives and where it is confined in good faith to that purpose.” Id. (internal quotations and citations omitted). See also United States v. Doe, 61 F.3d 107, 110 (1st Cir. 1995) (“lawful airline security searches of carry-on luggage may not be enlarged or tailored systemically to detect contraband (e.g., narcotics) unrelated to airline security”).

    “In other words, an airport search remains a valid administrative search only so long as the scope of the administrative search exception is not exceeded; ‘once a search is conducted for a criminal investigatory purpose, it can no longer be justified under an administrative search rationale.'” McCarty, 648 F.3d at 831 (quoting United States v. $124,570 U.S. Currency, 873 F.2d 1240, 1246 n.5 (9th Cir. 1989)). “Thus, because TSA screeners are limited to the single administrative goal of searching for possible safety threats related to explosives, the constitutional bounds of an airport administrative search require that the individual screener’s actions be no more intrusive than necessary to determine the existence or absence of explosives that could result in harm to the passengers and aircraft.” Id. at 831 (citing $124,570 U.S. Currency, 873 F.2d at 1245). However, the mere fact that an airport screening procedure reveals contraband other than weapons or explosives does not automatically “‘alter the essentially administrative nature of the screening process … or render the searches unconstitutional.'” United States v. Marquez, 410 F.3d 612, 617 (9th Cir. 2005) (quoting United States v. Davis, 482 F.2d 893, 908 (9th Cir. 1973)).

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