US Court of Appeals Requires TSA To Get Public Comment On Scanners

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.


Happy Flying!


  1. The TSA can opt-out of the APA which they will probably do.

    “(B) when the agency for good cause finds (and incorporates the finding and a brief statement of reasons therefor in the rules issued) that notice and public procedure thereon are impracticable, unnecessary, or contrary to the public interest.”

    They can certainly make the case that they know better, and not having the machines is contrary to the public interest.

    Problem is going to be the back-scatter units. Word is that they cannot use ATR, only the MMW units. Even if both machines had ATR is the TSA going to limit themselves to patting down just the alerted area?

    On the ISCON units, i “heard” that L3 and Rapiscan helped write the purchase requirements for the TSA. The ISCON unit while cheaper, private, and more effective, is slower (60 seconds PP). So it does not meet the requirements.

    All in all everyone also forgets that none of these machine detect anything. They simply render a body naked. While they will probably catch a dumb person with sticks of dynamite strapped to their chest, they will not stop any serious terrorist. And it is highly doubtful that a terrorist would even allow himself to be scanned in the first place. They do catch lots of potheads however.

    TSA needs to decide what it is looking for. If the goal is to find explosives and weapons, then metal detector needs to be primary. Resolve with wand. Then explosives trace detection. There are handheld units that can accomplish this quickly and without the patdown. And of course dogs. None of these procedures were written by anyone who has any background in explosives detection. They are set up simply to find people concealing “stuff”. Big difference.

    No matter what the TSA does with these machines they are waste of money, and deter resources from finding real threats.

  2. Also forgot to mention. The Army study which was just completed on the BSX units was the first independent test of the BSX machines. If you look at their test data it shows that average radiation is slightly above what the manufacturer claims 3.8 vs 3.0. However the average dose to the eyes was 6.7 and average to the skin was almost 12. Keep in mind “whole body dose average” take into account area’s of the body that get zero (feet, ect) The issue here was always concentrated average. The average skin dose is 4x higher then the manufacturers claim. Someone will get skin cancer from this unit. Is this acceptable when the MMW and IR ISCON units are available? I would say no.

  3. Robert,

    I completely agree, the TSA needs to decide what they are looking for. A trained terrorist is not going to be caught using any of the AIT scanners because what is being smuggled will either be carried internally or it will be packed in their bag in such a way that it doesn’t raise any alarms.

    Happy Flying!


  4. My biggest problem with the use of AIT scanners is that in the last two years, during which I have gone through airport security (in the US) probably 20 times, I have only gone through scanners three times (all of those in the last two weeks, during which time I also went through security twice without getting scanned).

  5. Its just a money grab. Look into who came from what administration appointment and where they went.
    Mo’ Money! Mo’ Money! Mo’ Money!
    All at the health of the public. Janet Neapolitan won’t go through the scanners. The ‘testing’ lol. Specs were handed to a company, they looked at them and said, they are OK. But the machines themselves were NOT tested.

  6. I heard a claim that a knife blade concealed between the sole of one’s foot and the sock will not be detected by either type of AIT machine. Does anyone know whether this claim is true? That is, do the AIT machines scan the screened individual only from the side and above, or do they additionally scan from underneath as well?

  7. AIT needs to be tested properly. However, regardless of the technology used whether it is x-ray machines, magnetic wands or AITs, it is up to the operator to determine what is he looking at. The TSA needs to train its staff and not only front line officers, on the technology but also how to deal with nervous passengers. It is stressful to fly but it is getting more stressful to go through airport security.

  8. Was there ever data released on the methods used to test the scanners? I’m thinking specifically numbers of subjects, how many times the scanner used per subject, etc. I’m curious both in terms of my use of the scanner and the pilots and crews repeated use. I stopped following the story regularly but remember something about the independent studies not having lengthy access to the scanners for repeated testing – is that true?

    I’m a bit of a science geek (plus I used to run experimental studies) so I’m one of the people that would actually read such data when/if I found it online. So far I’ve not found any. (But then I’ve also not found many studies online about using those electronic devices while in flight and I know lots of work has been done, so annoyingly this may just be another “no one’s made the data available” things.

  9. I opted out today. Got the “enhanced pat down”. When the guy finished, I asked him why he didn’t want to check under my feet. He told me it would not be possible for me to “stand on a dangerous weapon.”

    I disagree.

  10. “…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….”

    I hear this line a lot when talking about the scanners and I have a real problem with it. The dose may be small, it may only be equivalent to two minutes at altitude, its less than fill-in-the-blank and safer than a whole bunch of other stuff.

    The problem I have, specifically, is all exposure to radiation is cumulative. These scanners are going to expose me to the equivalent of two minutes of travel AND I am about to spend four hours up there. It’s not that its less than something, it is in Addition to all that other stuff to which your comparing. A banana has a measurable amount of radiological dosage, albeit it very small. If I am eating a banana while standing in line and then being scanned at the checkpoint, it is not one exposure that is larger than the other, it is two exposures.

    Radiation exposure is a gamble. I’ve got really good odds of nothing happening to me in the long run, but why would I want to subject myself to one more dose of radiation when it is not necessary? And that extra exposure is of questionable effectiveness for the situation at hand?

    That is why I won’t be stepping into any of the scanners in my travels.

  11. First, good comment on the average radiation. The overall dosage may be low but what about those specfic areas such as the eyes. Has there been any research as to the effects the radiation has on reproduction on both men and women? Again, the overall doseage may be low, but specific areas may be extremely high. The distinct difference between the radiation I get from flying as opposed to the scanners is choice. I am making the decision to fly, so I accept that risk, but it appears that I really do not get the choice of being scanned. Sure I can opt out of the scan, but whats the alternative, sexual assault. Additionnaly lets not forget that radiation cumulative. Second, I certainly do not believe that the “live images’ cannot be stored. Two reasons for this. First, there are already images out on websites that have come from these “non-image” storing machines. They had to get there somehow. Second, having a graduate degree in Computer Engineering, I believe I do have an understanding of digital information. The images that the people “behind the scenes” are viewing is an image stored in what is called RAM. The RAM is there so that the image can remain viewable until it is decided weather or not the person scanned is cleared. I would suspect that if a person did not pass the scan, for legal reasons the TSA would want that image as evidence in the event they need it for court in the event further invasive searching the individual is required. It may take a supervisor to actually do the saving, but I don’t believe for a moment that they would design this type of technology without having that ability. And once it is saved, who know where it will end up.

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