January 11, 2010

The Airport Scanner Scam

Ah yes, the millimeter-wave scanner: also known as the wang scanner, or the full-body airport scanner that gives security professionals the ability to look directly through your clothing to make sure you’re not carrying anything dangerous that may not set off a metal detector on your person…all without having to pat you down!

Now this might sound great, don’t get me wrong, but essentially walking through a millimeter-wave scanner is the equivalent of stripping down completely naked in front of a TSA agent and handing them your clothes. The scanner supposedly doesn’t record data, and it supposedly is only used in exceptional situations, but the machine still exists and it still causes a significant security concern, both in the fact that it could be beneficial and it’s also a breach of personal privacy unlike any we’ve seen before.

That all being said though, there’s something more going on under the surface here. Someone mentioned on Twitter a while ago that there doesn’t seem to be any real motivation or momentum behind easing things – especially air travel – back to a pre 9/11 state. Part of that may have to do with the fact that clearly there are still security threats against airlines in the United States, but at the same time, anti-terror is big business these days, and I have no doubt in my mind that those businesses would cry foul if the national terror alert level dropped substantially.

So who wins here? James Ridgeway, writing for Mother Jones, has some ideas:

Since the alternative is being groped by airport screeners, the scanners might sound pretty good. The Transportation Security Administration has claimed that the images “are friendly enough to post in a preschool,” though the pictures themselves tell another story, and numerous organizations have opposed them as a gross invasion of privacy. Beyond privacy issues, however, are questions about whether these machines really work—and about who stands to benefit most from their use.

As I documented in my book The Five Unanswered Questions About 9/11, airport security has always been compromised by corporate interests.When it comes to high-tech screening methods, the TSA has a dismal record of enriching private corporations with failed technologies, and there are signs that the latest miracle device may just bring more of the same.

Known by their opponents as “digital strip search” machines, the full-body scanners use one of two technologies—millimeter wave sensors or backscatter x-rays—to see through clothing, producing ghostly images of naked passengers. Yet critics say that these, too, are highly fallible, and are incapable of revealing explosives hidden in body cavities—an age-old method for smuggling contraband. If that’s the case, a terrorist could hide the entire bomb works within his or her body, and breeze through the virtual strip search undetected. Yesterday, the London Independent reported on “authoritative claims that officials at the [UK] Department for Transport and the Home Office have already tested the scanners and were not persuaded that they would work comprehensively against terrorist threats to aviation.” A British defense-research firm reportedly found the machines unreliable in detecting “low-density” materials like plastics, chemicals, and liquids—precisely what the underwear bomber had stuffed in his briefs.

Yet the rush toward full-body scans already seems unstoppable. They were mandated today as part of the “enhanced” screening for travelers from selected countries, and hundreds of the machines are already on order, at a cost of about $150,000 apiece. Within days of the bombing attempt, Reuters was reporting that the “greater U.S. government shift toward using the high-tech devices could create a boom for makers of security imaging products, and it has already created a speculative spike in share prices in some companies.”

Which brings us to the money shot. The body scanner is sure to get a go-ahead because of the illustrious personages hawking them. Chief among them is former DHS secretary Michael Chertoff, who now heads the Chertoff Group, which represents one of the leading manufacturers of whole-body-imaging machines, Rapiscan Systems. For days after the attack, Chertoff made the rounds on the media promoting the scanners, calling the bombing attempt “a very vivid lesson in the value of that machinery”—all without disclosing his relationship to Rapiscan.

Now we’re on to something. As soon as the attack took place, the companies behind these machines and their distributors and PR flacks took to the streets, realizing they had been essentially handed a golden egg if they could figure out how to use the opportunity well.

While the quote above singles out Chertoff – who clearly should have disclosed his conflict of interest when he was making the Sunday morning circuit – he’s by far the only politician with connections to security firms selling this technology and their lobbies, and Ridgeway has a better list pulled from the Washington Examiner.

[ The Airport Scanner Scam ]
Source: Mother Jones

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