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Invasion of the Body Scanners: why airport security will never work

I’ve been seeing a lot of frustration and anger at the new security measures going into effect in airports (especially from pilots). One issue is the new millimeter ‘backscatter’ x-ray machines. Previously, only your carryon bags were x-rayed, now they are x-raying your entire body. And since these new machines penetrate clothing, but stop at your skin, they show the TSA workers an image of you essentially naked.

If you don’t like the idea of being exposed to dangerous x-rays or being viewed naked, you can opt out, in which case you are given a thorough pat-down, including your genital areas. That goes for children too. Which would you prefer: Having your child subjected to dangerous radiation so they can be viewed naked by a stranger, or having their entire body including genitals felt up by a stranger?

But my real question is, what took everyone so long? I have never understood why people put up with airport security at all. Airport security has never made us any safer.

Airport security checkpoints were originally installed because of airplane hijackings (including quite a few to Cuba). But security never stopped a single hijacking. The main reason hijacking stopped was because we were able to get treaties signed with various countries (including Cuba) that guaranteed they would prosecute hijackers. So hijackers were arrested on landing and typically returned to the US to stand trial. Once that happened, the hijackings stopped, but curiously the checkpoints didn’t. (Interestingly, the other reason hijackings stopped was because we stopped giving so much media attention to them. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet learned the lesson that in order to cause terror, the terrorist wants publicity.)

The problem is, in order for airport security to actually work, it has to be incredibly (almost impossibly) invasive. Even with the new x-ray machines any terrorist wannabe could smuggle weapons at least as dangerous as the ones used during 9/11 onto any airplane. Are we going allow the TSA to perform full body cavity searches of everyone who is going to board a plane? Seriously?

Because the only answer to “how much privacy and rights do you have to give up in order to ensure complete safety” is “every last one of them”. And even that isn’t good enough. In maximum security prisons where people have no rights and full cavity searches are done routinely, criminals manage to smuggle in weapons and other contraband. You think you can stop it at a busy airport?

Even if we could have complete and foolproof airport security (which we cannot), it would not make us any safer. In fact, it would likely make us less safe. Consider the x-ray machines. You might argue that the danger from x-rays is low, but so is the danger from terrorists. So low, in fact, the risk of dying from the x-ray machines is likely greater than the risk from being killed by a terrorist. So at best, we are getting rid of one risk (which we actually are not, since airport security is not foolproof) and substituting an even greater risk. How stupid is that?

And finally, even if we could have completely and foolproof airport security that had absolutely no risks, we would still not be any safer. Because airplanes are not the only place where we are in danger from terrorists. In fact, some people have argued that a terrorist could easily walk into an airport carrying a bomb and detonate it near a crowded airport security checkpoint. This would cause just as much terror, and shut down our air transportation system. And airport security couldn’t stop it.

As we well know, any place where large numbers of people gather could be a potential target for a terrorist bombing. For example, 9/11 killed around 3,000 people, but football stadiums hold tens of thousands of innocent people. There are many cruise ships that hold more people than were killed on 9/11, and those often operate in international waters where they cannot be protected. Even if we made airplanes (and airports) completely terrorist proof, the terrorists aren’t going to just give up. After all, the Oklahoma City bombing was carried out on an entire building, using a bomb hidden in a parked vehicle.

So what am I saying? That we shouldn’t do anything to prevent terrorism? Of course not. Installing reinforced cockpit doors on airplanes already took away the incentive for terrorists to try to pull something like 9/11 again. Not to mention the fact that passengers are now more willing to fight back against terrorists. A group of terrorists could perhaps blow up an airplane, but it would be much more difficult for them to use the airplane like a guided missile to destroy a large building.

What I’m saying is that the money being spent on airport security would be much better spent somewhere else, like investigating terrorists so we can stop them no matter if their plans target airplanes, government buildings, water supplies, or whatever. Even Forbes magazine says that we should abolish the TSA.

Isn’t this something we can all agree on? Right now, the only group benefiting from airport security are the companies who manufacture the x-ray machines, and the only winners in the war on terror are the terrorists, who would have us quaking in our boots, except we had to take those off in order to go through security.

UPDATE: Penn Jillette strikes back, in 2002.

UPDATE2: Someone worked out the math. Assuming that the TSA installs the new machines in every airport, then your chances of dying from a fatal cancer from one of these machines is 16 times more likely than your chance of dying onboard an airplane due to a terrorist attack. And in addition, the new machines do not detect PETN, the very explosive the underwear bomber was trying to use. However, the existing puffer machines do detect PETN. So why do we need the new expensive machines?

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22 Comments

  1. Jonah wrote:

    Well I’ll go ahead and provide a case for airport security. Take both the shoe bomber and underwear bomber. They carried explosives that were not easy to set off. While I have no evidence to prove it, I would say they made things difficult for themselves because they thought airport security would work. Else they would have just bought a bag of C4 in their pockets and set it off easily. Sometimes just the threat of being discovered is a deterrent. Like having a chihuahua and putting a “beware of dog” sign outside your home.

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  2. Iron Knee wrote:

    And yet, both the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber got on the airplane, so all our security did not stop them.

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  3. patriotsgt wrote:

    Just to round out the discussion and add a little to Jonah’s argument, both the underwear and shoes bombers boarded their planes on foreign soil, not the US. I don’t know (other then your other posts test smuggling) of any attempted bombers that boarded on US soil. Does anyone know of any? It’s hard to agrue about less need for security when all the (post 911) bombs and bombers entered into our airspace from abroad, while none have boarded in the US. Does that mean we’ve been lucky, or does that mean our security is good? Just a thought to ponder….

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 6:23 pm | Permalink
  4. Jonah wrote:

    Yes, stopping them would be difficult but just imagine how things would be without TSA security? Would both those bombers have been successful if they had bombs strapped to their hands for example than their shoe or their package? How many bombers were discouraged from carrying out their mission because they thought they would be discovered? There has to be a reason there isn’t some kind of a bomber on every american flight.

    BTW I agree about long term effects of xray machines and i’m glad attention has been brought to them. Perhaps now some enterprising company will figure out another less invasive less harmful way to screen passengers.

    Perhaps we should be looking at how the isrealis do things. I’ve never heard of an underwear bomber nor any kind of bomber on el al but i recall reading that they are less intrusive than TSA.

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Permalink
  5. Jonah wrote:

    PGT, domestic terrorists like faizal shahzad aren’t the suicide type IMO. The ones willing to blow themselves up and die for the cause are ones from abroad. And they probably do it flying in because they don’t want to go through immigration over here where they will likely get caught. I’ve had to go through probably the same level of security when flying back in.

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 6:36 pm | Permalink
  6. Jason Ray wrote:

    And presenting yet a third point of view:

    Airport security is like any other kind of security. As an ex-cop, I can tell you that it is impossible to stop someone from robbing you. All you can do is slow them down, and raise the bar so the people that DO rob you are highly trained professionals – which is what you want, since more than 98% of all robberies are crimes of opportunity and implementing basic security (like locking all your doors and windows) cuts out the majority, and implementing routine enhanced security (alarms and motion detectors) cuts out all but the true pro’s.

    So, for hijackers and terrorists, it is impossible to stop them – the only thing that can be done is to make it more difficult and limit the number of people that try. This means its a risk/reward analysis. I submit that existing security measures are already good enough to stop 99+% of potential threats, and that the risks of whole body x-ray are not worth the extra decimal places.

    I also heartily agree with Patriotsgt’s point, that unless the same level of scrutiny is applied on foreign soil, we’re wasting our time.

    Last point – you don’t need whole body x-rays to stop hijackers. El-Al Airlines has proven that existing methods, properly employed, are more than good enough :-)

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Permalink
  7. ebdoug wrote:

    I see no one mentioning why this all became necessary. After 9/11 Bin Laden put out word that nothing more need be done because 9/11 had disrupted everything so much, it was going to cost us a fortune for protection, and it has. for instance, now the packages could or could not detonate but we are scared. Was the UPS plane explosion in Dubai a covered up terriorist plot? They have us really scared. We are pouring our resources into this. Osama must sit back and chuckle.

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 7:52 pm | Permalink
  8. Iron Knee wrote:

    I don’t think you guys are listening. Statements like “just imagine how things would be without TSA security” just prey on our emotions, not on the facts.

    Here’s the article about how Israel does airport security: http://articles.cnn.com/2010-01-11/opinion/yeffet.air.security.israel_1_airport-security-isaac-yeffet-el-al?_s=PM:OPINION

    And if we were actually concerned about making things safer and saving lives, wouldn’t it be better to take the money we spend on big airport x-ray machines, and instead spend it preventing something that kills many more people, like drunk driving? How about offering anyone who has been drinking a free ride home, coupled with mandatory jail sentences for drunk drivers?

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 8:00 pm | Permalink
  9. Jonah wrote:

    IK, thanks for linking the article about el al security. I agree with you that what’s described in the article would be a better choice than full body scanners. I wonder though whether interviewing every passenger is feasible since our airports are crowded but if its workable I for one would prefer that over scanners. The bottom line is any of security would be better than nothing.

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 8:27 pm | Permalink
  10. patriotsgt wrote:

    Jonah and Jason – your absolutely right on the domestic terrorists. We can’t stop all of them. We actually do a fairly good job (given the enormity of the task) in identifying potential threats, ie. people purchasing materiels and buying patterns within geographical areas.
    We must improve or place our own security at foreign points of departure to really improve our domestic security.

    Ebdoug – your also right, large scale attacks, like 911 would be largely impossible to execute today, because of our intel community and citizen awareness. But big gov’t just likes to keep getting bigger and UBL knows how to pull our strings.

    IK – I am aware how the Israelis conduct security and the interview process takes time, but is possibly the most effective method on earth. It takes time and training, but poses a few problems for our system. First, it will require profiling, which is a method all law enforcement use and many others (if i’m doing the interview I am not gonna waste time fully interviewing your mother, but will spend max time with a Syrian coming from Yemen). People would also have to arrive (really) 3 hrs before flights, which Americans would likely revolt if the last minute, mad dasher got sent home because he was late. It would prevent the full body scan, x-ray, genital pat down, etc.

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 9:02 pm | Permalink
  11. Nathan wrote:

    The inner scientist in me just died a little, so I have to be “that guy” and point this out: none of the devices you mentioned are x-ray machines. You are never subjected to x-rays in the airport. Your bags are, but not you personally.

    Both the metal detectors you walk through and the new ‘naked’ scanners use radio waves, which should* be harmless.

    Of course this is largely irrelevant to your point about security — which I agree with wholehearted — but any fear about radiation can be dispatched.

    *This is not the place to debate hypothetical radio wave biochemistry, but nearly all scientists agree that they can’t hurt you in this context.

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 9:28 pm | Permalink
  12. Iron Knee wrote:

    Nathan, you are misinformed. The ‘backscatter’ machines definitely use x-rays, not lower frequency radio waves. See http://www.nationalpost.com/news/Naked+scanners+airports+dangerous+scientists/3819955/story.html Or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Backscatter_X-ray

    There are newer machines, called ‘millimeter wave’ imaging (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millimeter_wave_scanner), but I’m not sure if their use is widespread yet, there are some concerns about their safety, and even the government website does not specify which airports use which technology.

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 11:36 pm | Permalink
  13. Nathan wrote:

    Well holy crap, I didn’t realize they used both. FWIW all of the images I see on TV and and websites and such show what looks like the millimeter (radio) ones. Since they don’t say which airport has which I guess we don’t know home many backscatter (x-ray) ones there are.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 1:23 am | Permalink
  14. IK: The TSA reacted to some of the potential protests in an article to the NYT.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/16/business/16road.html

    The article also mentions that the millimeter wave scanners are not x-ray level.

    Oh, and on your real point? *applause*

    I’m disgusted that we’re this frightened. Yeah, it’s not safe. Welcome to life. Now go *live* it, instead of trying to always be in a safe little cocoon.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 7:01 am | Permalink
  15. patriotsgt wrote:

    Just to inject a different idea and fire up this conversation…

    Why do we have to have full scanners, body searches for everyone? Why would any sane person search a 3 yr old or a 90 yr old for that matter? Why you ask, I’ll tell you why, because when this whole business started (and even before) we cried boo-hoo when a middle eastern looking passenger got searched and the old lady didn’t. Because someone (probably media) stuck the pejorative “racial” in front of profiling when describing the process and took away a sensible and useful tool. Why do the drivers (pilots) of the cruise missile (plane) need to be searched? I’ll tell you, because someone will run to the ACLU and claim racial profiling because they got serached and a “blank colored” pilot did not.
    Now the Israeli system works because they don’t give a crap what you or the ACLU thinks about profiling. Their going to do it, because it works and its not racial. It’s bahavioral, geographical, etc. But again it won’t work here because people will say “its none of the govt’s business why i’m going to New York or where I’m coming from or what my business is in New York or what my occupation is or why I have womens clothes in my luggage”. Our citizenry would lose their mind as much about that as with the pat down, body scan.

    What security do we want? We can create another airline choice that has no security, fly at your own risk. But then surviving family members would file suit because the Gov didn’t protect them when they knew something could happen.

    Now, about another technology old and new. Sniffers. Do we employ mechannical ones at airports and how many dogs do we see/use. It’s been my experience that dogs are much better then many machines.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  16. Iron Knee wrote:

    Thought Dancer, thanks for the applause. When my readers, whom I think of as more enlightened than the general population, say things like “any security is better than no security” and others agree with them, I begin to worry that we definitely have turned into sheep who let fear overrule rationality.

    Even that article in the NY Times you linked to was annoying. The TSA’s new boss doesn’t want people to opt out of the new invasive and potentially dangerous scanning machines because terrorists can take advantage of the resulting chaos. So he says that anyone can opt out, but if they do they are helping the terrorists. Give me a fucking break.

    And forcing pilots to go through the machines daily on their way to work is just insanity.

    Finally, PatriotSgt, I can answer your question about why search a 3 year old. Following the line of reasoning, if I’m a terrorist and I know they don’t search 3 year olds, then I smuggle a weapon on board by hiding it on the body of a convenient child I’ve borrowed.

    Airlines do not have the option of having no security. In fact, the US has bullied other countries into adopting our security measures.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  17. IK. Yes, I’m disgusted by the stance the TSA’s boss took.

    As I said, life is dangerous. Get over it. Live.

    I’m not saying that we should let anyone do whatever they want. I’m saying that policing should be reactive, assuming that people are innocent and treating them with respect.

    Not “pro-active”, which assumes that anyone (in effect, everyone) is a criminal and must be “cleared” first.

    Living courageously doesn’t mean being dumb–I don’t say that we should get rid of the police. It means being respectful, and recognizing that we are all innocent until proven guilty. And that means no unreasonable searches.

    … I could rant further. I won’t.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink
  18. patriotsgt wrote:

    IK – I heard that airports can opt-out of TSA security here in America and that there are about 20 airports from San Fran to small ones in Wyoming that hire private security.

    I know the logic on checking everyone, but if we allow ourselves to use that dirty little skill called profiling (no racial included) we can avoid having to molest little girls and boys. The other thing that can be done is prescreening via background checks then issuing an ID with some type of biometrics embedded.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 7:05 pm | Permalink
  19. Iron Knee wrote:

    They are talking about doing the latter for airline pilots. WAY overdue idea.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 7:06 pm | Permalink
  20. Bert wrote:

    What is the point of scanning the pilots? If they wished, they could probably fly the plane…

    Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 10:44 am | Permalink
  21. patriotsgt wrote:

    I here ya Bert. Lets scan the driver of the cruise missile just in case he has a pocket knife. And who says the gov’t isn’t smart.

    Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Permalink
  22. Thanks for helping spread awareness on this, and for linking to Smoke Rings. I’m hoping the public attention span outlasts it’s usual slope to apathy long enough to effect change on this issue.

    Saturday, November 20, 2010 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

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