Press hits the dumb button on body scanner reporting
ASK THIS | January 11, 2010
Privacy advocate Marc Rotenberg writes that breathless, uninformed media coverage has saved the vendors of digital strip-search devices hundreds of thousands of lobbying and public-relations dollars that might otherwise have to be spent to foist these machines on the American public.
By Marc Rotenberg
Listening on Thursday to President Obama
and the Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano
acknowledge the limitations of body scanner technology reminded me that serious, thoughtful people can make serious thoughtful decisions about new technology even as the pundits, lobbyists, vendors, and faux defenders of national security head in the opposite direction.
Guess which group the press is listening to?
Saving the vendors of digital strip search devices hundreds of thousands of lobbying and public-relations dollars that might otherwise have to be spent to foist these machines on the American public, the press has breathlessly reported on the remarkable ability of these devices to locate a concealed weapon on "an actual person." So why is it that neither Obama nor Napolitano made the seemingly obvious statement that "if these devices had only been in place, Abdulmutalleb would never have boarded a plane with an explosive"?
Because it's not true.
The press has bought into one of the slickest marketing schemes in a very long time -- the belief that body scanners could easily detect explosives of the type used by the would-be attacker on Christmas Day and that American travelers should therefore be willing to be photographed in their birthday suits by security agents.
Here is the real story: neither backscatter x-ray nor millimeter wave, the two body scanning techniques currently under review, are designed to detect powdered explosives. These screening devices detect dense materials against the human body. They may detect plastic guns and ceramics knives. But the powder explosives, such as PETN favored by the shoe bomb and the trouser bomber, and not so easy to detect. That is the reality.
And over on the privacy side, whether or not Transportation Security Administration (TSA) operators get to see someone's genitalia as they pass through security has nothing to do with the fact that the devices are essentially digital cameras, designed to peer through clothes and store and record images. It's that capability that the TSA doesn't want to discuss. In a bit of Orwellian doublespeak
, the security agency says "the state-of-the-art technology cannot print, store transmit or save the image. In fact, all machines are delivered to airports with these functions disabled."
So, which is it? The machines can't record -- or the machines can record and the TSA is turning off that feature? And while we're parsing those sentences, how do they get the images to the operator in the remote room if the images are not stored or transmitted? Perhaps someone should ask the TSA.
So, for the reporters who are interested in the real story on back scatter and not the hype, here are a few questions to ask:
Q. What's the real story on the storage capability? Where are the devices used with storing turned on -- and why wouldn't the TSA take advantage of that feature?
Q. What about the known vulnerabilities? Do these devices really detect liquid and powdered explosives? And what about explosive materials hidden in body cavities, tampons, and diapers?
Who stands to profit? Former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff has among his clients
Rapiscan and L-3, two vendors of body scanning technology. Does this explain why he now has difficulty discussing the shortcomings of his client's products?
Q. As for what's revealed, while the scanners are unlikely to spot explosive materials on the passengers going through these devices, they will see such things as underwire bras, mastectomy scars, and colonoscopy bags, and uncover evidence of such things as adult incontinence and sex changes. Instead of using the vendors marketing hype with the guns and the explosives, how about showing the real privacy impact? Better yet, show the whole family walking through, with the images of naked young children popping up on the TSA screen.
A little more serious reporting on this critical post 9-11 issue could stop the nonsense that is appearing in the national press.
01/25/2010, 11:45 AM
In my country these devices are being rushed into place, also without the proper questions being asked.
We have no REAL investigative journalism.
We do not have "Government by the people, for the people" such as that protection permits.
Please, now start forcing those responsible to answer the hard questions you espose, because your rights, and subjectively mine, are losing ground very rapidly.