The solution to the TSA scanner dilemma

Daniel Maxson Contributor
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The news media has focused a lot of attention on polls showing that most Americans will accept naked body scanners if it means they can fly more safely.  The problem with these polls is that they may be asking the wrong question.  A better question might be which full-body scanner technology would you prefer: one that creates a naked image of you, or one that creates an image of you fully clothed?

In the not-too-distant future, Americans desiring to fly commercially will have two choices at commercial airport security checkpoints: walk through the naked full-body scanner or get a thorough pat-down.  One emerging technology promises to change that future.  It uses thermal infrared energy to generate images of clothed passengers.  It is in fact a discreet full-body scanner.  The manufacturer, Iscon Imaging, awaits TSA approval of its Model 1000D.  Even a cursory review of the images produced by the infrared unit should have passengers with privacy concerns smiling.  If the technology is approved by the TSA, parental concerns regarding “child porn” images being examined by TSA personnel will disappear.  The use of infrared technology also eliminates concerns about low-dose ionizing radiation exposure.  Does it sound too good to be true?

The images below were generated by a thermal infrared discreet full-body scanner.

That is where the TSA full-body scanner approval process enters the picture.  The TSA uses a “procurement specification” program that was created with input from the naked full-body scanner industry.  Two of these companies — Rapiscan, which uses backscatter radiation technology, and L3 Communications, which uses active millimeter wave technology — have significant influence over the TSA approval process.  Although the TSA “specification” addresses some of the pitfalls of processing naked body images, it fails to address discreet full-body scanners that create G-rated images.

The TSA approval process is lengthy and arduous.  Joanne Arsenault, Iscon Imaging’s director of sales, explained that her company has been working hard to obtain approval of their Model 1000D for about a year and a half.  TSA began testing the unit this January.  You don’t just gear up to mass produce our units in a few weeks,” Arsenault explained.

With an order from the TSA, it will take 60 days to ramp up production to six units per month.  It will take longer to increase production beyond that.

One shortcoming of the Iscon Imaging unit is that it requires the passenger to pose twice, once facing the imager and once facing away.  This results in a total scan time of 30 seconds, which exceeds the TSA “procurement standard” of 10 seconds.  This directly impacts the “throughput,” or number of passengers that can be scanned per hour.  To accept the Iscon Imaging unit in its current configuration, the TSA would have to increase the number of units it purchases.  Floor space in TSA screening areas is limited, so this could create a capacity problem in some airports.  The TSA could demand that Iscon Imaging speed up the scan time of the Model 1000D.  The TSA could also approve the units for airports with adequate floor space and airports with low passenger volume.  Another possibility would be to deploy at least one infrared unit for children at each terminal as well as adults willing to wait for access, regardless of whether the naked full-body scanners have already been deployed at the same terminal.

The naked full-body scanner technology is not without faults either.  A lot of focus has been placed on privacy issues and radiation concerns, but there are others.  Ironically, one of these faults is a direct result of the TSA “procurement specification” process.  The TSA requires that each manufacturer’s system design not allow the saving of naked body images when operating in passenger screening mode.  This creates a potential “whodunit” and “howdunit” should a terrorist slip past the TSA screener and bring down an airliner.  If the TSA were to rewrite their “specification” to allow discreet full-body scanners to save those G-rated passenger images, the FBI might have critical evidence to review — clothed passengers with clear facial images along with the missed blast device.

In the wake of last year’s Christmas Day underwear bomber fiasco, the long TSA approval process now threatens to deny the public the time needed to make an informed decision — naked or discreet.  The reason for this is that manufacturers of naked full-body scanners are now rushing to fill TSA orders for airport checkpoint scanners while the discreet infrared unit remains under TSA review.

Is it possible that President Obama is unaware of the new infrared discreet full-body scanner technology?  We do know that he took the chairman and CEO of OSI Systems, the parent company of Rapiscan, to India as part of his trade delegation this month.  Rapiscan is now positioned to make a fortune through worldwide sales of its naked full-body scanner.  Given his actions in promoting Rapiscan and the public’s concern about privacy and ionizing radiation issues inherent in the Rapiscan design, will the president be just as aggressive in promoting a new full-body imaging technology the American people might actually embrace?

Should the public demand that the TSA stop the naked full-body scanner deployment?  Given the option of a device that eliminates concerns of privacy and exposure to low doses of radiation, the answer to many Americans may seem obvious: continue with the current metal detectors and use the “thorough pat-down” process on a random basis until the manufacturing capability and “throughput” issues of the discreet full-body scanners are resolved.

In the last 21 months, a lot of expensive bills have been rushed through Congress and signed into law by the president.  Many Americans believe that these bills have resulted in less-than-adequate solutions.  It does not have to be that way for airport security checkpoints.  The public just needs to be made aware of their options and given a reasonable chance to evaluate them.  Unfortunately, that has not happened in this instance and the chance to correct the naked full-body scanner dilemma may be slipping away.

Daniel Maxson has worked in the field of Environmental Health for 31 years. He has worked as a lead investigator on a large number of outbreak investigations. He currently works as a Public Health Advisor for the State of Washington.  He has no personal, familial, business, financial, or vested interest of any kind in Iscon Imaging whatsoever.  He does have a strong vested interest in the U.S. Constitution.