Thursday, December 31, 2009

A 2010 Prediction: Virtual Strip Searches For Air Travelers

Thanks to Umar Farouk 'the panty bomber' Abdulmutallab, it's a safe prediction that in 2010 air travelers will find themselves going through what the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) calls "Advanced Imaging Technology" and the American Civil Liberties Union calls a "virtual strip search."

Specifically, we will be going through the Rapiscan Secure 1000 'Single Pose' device. TSA has issued the manufacturer a sole source contract to supply 150 of the devices right away at $167,000 each, and 300 more in 2010. There are 40 Secure 1000 machines currently in use at 19 U.S. airports, mostly for secondary screening and pilot projects.

A total of 490 machines will barely scratch the surface, even if TSA forgets about domestic flights and only tries to screen U.S.-bound travelers departing from overseas airports. There are 58 million air passengers arriving in the U.S. from overseas each year, and about 250 flights on any day. Two body scan devices would be needed to screen the passengers on each typical long-range aircraft since the average throughput time for a body scanner is probably around 30 seconds per person, which means that it would take two and a half hours to screen an Airbus-load of passengers with just a single machine, and that is surely too long for normal airport operations. So, plan on two scanners at each overseas gate that handles U.S.-bound traffic. And if TSA intends to screen domestic U.S. air travelers as well, I can't count high enough to figure out how many scanners we would need for the 600 or so domestic airports that are certified to handle commercial air carriers. Dulles International Airport has 143 gates just by itself.

That's a lot of orders for Rapiscan and its competitors. Here's an interview conducted yesterday on CNBC about the business of whole body scanners:

This backscatter image technology is not new. In fact, it has been in use for certain limited security applications, such as screening prisoners, since the late 1980s. It works well; that is, it reliably produces a skin-level image that will allow an operator to detect the presence of objects concealed under the passenger's clothes. It does not work perfectly; that is, it does not detect objects that are concealed under the skin, or inside body orifices, or out of sight within anatomical nooks and crannies. The 'single pose' machines will scan the front and back of a subject simultaneously, which is a pretty complete scan provided that the subject keeps his arms raised. The second-generation devices will do an even better 360-degree scan since they will be able to get images as subjects are turning. These machines do not get a particularly good view of the crotch area, however, and that's where the bombs are these days. Still, they work better than any other non-intrusive search technology that I'm aware of.

Only privacy objections have kept the things from gaining enough public acceptance to be put into widespread use for passenger screening before now (plus, in the UK, an interesting legal argument that imaging the bodies of passengers under the age of 18 could violate child protection laws). They have so far been limited to secondary screening or voluntary applications. But, it looks like the Christmas bomb attack on Northwest Flight 253 could well be the last straw that breaks the public's opposition to their use.

As much as I detest 'security theater' and the Kabuki dance we already do at airports, I'm ready to surrender and be scanned. Given the choice between a 'virtual strip search' and a manual pat-down, I'll gladly opt for the scan.


Anonymous said...

How do you feel about the inevitable uploads of the videos to the web? Apparently, it doesn't leave much to the imagination. How well is this likely to play over in more conservative societies? (If I have to deal with grief because I need to see the face for a visa interview, what's this going to cause?)

TSB said...

TSA (and, so far as I know, it's UK and other equivalents) are taking precautions against the storage of images, but I agree it's 100% inevitable that we will soon be seeing bootlegged millimeter microwave scans of our favorite starlets and pop tarts.

Travelers are supposed to be placated by the fact that their images are displayed at a remote terminal that isn’t visible to anyone in the screening area. That might be enough for westerners, but the cultural sensitivities will probably be a deal-killer in the more conservative societies. That’s going to interesting to watch.