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In 2011 the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC ordered TSA to hold hearings regarding the rollout of their full-body scanners. The judges' ruling was fairly straightforward: federal agencies are supposed to hold hearings on issues like this one, and TSA hadn't held any hearings, so you know?
In July 2012 we reported that TSA had yet to hold the hearings, and was being hauled back into court to explain why. In August we followed up to note that they were indeed in court trying to defend themselves. In September TSA explained that they wouldn't be holding meetings any time soon, because fuck you that's why.
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The L3 body scanners you will see in airports from now on
News broke on Friday that TSA is removing Rapiscan full-body scanners, made by OSI Systems Inc., from airports. We wrote it up with a somewhat immodest reminder that we had put the move on your radar last October and called your attention to two salient details in the story.
One, that this is a software issue and not anything having to do with hardware or with full-body scanning or anything fundamental like that. Two, that TSA would be subbing in L3's millimeter-wave machines for the Rapiscan machines, essentially replacing one full-body scanner with another.
What happened is Congress told TSA to use scanners that produce feature-less outlines. So TSA told companies to make scanners that feature-less outlines. L3 developed what they call "Automatic Target Recognition," which makes machines display gingerbread man outlines, but OSI didn't develop anything similar. Ergo, TSA replaced OSI's machines with L3's machines.
Cue mass confusion on the Internet. Half the stories we saw incorrectly implied that TSA had abolished full-body scanners. The other half (the more entertaining half) explained that the misreporting was part of a conspiracy to lull America's sheeple into giving up their rights. God love you all, but wrong and wrong.
You know how we've told you for years that you should always trust content from Jaunted? And you remember how we told you in October 2012 that TSA might be giving up on the agency's nude-o-scope scanners, even though the agency had issued denials and even though the scanners were still in the process of getting deployed to airports around the country?
TSA / BOS / PHL / IAD / LAX / EWR / LGA / Full-Body Scanners / Airport Security / → All Tags
Yes, the new Travel + Leisure survey of "Most Annoying Airport Security Checkpoints" is sort of kind of egregiously shameless link bait. Publishing top 10 lists on the Internet (or in this case top-14 lists) is basically cheating, up there with posting pictures of boobs and cats.
The only thing that's less subtle is putting in something that doesn't quite fit, so that people will argue about the list. Theoretically that's impossible to do on surveys, but that doesn't mean we can't still complain about the rankings. Can you believe they put Dulles TSA checkpoints as more annoying than the ones in Logan? Whoever thinks that's right has either never been to the airports or is an idiot or is a troll.
Also: well played, T+L.
TSA officials have worked hard to defend their use of full-body scanners. The agency has just beaten a lawsuit by a Florida man challenging the machines' use. On the broader question of addressing the publicand despite literally years of legal actioncourts continue to let TSA drag its feet on getting public feedback. Backscatter machines got installed in PHX as recently as this month.
The agency has put a lot of time and effort into keeping these things in airports, in other words. And yet now comes word from ProPublica that in fact TSA is removing some backscatter from some major airports. What the hell?
These Picosecond Programmable Laser scanners are apparently "ten million times faster and one million times more sensitive" than current airport scanners, and are said to "stand out against the rest of the market" because of their "significant speed and unmatched accuracy."
Depending on whether you want to read to the end of this sentence, that's either (a) utter bullshit or (b) utter bullshit that sounds like it was regurgitated from a press release originally pitched by a PR consultant, but might just be the result of weird paranoia.
Even more obviously than most agencies, TSA has a very particular way of dealing with criticism. First they deny that a problem is happening. Then when it's obvious that's exactly what's happening they insist it's no big deal. Then eventually they just stop answering questions, because shut up that's why.
Very often there's this surreal Alice-In-Wonderland quality to the whole debate, because what TSA officials are saying is pretty much incoherent.
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Would TSA scanners have caught the non-metallic underwear bomb at the center of the latest Al Qaeda plot? That was the discussion late last week and over the weekend, after the public learned of the planned attack via the Associated Press, which learned about it from an anonymous leaker who now may well go to jail.
The ex-TSA chief who bought the scanners says yes, because of course he does. A Congressman who routinely bashes TSA says no, because of course he does. But "candidly, no" was also the answer given by Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who would know. And the consensus of experts also seems to be that scanners would have missed the bomb.
Meanwhile there are good reasons to believe that more underwear bombs are in the wild and that a "wave of plane attacks" might be on the horizon. Happy Monday!
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You've seen the video, now read the TSA pushback (and if you haven't seen the video, we've embedded it at the bottom). The airport security agency is facing renewned criticism triggered by a 27-year old Florida man's viral video, in which the man appears to use the world's dumbest hack to smuggle metallic objects through TSA's super-expensive full-body scanners.
Now Blogger Bob has taken official notice of the controversy and posted a response. Except his response very pointedly does not deny that the hack works. Instead he only says that TSA can't talk about security protocols, and besides the agency has multiple layers of security, and besides the machines can detect objects hidden in lots of ways. Other TSA officials are telling journalists that the machines are "safe." All of that is interesting, but it's not an answer.
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It seems so long ago that American airports began introducing full-body scanners for passengers to be randomly selected before passing into the secure gate area. What also seems from long ago is the issue of privacy the machines posed with the revealing images. Well, after our outright concern, abhorrence, acceptance, and return to the concern, another continent joins the scanner controversy: Australia.
Down Under follows the US and Europe, and will adopt the same "gingerbread
man person" technology, which displays an outline of a gender-less person only highlighting areas of risk. Parliament also promises that all images are discarded after each passenger. We have heard this all before.
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Ideally we'd like to spend this post criticizing TSA for various inadequacies implicit and explicit. There's something not quite right about the agency's new "we'll retest for radiation levels but not really" announcement on full-body scanners, especially given its extensive and well-documented past dissembling on the issue. There are still issues to discuss from last year about the contradictions in pushing for private TSA baggage screeners. We'd like to know why it was necessary to tase a traveler to the point of hospitalization at the Sacramento International Airport. Someone should ask what steps are being taken to prevent a repeat of the $40,000-stealing TSA agent. And isn't there something wrong with airport security when $400,000 worth of coins are getting left at security every year by flustered travelers?
But we can't talk about any of that, because people won't stop trying to bring weapons on airplanes. Especially guns. Lots and lots of guns. So instead of this post being about the many ways TSA makes traveling worse, it's about one very specific way that travelers make traveling worse.
The way that the European Union does airline security has, over the last few years, fallen somewhere short of reassuring. Despite last year's Christmas Day terrorist flight taking off from Amsterdam, and despite the terrorist managing to hide explosives in his underwear, the EU until this week had not had any binding operational standards on what airports could and couldn't do with scanners.
The Europeans, for whom data privacy is kind of a capital-T thing and has been for a very long time, had been slow to deploy full-body scanners across the continent in part exactly because of privacy concerns. The new policy introduces a number of safeguards that will be very familiar to US travelers: no storing of the images, no looking at the images except from a different room, and no forcing passengers to walk through the machines without offering an opt-out.