Researchers show how airport backscatter scanners can be fooled

Two researchers from the University of California have published a report on airport security backscatter x-ray machines, and show that despite the millions invested in the technology, its effectiveness may be overrated.

In the report, Leon Kaufman and Joseph W. Carlson provide a very technical analysisof the technology, and how hidden items can be kept from being detected when they are placed outside the side of the body or items with hard edges. Even when the x-ray exposure power is increased beyond normal levels, these items remain undetected.

Of course, some may argue that releasing this information only helps terrorists – but getting stuff like this out in the open also shows that the massive investment in backscatter technology is not going to be the holy grail in airport security products.

Combine these findings with the privacy concerns and untested safety aspects, and they are suddenly not looking as great as the did when they first arrived at the airport.

If you don’t mind some light technical reading on this lazy Sunday, check out the report for yourself (PDF file).

It’s national opt-out day. Will you participate?

Early yesterday afternoon I passed through O’Hare airport on the far end of terminal 3, approached the security checkpoint and was selected for scanning with a backscatter detector. With a boarding pass in my back pocket I was also selected for a pat down. In this case, the TSA officer used the back of his hands to check my entire back side – and sent me on my way (without the computer that I forgot at the checkpoint) to gate K7.

The Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) was a simple security measure that day, but today, on the nation’s busiest travel day many will face it for the first time. And in protest, many are advocating a movement to opt-out of the scans.

In lieu, those who opt out will be subject to an intensive pat down, the results of which has been covered on the web ad nauseum.

More importantly, however, is the added time necessary for a pat down. AIT scans already take longer than a quick walk through a magnetometer, and opting out of one adds further time to the affair. Some critics of the movement are thus concerned that unsuspecting passengers will be held up at security and more flights will be missed.

Needless to say, if 95% of passengers choose not to be scanned by an AIT device this Wednesday it’ll surely send a strong message to the brass at the Department of Homeland Security. If a few trouble spots cause innocent passengers to miss flights though, I’m not so sure that it’s worth it.

[flickr image via billypalooza]

Why you shouldn’t be concerned about airport x-rays and patdowns

There’s a serious backlash to the TSA’s recent airport security policies raging through the media this month, as more and more of the flying public learn what the real meaning of “until resistance is felt” is when security officers are feeling up unsuspecting passengers’ legs.

The new policies, covered extensively here at Gadling and at every other travel and news outlet across the web are the latest version of the Department of Homeland Security’s measures to prevent unwanted people and goods from entering the world’s airspace. One of the technologies has to do with new imaging methods that can see through your clothing, potentially to embarrassing detail. The other has to do with pat-down procedures in case you’re selected for advanced screening.

In both cases, privacy is the main issue. Concerned passengers don’t want to be subject to some random security officer getting an all-too-close look or feel at their private places, and the new polices now in force make that privacy seem thinner than ever.

As word of the new initiatives and potential implications grows, so has the online calamity. A group of activists recently stripped down and protested the changes at a German airport. Over the weekend, a Californian would-be-passenger flipped out and made national news while he recorded his angry conversation with the TSA. Reddit and a number of social medias have also jumped on the bandwagon by either virally or intentionally curating a river of stories, anger and discussion about just what’s going wrong.

The fact of the matter is, however, that these security measures are not as egregious as it seems. From deep within the trenches of everyday travel, I as the Editor of Gadling can tell you first hand: it’s just not that bad.In the past month I’ve been through dozens of airports from Mumbai to Bogota to Miami to Delhi. Of the hundred times that I’ve been through airport security, I’ve been scanned with the magnetic wand a dozen times, through the backscatter detector twice and patted down a handful of times.

Each time, I did my duty: spread my legs, raised my arms, pulled out my keys or turned in circles. And each time, the security officer did his: checked my pockets, felt my thighs and patted my back. After that? I went on my way and the officer moved onto the next person. No laughs, no discussion, no disrespect or question.

It’s true. The new security initiatives do give unscrupulous individuals the ability to abuse their power and see something that would make you feel uncomfortable. But these are the bad apples in a very very large bushel, and most are just doing their jobs and want you to be on your way. Just like someone can peek into your living room window in the middle of the night or a corporation can rifle through your Facebook account, invasions of privacy can and will happen — it’s a fact of life in today’s high frequency world.

So here’s some food for thought next time you’re passing through airport security. Most of you won’t encounter a backscatter or millimeter wave scanner at the checkpoint. They’ve only been installed at select, high-traffic airports around the country. Chances are, you’ll go through the normal magnetometer and carry on with your normal flight.

If you are subjected to advanced screening, there is no promise that you won’t absorb a few roentgens of radiation or that your personal privacy won’t be encroached upon. But those risks are minimal, infrequent, and should not sway the seasoned traveler. For now, your privacy concerns should lie beyond this pop-science scare — and if, in the slight probability that something isn’t ideal for the general public’s health, you can trust Reddit users and Congressional watchdogs to raise the real red flag. Until then, keep flying.

[flickr image via billypalooza]

Are airport x-ray machines bad for your health?

We all know from wearing those iron aprons at the dentist that x-rays are not good for you. Radiation is dangerous, and radiation poisoning can lead to very serious health problems and even death.

Radiation poisoning usually occurs when someone is exposed to a heavy amount of radiation for a short period of time, but in rarer cases, long term exposure to small doses can also be damaging. So, should frequent fliers be worried? What about pilots and cabin crew?

Millimeter-wave imaging-technology units, which are currently operating in 19 airports, don’t produce the kind of radiation we get from x-rays, but backscatter units like this do. Following the terrorism attempt on Christmas, the US has just ordered 150 backscatter screening systems (like the above).

Is it dangerous? Probably not. Rodale reports: “According to TSA, the amount of radiation you’re exposed to during a two-second millimeter-wave scan exposes you to radio-wave radiation that is 10,000 times less powerful than radiation levels that pulse from a cellphone.” They also note that the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement “found that a traveler subjected to at least 2,500 backscatter scans per year would barely reach the Negligible Individual Dose.”

Wait. Barely? That’s not really what we wanted to hear, but 2,500 would come to seven scans per day, every day. At that point, you’re not a traveler, you just have a weird hobby.

The concern that no one can shake (besides that of privacy) is that of machine stability and maintenance. Backscatter scanners do have the capability of doing harm; they just won’t if they’re functioning properly. Rodale adds, “If you feel uncomfortable going through advanced-imaging airport body-scan machines, know that you do have the right to an alternative search, although it may be in the form of a more invasive pat-down-type search by a security worker.”

For more information on radiation poisoning and radiation sickness, visit

[via Rodale]

The Netherlands to start full body scans of all US bound passengers

The Dutch government held a press conference this morning announcing their plans to beef up security at Amsterdam Schiphol airport.

Within three weeks, fifteen bodyscan machines will be in place (sources say the machines are the Rapiscan Secure 1000 scanners), and a 100% screening of all US bound passengers may help prevent a repeat of the Northwest Airlines incident.

See – THIS is how you tackle security. Something happens, and within 3 weeks, you implement the technology required to prevent it from happening again. I’m not a big fan of the bodyscanners, but given how the terrorists are operating, I don’t see any other solution, short of asking people to fly naked.

Government officials made it clear that only one person will be able to view the scanner screen at a time, and that images can not be stored. The initial implementation requires border protection police staff to view the screens, but the next version will be fully automated, and a computer will determine whether any items are on your body that require closer scrutiny.

Of course, the Dutch privacy groups are very much against the scanners. My biggest concern is that images of naked children leak out, and make their way into the hands of pedophile groups. If governments are indeed going to start an accelerated roll out of these scanners, they’d better be 100% sure they protect our privacy – if they screw this up (and chances are, they will), the backlash will be fierce.