Blogger claims to find way around airport body scanners

Jonathan Corbett is on a mission against the Transportation Security Administration. The blogger and activist has been staunchly opposing efforts to implement advanced imaging technology ever since it was introduced to the nation’s airports in 2007, going so far as to file lawsuit over his beliefs. At issue is the agency’s use of the technology, which many claim is no more effective than a magnetometer but that can potentially see sensitive anatomy.

Mr. Corbett keeps a well detailed blog of his fight over at tsaoutofourpants.wordpress.com, and to illustrate his position he claims to have discovered a manner in which to defeat the 3D scanners. By keeping metal objects at one’s sides, Corbett suggests, scanners blend metallic areas into the dark contrasting background, making it difficult for readers to see any hidden objects in profile. To test the theory he takes a small metal case through a scanner in a special side pocket of his own design.

Whether the method or his theories hold any water is still up for debate. While the video shows Mr. Corbett harmlessly passing through security, it doesn’t verify that the process can’t see from other perspectives or that a chance TSA agent may have been not paying attention. If there is a problem with the system, however, we’re glad that someone pointed it out.

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]