By Erika Morphy
01/12/10 10:00 AM PT
The TSA has been "disingenuous" about the capabilities of backscatter
airport scanners to store and send images, according to the privacy
group EPIC. Concerns are growing that the scanners may violate
individual rights and may even be harmful to the health of some
passengers. Furthermore, say critics, they're not very effective in
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Pushback against the deployment at airports of digital image scanners
that show people's *** images through their clothes is gaining
steam, bolstered by the Electronic Privacy Information Center's
publication of government documents obtained under the Freedom of
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security papers suggest the
Transportation Security Administration overstated the privacy
protections travelers subjected to the scanners would have.
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Backscatter technology produces images that resemble chalk etchings.
They are viewed by transportation security officers in remote, secure
locations, according to TSA.
(click image to enlarge)
In the Right Mode?
Contrary to TSA's claims, the controversial backscatter scanners are
able to store and send images, according to the documents EPIC
obtained. There are 10 variable privacy settings on the device, which
presumably can be dialed up or down at the point of operation with the
required access code.
The documents show that the devices come equipped with hard disk
storage, USB integration and Ethernet connectivity, which would allow
storage and transmission of images. The devices are based on Windows
XP technology, which means they could be vulnerable to hacking and
tampering by external parties.
TSA is not providing interviews on this subject, spokesperson Sterling
Payne told the E-Commerce Times, but it did provide a prepared
The agency contends that while these devices do show detailed outlines
of bodies, there are significant safeguards in place to make sure the
technology is not abused. For starters, the TSA employee viewing the
images is supposed to be sequestered away from the traveler in
question. The TSA maintains the devices are not able to store or send
TSA's arguments are disingenuous at best, EPIC Executive Director Marc
Rotenberg told the E-Commerce Times. "It claims that it can only store
or transmit images in 'test mode' which suggest to people that it is
Clearly, the privacy filters that limit "test mode" -- or as EPIC
calls it, "super user mode" -- can be disabled in the field by a TSA
worker with a super user password, Rotenberg said.
The protections TSA has described -- that is, keeping the machines
permanently out of test mode -- "seem improbable," Rotenberg
Debunking Security Claims
The documents also call into question TSA's argument that full body
image scanning technology is necessary to keep travelers safe,
"The specs for the devices say that they can detect explosives, weapon
and liquids -- but they don't list powders," he pointed out.
Powder was the substance used in the attempted airplane attack by
Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, in 2001. Powder was also
involved when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly attempted to blow up
a plane on Christmas day.
"TSA has said that they could see the container in which the powder is
stored but even that is not necessarily a safeguard," Rotenberg said.
Critics are also objecting to the machines due to the possible health
ramifications of being exposed to small doses of radiation. Many of
the scanning machines deliver a dose of ionizing radiation, reportedly
equivalent to 1 percent or less of the radiation in a dental Xray.
Others, typically used abroad, use different technology that delivers
non-ionizing radiation and is seen as less problematic.
The health risks are on the minds of a lot of travelers, according to
Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org.
"I am being emailed by people with compromised health who have been
told by doctors that they can't go through the body scanners, which
means they must submit to an intrusive full body pat down," she said.
Members are also anxious about the privacy violations of the full body
scanners, she said, citing a record 1,200 emails she received on one
day about the issue.
"I have received emails from elderly men who are afraid their ***
diapers will be picked up in the images and they will be pulled aside
for questioning," said Hanni.
There is no assurance that the devices will do what they are supposed
to do, she said, which is prevent the smuggling of explosive
materials. "For all those reasons, we are adamantly against