Full body scans: The money shot

Any time there’s a sudden big rush to implement a technology that will “make us all safer from teh terrorists,” you can be assured that someone’s making big bucks on it:

The Airport Scanner Scam

Scan, baby, scan. That’s the mantra among politicians at all levels in the wake of the thwarted terrorist attack aboard a Detroit-bound passenger jet. According to conventional wisdom, the would-be “underwear bomber” could have been stopped by airport security if he’d been put through a full-body scanner, which would have revealed the cache of explosives attached to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s groin.

but ….

Since the alternative is being groped by airport screeners, the scanners might sound pretty good. The Transportation Security Administration has claimed that the images “are friendly enough to post in a preschool,” though the pictures themselves tell another story, and numerous organizations have opposed them as a gross invasion of privacy. Beyond privacy issues, however, are questions about whether these machines really work—and about who stands to benefit most from their use. …

Known by their opponents as “digital strip search” machines, the full-body scanners use one of two technologies—millimeter wave sensors or backscatter x-rays—to see through clothing, producing ghostly images of naked passengers. Yet critics say that these, too, are highly fallible, and are incapable of revealing explosives hidden in body cavities—an age-old method for smuggling contraband. If that’s the case, a terrorist could hide the entire bomb works within his or her body, and breeze through the virtual strip search undetected. Yesterday, the London Independent reported on “authoritative claims that officials at the [UK] Department for Transport and the Home Office have already tested the scanners and were not persuaded that they would work comprehensively against terrorist threats to aviation.” A British defense-research firm reportedly found the machines unreliable in detecting “low-density” materials like plastics, chemicals, and liquids—precisely what the underwear bomber had stuffed in his briefs.

Yet the rush toward full-body scans already seems unstoppable. They were mandated today as part of the “enhanced” screening for travelers from selected countries, and hundreds of the machines are already on order, at a cost of about $150,000 apiece. Within days of the bombing attempt, Reuters was reporting that the “greater U.S. government shift toward using the high-tech devices could create a boom for makers of security imaging products, and it has already created a speculative spike in share prices in some companies.”

Because of course …

The body scanner is sure to get a go-ahead because of the illustrious personages hawking them. Chief among them is former DHS secretary Michael Chertoff, who now heads the Chertoff Group, which represents one of the leading manufacturers of whole-body-imaging machines, Rapiscan Systems. For days after the attack, Chertoff made the rounds on the media promoting the scanners, calling the bombing attempt “a very vivid lesson in the value of that machinery”—all without disclosing his relationship to Rapiscan.

Read the entire story here.



  1. You nailed it! According to what I read, these scanners would not have caught the Christmas bomber.

    I absolutely agree that this is another defense industry money-grab. Interesting that Chertoff made the rounds. I wasn’t aware of his ties.

    What a load of crap!

  2. all stupid. someone will make money, we’ll all be in our underwear eventually going through security.

    what about Israel? can we not learn something from their security? from what I understand, someone speaks to every single passenger. even the elderly and the young. a hello, where are you going? no body scans there. good training rules the day.

    no system is perfect but what we are doing is just plain dumb.

  3. larrylootsteen, thanks — doesn’t it seem like some investigative reporter would be leaping at the Chertoff connection?

    Sara, welcome back — how was your experience flying home?

    1. Don’t get me started on the media. I can’t remember a time when so much time was spent filling the news cycle and so little actually reporting.

  4. flying home was fine. the new rules are for international flights. I found the small planes we took in hawaii, from island to island? absolutely no problem. in fact, the biggest security issue there is transporting agricultural stuff to or from the islands.

    the ecosystem there has had a hard enough hit with all the imports, thus the wild chickens everywhere.

    jeanine’s mom still lugged on 18 bags (ok, it was one huge purse, and another huge purse), no one said a word. I took my book and computer and iphone and camera. all fine.

    there were no extra security people around, to my eyes. no body scans in honolulu. it would be so un-hawaiian. they are way too laid back for such nonsense.

  5. And meanwhile, Newark Airport was shut down for hours because TSA didn’t do even the most basic job of being on duty!:

    “The man, who was not a passenger, walks past a spot where a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer should have been stationed to move closer to the woman, the paper said.

    The woman holds up a rope meant to keep unscreened people out of the secure area so that the man can passes underneath, and they walk hand-in-hand toward the boarding area before disappearing from view…”

    1. and therein lies the rub- we expect incredibly low paid people to be in charge of our very highest security.

    2. Morgan, I agree completely — they need a union. The individual TSA employees are asked to do things they are not trained to do, there is not enough staff to do, and that are just plain ridiculous.

      I don’t mean to knock the individual TSA employees. I know for every one goofball I have been subjected to, there are dozens who are really trying to do a good job.

      The TSA as an entity is the problem. The missing TSA employee? Why was there only one person stationed there? When was the last time that person got a break?

      I don’t want the TSA as a whole scanning me …

  6. Defense contractors don’t care if the technology works or not. They just want to sell it. Does anyone else remember the ICBM guidance systems Northrop manufactured that didn’t work? The company knew they didn’t work, but, as they explained it when they got caught, they figured it didn’t matter because “they’ll never be used” (subtext: and if they are, we’ll all be dead anyway).

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