TSA Body Scanners

The following entry is a record in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe” – a list of failed or troubled projects from around the world.

Organization: Transportation Security Administration
Project type : Security system
Project name : Unknown
Date : August 2015
Cost :

Synopsis :
Clearly security at major public venues is a top concern in the current global environment and airports are often at the leading edge of the fight. In the USA, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is responsible for detecting threats at airports. Scanning every passenger, as well as baggage, crew and airside workers, the agency is the front line of the defense system and hence carries the heavy burden of responsibility on their shoulders.

Worryingly, a 2015 investigation by ABC News revealed that the TSA had failed to detect 96% of the potential threats passing through TSA scanners at airports across the USA. As part of their standard protocol, Homeland Security continually tests airport security by having specially trained agents (the so called “Red” teams) make covert attempts to pass through security while in the possession of dummy threats. If the TSA security systems are functioning correctly, the threat should be detected and the red team member stopped. If a red team member passes through security it exposes a whole in the integrity of the security system in use at that location and potentially indicates a broader flaw in the security of the nation as a whole.

Body scanner

Full body scanner
(source wiki commons)

With only 4% of threats being detected serious alarm bells started to ring. The US Congress demanded the TSA report what was going wrong and the plans to address the issues. Reports indicate that those investigations found that a large portion of the problem was caused by the introduction of new technologies that were aimed at detecting non-metallic threats that would not be detected by the more traditional metal detectors. The so called “full body scanners” were intended to be the leading edge technology that would keep the flying public safe, by introducing a new tool that could see through clothing and detect any item a traveler might be concealing somewhere on their bodies. Helping detect non-metallic threats that might not be spotted by more traditional technologies the full body scanners were to be the latest tool in the ever more sophisticated fight again terrorist threats.

Although the public supports the idea of security at airports, many people were concerned about the invasion of privacy that the full body scanners represented. As a result the first set of scanners introduced in 2010 received negative publicity on their initial launch. Concerned about the invasion of privacy that might arise from being able to “see” through clothing, privacy advocates and members of the public reacted negatively and the TSA was forced to withdraw the so-called “naked” X-ray scanners in 2013.

The next generation of full body scanners overcame some of the problems of the first generation. Improved software helped highlight threats, while blurring or masking the actual body itself. Despite the step forward, ABC’s expose revealed that the technology failed in its most basic function: detecting threats.

Reports indicate that while the technology itself may have some merit the handling of the project that introduced the technology may not have been managed effectively. Reports indicate that while the system might work in a laboratory with highly trained specialists operating the system, in the real life airport environment things did not work as well.

A lack of training, pressure to process passengers at a pace that didn’t interfere with people’s travel plans and perhaps a dislike of new technologies, reduced the effectiveness of the technology in the field. As shown by the red team testing, the net result represented a significant security breakdown at the very time when the threat is at its highest.

Contributing factors as reported in the press:

Lack of testing strategy  and failure to test the system as part of a complete end-to-end capability (i.e. failure to test if the system would be effective in a real airport environment). Rolling out the system across the nation before proving the system on a smaller scale first. Tendency to look at technology as a stand alone component rather than part of a broader system of people, processes, systems and context.

Reference links:

  1. Airport Scanners Will No Longer Reveal Lumpy American Flesh
  2. Undercover DHS Tests Find Security Failures at US Airports
  3. Price for TSA’s failed body scanners: $160 million