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TSA Body Scanners

A device that creates an image of a person's nude body through their clothing.

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Unduly intrusive, and they undermine security

  • Nov 30, 2010
  • by
I am an IT consultant, not a lawyer.  If you wish to follow my protest ideas, you may wish to seek legal advice first.  This is not legal advice.

These scanners are unbelievably bad ideas.  They make very little sense unless you believe the manufacturer hype and expect security to be packaged in a big box, which those of us in related fields know is never the case, and that our Constitutional rights are waived when we travel, which the Supreme Court has repeatedly said is not true.  These machines have very little place in a free society, they are being improperly used here (leaving us less secure than before), and they are a menace to our civil liberties.

To understand the thinking that goes on in choosing to install these machines, a little background is helpful.  Bombs are basically explosives, often with a separate detonating charge, and additional detonation control devices.  These are most easy to create using electronics for the control device.  Electronics, however, will set of a magnetometer, so various groups of terrorists have put a lot of effort in the last few years into non-metallic detonation systems.  A simple example of a non-metalic detonation system might be sulphuric acid plus sugar, plus a thermite, plus a detonation charge.  Other options might include fuses plus matches.  However, getting this right is remarkably difficult.  To date, no successful bombing of an airliner has ever used a nonmetallic detonator, though the last few unsuccessful attempts have.

Unfortunately explosives are much harder to find than detonation control devices, and so traditionally, security looks for the detonators, which usually contain substantial amounts of metal.  Because of the attempts using non-metallic detonation control devices, however, focus is shifting to detecting the explosives themselves.  Were the TSA competent, measures aimed at finding explosives would be used in addition to those looking for traditional metallic detonation devices, as secondary screening devices only (the way they are used in Canada), but alas, competence is not to be expected here.  Rather the TSA has bought into the American way and decided that rampant consumerism is the way to solve a problem of process.

These devices are being marketed as a magic solution to searching for explosives and contraband.  There is no magic solution, of course, the product will not live up to its hype.

Instead the current approach is to spend more and more time looking for explosives and increasingly neglect the detonation device search.  This is a bad idea because every successful attack on an airliner thus far using a bomb has had a traditional, electronic control.  Abandoning the search for these controls does not leave us safer, but rather more vulnerable.

Consider for the moment that a terrorist tries to smuggle a cell-phone-controlled bomb in his rectum onto an airplane.  Prior to these machines being used in place of magnetometers, he'd set off the metal detector, be wanded, and if everything was done correctly, the detonator would be detected.  With these machines, however, such a bomb would be completely undetectable even if everything was done right.  Consider that a 1999 assassination attempt against a Saudi prince used exactly such a device containing four times the amount of explosives that the Christmas Bomber used, and the problem becomes quite clear:  used in place of magnetometers, these uncover a small blind spot and expose a much larger and much more dangerous one, allowing simpler and more proven technology to be used in threatening our airliners.

Because I do not believe that the Department of Homeland Security wants an airliner to be blown out of the sky, I have to consider this setup to be evidence of terrifying (to every patriotic American) incompetence.

The second problem of course is that these are extremely intrusive, equivalent to a strip search, and the opt-out option is no less intrusive.  Our Constitution is supposed to protect us against unreasonable searches and seizures, but these machines are now being pushed by our government in our airports, and in some cases in our courthouses, as reasonable searches (though as yet no court has weighed in on the subject).

I'd conclude that these machines as currently used only have monetary value to the companies that make or sell them and practical value to those who want to erode our civil liberties.

So what can be done?  Here's what I've decided to do:

1)  I've set up a shirt shop at Cafe Press, and intend to donate all proceeds to organizations fighting this, like EPIC.

2)  When I have to fly next, I will carry papers (in duplicate) which say that I do not consent to the search and that I intend to complain to law enforcement, EPIC, the ACLU, my congressmen, and the state AG, etc. if the search is too intrusive.  The paper will say that I will submit to the search because I believe my person is seized for the purpose of the search but that submission is not to be taken as consent.  I will also offer to wait if they want to consult a lawyer first (yes, this may cause me to miss my flight but some things are really important).

3)  I will ask a significant number of questions, such as whether they change gloves between gropings, whether the Rape-a-scan (deliberate mispronunciation of the vendor Rapiscan's name) machines are safe, whether they believe these scans are authorized by the 4th Amendment, etc.

4)  If asked to leave the airport, I will tell them that I have heard of folks being fined for doing so even under orders, and tell them that they will have to forcibly remove me so that I cannot be so fined, but that I will not resist such forcible removal.

5)  After giving notice of non-consent, I will state clearly:  "I believe I am legally required to submit to your search.  As I said, I do not consent to be searched, but will submit as legally required.   Assuming that I can get someone to take this case, I'm sure we can sort all this out in court later.  You may want to record this for your protection.  I will now follow your instructions since I am not free to go until I do.  What do you want me to do?"

6)  If asked about the notice, I'd simply say, "from what I've read about previous cases involving metal detectors in airports, the court never reached the question of whether the individual consented by travelling even though this was repeatedly raised by the government.  I just want to make this clear because I do intend to challenge this to the best of my ability, so that if the court rules that this is not a reasonable administrative search, they can't then say that I implicitly consented."

A tentative statement of non-consent is included below in this review:
Notice of Non-Consent

I do not consent to this search.  I understand that if I refuse to submit to the search I am subject to civil fines totalling more than $10000 USD.  I believe I am seized for the purpose of this search according to federal regulation and therefore I am required to submit.  Because I am seized, I wish to make a record that I do not consent.  Any submission on my part to this search should not be taken as consent.

If this search of my person goes beyond what I believe to be reasonable (i.e. if it involves touching of genitals, strip searches whether physical or virtual, or the like), then I intend to complain to local law enforcement, the ACLU, EPIC, my congressional representative and both senators, the appropriate contacts at the Department of Homeland Security, and to the state attorney general.  If you would like to consult with a lawyer before proceding, I can wait ______ (hrs:minutes) without worrying about missing my flight.

Name_____________________________    Date___________________________

Signature: ___________________________

Without admitting or denying anything above, I certify I have received this notice:

Name_____________________________   Date_____________________________

Signature: _______________________Position/badge number:____________________

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January 11, 2011
yeah, I agree whoelheartedly. I am about to go out the country soon too. LOL!
December 06, 2010
I have a hard time understanding the allure of technology to solve this problem. I really think that better screening of travelers BEFORE they get inside would be much better. By doing it before people get inside the airport, wait times at security checkpoints are reduced. Why is the US leading with technology when other countries do a much better job without it?
December 06, 2010
There are two issues with no-fly lists and similar remedies. The first is a fundamental issue and the second is what I believe to be a fundamental Constitutional problem.

The fundamental issue is how you identify individuals.  Do you require folks to use social security numbers or passport numbers to fly?  How do you track an individual when, for example, Arabic names make that difficult (Arabic names involve a given name, then the father's given name, then the grandfather's given name as needed, so Saddam's father's name was Hussein).

So while the problem with tracking one John Smith vs others is bad enough, but when you have any number of Hussein Mohammed's out there, the problem becomes completely unmanageable.  The DHS's solution is to try to match birthdates with these, but ambiguity here is still a very major issue.

The second issue our Constitution demands that our government not infringe on our liberty without due process of law.  If the DHS says that a certain Mohammed Hussein who was born on a certain date is not allowed to fly, and that further this is secret information and not reviewable by a court, then you are directly infringing on this due process right.  This is important because that same mechanism can be turned on political dissidents and opponents.  See, for example, the Obama Administration's arguments in court that they have the right to assassinate American citizens anywhere in the world without worrying about due process.  These things are very concerning.

In the end some level of technology is important, but we shouldn't be seduced by a device just because it is the latest and greatest.  We need to proceed on a multi-level approach, aware of the history and reasons for existing previous methodologies.
December 06, 2010
Interesting background, and way to stand your ground! Thanks for sharing this thought-provoking take on this issue.
December 03, 2010
Great points! I also think it is a violation of basic privacy and rights. I don't really fly much thankfully (I used to). You mentioned "These machines have very little place in a free society", I would have to say that the term 'free society' can hardly be used to describe America anymore. Everywhere I look the government is encroaching so obviously, I'm not even sure what to call it. Just this years I've witnessed the government take babies away from loving parents for no good reason, seize private property without adequate proof of harm (organic farm), and many more. 
February 09, 2011
EcoMama: I agree with you on each of these points. The Supreme Court has not yet ruled on these machines and the 4th Amendment, nor has any circuit panel. Unfortunately, the case law in this area is a mess. Everyone agrees that metal detectors are Constitutional, but nearly every circuit has its own reasons for saying so. According to some circuits these are plainly Constitutional and according to others, probably Unconstitutional. Grab popcorn and watch the fights, I suppose
February 11, 2011
Oh yes, I'm watching :)
November 30, 2010
Totally agree - it's a shame that the A.D.D. media has now forgotten about the whole thing and moved on. These things need to be shut down.
December 01, 2010
You know, these machines have been installed in Canadian airports too, but the Canadians are being intelligent about the process. The machines are used for secondary screening only, and this safeguards civil liberties as well as avoiding the security holes I mention. It's what should be done here.

And folks wonder why many Americans don't trust our government to run a nationalized health care system ;-)
More Airport Security Body Scanners reviews
review by . November 19, 2010
If the pornographic image I've added to this subject in Lunch offends you (and it should since this is supposed to be a safe-for-work site!), then surely the fact that these images are being collected from US Citizens who have committed no crime should OUTRAGE you. At the risk of ending up on the no-fly list for speaking out about this gross abuse of our Constitutional rights, let's just take a moment to consider what on earth is going on here and why this is such as unbelievable step.   …
review by . November 22, 2010
posted in UP UP & Away!
Boycott is the only way out!
I believe I went through one of these the last time I left the U.S.. Damn, my sexy figure is now on file?! Yuck!!!            So, other than being treated like potential terrorist, visitors or Americans themselves are subjected to the high-tech body search in the most gross way possible, if I read some of the reviews here right. I suppose I can't complain since those Constitutional rights don't apply to foreigners, do they? Since I'm not Americans, …
Quick Tip by . December 07, 2010
posted in Politics Your Way
This was a bad idea, costing a lot of money and doesn't really make me feel any safer when flying. It probably causes health risks to frequent travelers or those who work in the airport shops. I myself don't mind submitting to them but I am probably in the minority.
About the reviewer
Chris Travers ()
   I live in a haunted house Beneath a tall and mighty tree   With my wife Mia and my sons Wilhelm and Conrad   Where I write software and carve runes   It is a … more
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About this topic


The full-body scanner is a device that creates an image of a person's nude body through their clothing to look for hidden objects without physically removing their clothes or making physical contact. They are increasingly being deployed at airports and train stations in many countries.

One technology used under the name "full-body scanner" is the millimeter wave scanner, in which extremely high frequency radio waves are reflected off the body to make an image on which one can see some types of objects hidden under the clothes. Another technology in use is the backscatter X-ray.

Two advantages of full-body scanners over a physical strip search are that it is quicker (takes only 15 seconds) and that people do not have to be touched in a manner that some might consider offensive. A disadvantage is that the scanners are being used to perform routine, virtual strip searches without probable cause which opponents claim are illegal and violate basic human rights. Furthermore, the true long term health effects of these technologies are unknown.
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