The TSA’s Naked Body Scanners Are Even More Useless

We’ve seen before that the naked body scanners which the TSA uses to prevent underwear explosives from getting on planes are just an awful piece of technology. Besides blatant privacy and decency issues, they had three technical strikes against them:

  1. Tests show that they’re horribly unreliable: false alarms all over the place and they get confused easily
  2. They miss bomb-making components
  3. They can’t see inside body cavities

Naked body scanner


Now, a fourth problem was made public in a video of an odd guy with a microphone, headphones, and crazy hair reading cue cards which claim you can get anything through the scanners, as long as it’s at your side. The poorly-delivered commentary, peppered with “jokes”, says this is due to a design decision that in hindsight is pretty stupid: both the objects detected and the background are black, while the person is white. Which works well if the object is in front or behind the person, because it’s a black object on a white figure. But if the object is to the person’s side, it’s a black object on a black background.

Scan from a millimeter wave machine


To test this theory, the guy sewed a pocket on the side of his shirt, put a metallic box in it and tried it at two different airports: he made it through the scanner both times. The box was empty, but it could’ve been filled with all kinds of things banned from airplanes: razors, a lighter, explosives. In the video below, you can kinda see him going through: he left a camera on the entire time, but the camera went through the x-ray machine, so he’s out of sight for some time, then re-emerges with the box still in his pocket. There’s obvious potential for sleight of hand to fool the viewer into thinking the box went with him when it actually didn’t, but he’s strange to the point where he seems earnest. And if he did succeed, then the implications are staggering mediocre at best.

Firstly, this is the kind of thing that can be fixed with a simple software update of the machines: change the background color to pink — problem solved. In fact, due to complaints about the whole naked-picture aspect of the machine, their software is in the process of being upgraded so that it only shows cartoon figures instead of actual people; objects are then shown in yellow. That alone should fix the issue, but even if it doesn’t, the TSA agent would just have to take side shots in addition to the front and back ones.


The newer scans from the millimeter wave machine


Still, the machines have been used for a couple of years now, and the TSA didn’t detect this major flaw in its procedures. Technology can always be improved, and in time the naked body scanners will work perfectly; but a poorly managed agency that draws the ire of tens of millions of people will not be fixed by better toys. This isn’t the first time the TSA wasted billions of dollars on technology that does little more than put on a front designed to lull the public into a false sense of security. In fact, the agency is such a momentous failure and gigantic source of frustration that Congress wants it overhauled, the Representative responsible for its creation wants it gone, so does presidential candidate Ron Paul, and on the White House website’s petition system, the petition to abolish the TSA was the third most popular one — legalizing marijuana was first, of course. The TSA responded to the petition saying the gate rape is for our own good and if we want it to stop, all we have to do is stop hijacking planes.


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From TSA Out Of Our Pants, via Slashdot


  1. Former TSA Agent Admits Airport Security Is A Joke | Apt46 - pingback on April 11, 2012 at 10:02 pm

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