Body Imager Mythbuster?

With millions of hits a controversial video has been circulating the Internet in which an individual claims to be able to defeat the TSA body imagers. TSA’s response has been unsurprising in that they have not provided any real rebuttal to the man’s claims. But that is to be expected. To provide rebuttal, specific to this man’s claims, provides information to individuals who want to defeat the technology for criminal or terrorist purposes.

I know the video has been out for a few weeks and I have withheld comment so far. The problem is we have a claim on the Internet from somebody that I have never met, who claims to have defeated a body imager under conditions that no one but him really was aware of and he doesn’t have the advantage to see what actually was displayed on the screen. Additionally, we do not know what the TSA screener may have seen in the monitor and, whether automatic threat recognition was in use or maybe the TSA screener identified an innocuous item and decided to give the gentleman pass. Or maybe they did truly miss it. The fact is we just don’t know.

I have been to the Transportation Security Integration Facility in Washington DC and seen the rigorous testing that these technologies undergo. This is not to say that an individual, or even a piece of equipment, can fail. We know from routine tests of the system that people and equipment both fail from time to time. There is no such thing as a perfect system or, despite what presidential candidates want us to believe, a perfect person.

I would like to correct one point the gentleman made in his viral video. He believes that we should go back to the age of metal detectors. He claims that body imagers do not detect the metallic objects that metal detectors detect and further claims that nobody has tried to destroy an airplane by wearing a bomb. Both of these statements are untrue. To cite just one of many incidents in our history, in August of 2004, two female Chechen suicide bombers, concealing explosives in their brassieres, took down 2 Russian airliners. It was this incident that in fact started the use of the patdown technique, the trace detectors and the body imagers.

The trace detectors were rolled out for a period of time, but they proved to not be resilient enough for the airport environment. I do agree that in the future the trace detectors could be brought back, but when they were in use they required an individual to stand there for nearly half of a minute, which is an eternity in the screening checkpoint line. The body imagers have managed to get this down to about 5 to 6 seconds. While it is true that a metal detector detects metal (it does what it says on the box), the body imagers are also very effective at detecting metallics, ceramics, explosives and other types of objects, and in some cases can even detect objects beneath the skin.
This is effective technology. Does it work 100% of the time? No. But nothing works 100% of the time. That is why we have a layered security system. Technology and processes should be called out when they are ineffective, but in this case, this is an amateur version of the TV show Mythbusters, but without the science or academic rigor – in fact this would be a good episode for the real Mythbusters.

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