Sunday, January 10, 2010

Full body scans: Trading privacy for illusion of security?

Hebba Aref has been a privacy advocate for some time. And she experienced anti-muslim prejudice first-hand when she was told that she couldn't be in a picture with Candidate Obama because of her head scarf. That was an overzealous volunteer, and Mr. Obama called her personally to apologize when he found out. I can imagine that was a defining moment in her life.

In the past she has been against full body scanners and profiling in airports. Then she sat six seats in front of a young Nigerian man on Christmas day, 2009, and she remembers the sound of the detonator, the flash, and the terrorist being led down the aisle with no clothes on below the waste.

Her experience that day changed her view of how airport security should be handled. In an article in the Detroit Free Press she says: "I'm always standing up for rights and privacy concerns, but now I hope that body scans will be mandatory," Aref, 27, said Wednesday. "Balanced against national security, it's worth the invasion of privacy. And I acknowledge the fact that there has to be attention paid to Muslims."

Coming close to death is a life changing experience, but often after some time has passed and the fear moves further away people revert to their previous opinions and attitudes. Only time will tell us if Miss Aref will continue to favor body scanners and profiling. But her story, moving as it may be, is just another emotional appeal, and emotional appeals are poor things to build policy on. Granted emotional appeals are the stuff that shapes public opinion, but they're still bad for building policy.

One of the more interesting quotes on full body scanning and privacy  came from an article in the Washington Post on January 4, 2009. It was about the images generated. It said,
"They're virtual. Passengers walk through the machines fully clothed; the resulting image appears on a monitor in a separate room and conceals passengers' faces and sensitive areas."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe "sensitive areas" refers to the breasts and groin on women and the groin on men. If the groin area is concealed, how are we protected from an underwear bomb?

Here are a few other quotes from the same article:
"It covers up the dirty bits," said James Carafano, a homeland security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

"I don't think it's any different than if you go to the beach and put on a bikini," said Brandon Macsata, who started the Association for Airline Passenger Rights.

"It covers up the dirty bits," and it's the same as a bikini ... that sounds to me like the primary area of concealment - the crotch, will be concealed by software in the scanner. That makes it kind of hard for the human viewing the image to see if anythings been added to the area.

I've read that the full body scanners are not designed to detect the types of explosives used in most terrorist attacks. According to an article at, Dutch Interior Minister Guusje ter Horst said that there is no 100% gaurantee that the new detectors would have caught the underwear bomber.

Adding fuel to the fire - or not, since there's been almost no mention of it anywhere else, the Independent ran an article, Are planned airport scanners just a scam? on January 3rd reporting that British research into full body scanners showed that they would not detect an explosive of the type used by the crotchbomber. According the to article,
"But Ben Wallace, the Conservative MP, who was formerly involved in a project by a leading British defence research firm to develop the scanners for airport use, said trials had shown that such low-density materials went undetected.
Tests by scientists in the team at Qinetiq, which Mr Wallace advised before he became an MP in 2005, showed the millimetre-wave scanners picked up shrapnel and heavy wax and metal, but plastic, chemicals and liquids were missed. "

Other interesting claims are made. Supposedly American experts have stated that traditional airport pat downs wouldn't have stopped Mr. Abdulmutallab from getting on the plane. There's a really simple reason for it. In the U.S. the security people aren't allowed to frisk sensitive areas. Not that frisking those areas will stop everyone. I was with a friend going into "The Who's Last" concert in Dallas in 1983...I think that was the concert...anyway, they were frisking everyone. My friend had a recorder with the mike in his pants. The officer hit the mike,

"What's that!"
"My d**k."

The officer got a surprised look on his face and waved him through. I still wonder if anyone managed to get something more dangerous in that way?

For me the scanner issue isn't really about privacy, although that is important. It's really about using unproven technology without making sure the measures we already have in place are working. To be honest they usually do work, but we need a lot of improvement. And before we spend $165 million on scanners we should spend a few hundred thousand making sure they do what is claimed.

Does anyone remember the bomb sniffing machines they spent millions on after 911? The machines that are mostly decommissioned because they didn't work as claimed, and spent more time broken than working? We don't want that to happen again - but it's probably already to late, because they've already ordered them. And they may not even detect the explosive they're being bought to protect us from.

The more things change the more they stay the same.

[Edited at 12:21 to improve headline by Bert]