Tuesday, February 2, 2010

GAO to TSA: Test those scanners first!

In a report by Jaikumar Vijayan on pcworld.com we learn that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has told the TSA to make sure they properly test the full body scanners they are trying to deploy. The GAO reminds the TSA that another technology, Explosive Trace Portals, was rushed to deployment, and performed so abysmally that only about 1/2 the units purchased were installed, and by the end of 2009 all but 9 were out of service. Those 9 will be gone by the end of the year.

The GAO says that the TSA had not tested the full body scanners by October 2009, but claims to have finished testing by the end of that year. The problem, according to the GAO, is there is no verification that real world tests, ie tests trying to fool or bypass the scanners, were done.

Without such tests - carried out with a sincere desire to get past the scanners - there is no guarantee that the scanners are effective. It's easy to find something carelessly hidden. It's another thing to catch something carefully hidden by someone with a good idea of how to hide it.

If some of the things I've read are correct, as little as a millimeter of skin will keep  these scanners from finding something. Having the amount of skin necessary for a bomb pulled up and sewn down over high explosives doesn't seem very attractive, but we're talking about people who are not expecting to be in one piece for much longer when this is done. Of course, there are less violent ways to hide a bomb inside the body. People smuggle drugs that way all the time.

This really comes down to a cost benefit analysis. The cost of the methods required to get around full body scanners - apparently very low. The cost of the scanners? A very high $130,000 to $170,000 each. Unless the TSA can show the scanners can effectively reduce terrorist attempts, the cost outweighs the benefit. From the information available now, that seems unlikely.