Where’s the Evidence Proving TSA’s Backscatter Scanners are Safe?

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August 29, 2012 | 315,589 views

Story at-a-glance

  • Two years ago, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a lawsuit to suspend the deployment of body scanners at US airports, pending an independent review. On July 15, 2011, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the TSA had violated the Administrative Procedures Act by implementing body scanners as a primary screening method without first undertaking public notice and comment rulemaking. The Court ordered the agency to "promptly" undertake the proper rulemaking procedures
  • The TSA has so far defied the court’s order. On July 17, 2012, EPIC again asked the D.C. Circuit court of appeals to compel the agency to comply with the law, and the court has now demanded the TSA respond by August 30
  • Both houses of Congress filed bills this year demanding that the TSA and DHS produce proof of their safety claims with an independent laboratory study
  • At the end of last year, the EU banned all scanning that expose the public to ionizing radiation, even if the exposure is miniscule
  • No verifiable, independent scientific testing of the safety of the backscatter scanners has been made, and some scientists believe the high quality images produced cannot possibly be obtained with the low levels of radiation described, and that the actual level may be 45 times higher than what the manufacture is claiming

By Dr. Mercola

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) first began using advanced imaging technology in airports nationwide in 2007. But just how "tested," and how safe, are the TSA's backscatter machines?

The TSA1 and Department of Homeland Security will tell you they've been extensively tested and that these machines are very safe. But if that's true, why did both houses of Congress file bills this year demanding that the TSA and DHS produce proof of their safety claims with an independent laboratory study?2,3

Could it be that Congressmen – who often fly as part of their jobs – are worried that maybe those safety claims are not as documented as the TSA claims?

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has been making similar demands of the TSA through lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act requests for several years. The group has even filed a lawsuit to suspend the deployment of body scanners at US airports, pending an independent review:4

"On July 2, 2010, EPIC petitioned5 the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to suspend the body scanner program, stressing its core assertion that "the TSA has acted outside of its regulatory authority and with profound disregard for the statutory and constitutional rights of air travelers.

EPIC asserted that the federal agency's controversial program violated the Administrative Procedures Act, the Privacy Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act, and the Fourth Amendment.

On July 15, 2011, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled6 that the agency had violated the Administrative Procedures Act by implementing body scanners as a primary screening method without first undertaking public notice and comment rulemaking.

The Court ordered the agency to 'promptly' undertake the proper rulemaking procedures and allow the public to comment on the body scanner program. To date, the agency has made no visible progress toward complying with the Court's order."

So far, this is what EPIC has found through an FOIA request:

  • TSA employees have identified cancer clusters allegedly linked to radiation exposure while operating body scanners and other screening technology. However, the agency failed to issue employees dosimeters – safety devices that would warn of radiation exposure.
  • The DHS has publicly mischaracterized the findings of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), stating that NIST "affirmed the safety" of full body scanners. NIST has stated that the Institute did not, in fact, test full body scanners for safety, and that the Institute does not do product testing.
  • A Johns Hopkins University study revealed that radiation zones around body scanners could exceed the "General Public Dose Limit."
  • A NIST study warns airport screeners to avoid standing next to full body scanners.

Rogue Federal Agency Refuses to Comply with the Law

On July 18, The Washington Times ran an editorial7 about the TSA's defiance of the courts. Remember, it's been over a year since the D.C. Circuit court ruled the TSA had to "promptly" comply with the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires public hearings and a 90-day public comment period. In a November 9, 2011 affidavit, TSA acting general manager James Clarkson responded that "While TSA has prioritized the rulemaking directed by the Opinion, TSA has many important rulemakings in progress, many of them required by statute," essentially telling the court and the rest of us that they're too busy to address it.

On July 17, 2012, EPIC again asked the D.C. Circuit court of appeals to compel the agency to comply with the law, and the court has now demanded the TSA respond by August 30.

"It's a widely held belief that the agency's hasty embrace of expensive, X-rated x-ray machines has more to do with closed-door lobbying efforts of manufacturers than a deliberate consideration of the devices' merits," The Washington Times states.8

"The last thing TSA wants is the public-relations disaster of having to collect and publish the horror tales from Americans subjected to humiliation from the nude photography and intrusive 'pat-down' groping sessions. Scanner manufacturer Rapidscan Systems, which has invested $2.2 million in wining and dining administration officials and lawmakers since 2007, probably isn't keen on broader public discussion either."

The Security Implications of Nude Body Scanners

On March 6, 2012 engineer Jonathan Corbett posted a video on YouTube, demonstrating how easily the "nude body scanners" can be defeated, and why these machines actually make air travel LESS safe, if we're actually worried about terrorists boarding planes with guns and other lethal objects on their person.

Furthermore, as explained by Miles O'Brien in the video in the next section below, these machines are also unlikely to detect certain explosives, and likely would NOT have caught the infamous "underwear bomber" – the case that presaged the rapid release of these backscatter scanners in the first place.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 The TSA Blog
  • 2 The Library of Congress S.2044
  • 3 The Library of Congress H.R.4068
  • 4 Epic.org EPIC v. DHS (Suspension of Body Scanner Program)
  • 5 EPIC vs DHS Petition, US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (PDF)
  • 6 EPIC vs DHS Ruling July 15, 2011, US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (PDF)
  • 7 The Washington Times July 18, 2012
  • 8 See ref 7
  • 9 See ref 7
  • 10 Wewontfly.com July 9, 2012
  • 11 PBS News Hour December 1, 2011
  • 12 ProPublica Letter to John Holdren, April 2011 (PDF)
  • 13 Radiation Safety Engineering Assessment Report for the Rapiscan Secure 1000 in Single Pose Configuration (PDF)
  • 14 New England Journal of Medicine November 29, 2007; 357:2277-2284