Are We About to See an End to Naked Images at the Airport?

Apparently the TSA has been testing software which will display a generic person instead of your naked body when going through a nude-o-scope. (HT: legalalien on Milepoint.)

The idea is to display hidden items under clothing but instead of against an image of your naked body, against a generic naked body drawing that will tell the TSA where to look in secondary screening.

They’ll be rolling out the software “in the comming months” to millimeter wave machines, but not yet to backscatter machines.

My guess is that this will satisfy many privacy advocates, it’s a brilliant PR move, but does little to address the underlying problems of the TSA — its wasteful inability to do things that actually promote security — all the while making us used to submitting to inspections by the state as part of our daily lives.

Naked images aside (for which you ‘assume the position’) are incredibly easy to fool and a determined terrorist could easily sneak weapons through undetected. The TSA doesn’t believe that the liquids confiscated at the security checkpoint are dangerous. That’s why they toss confiscated liquids into a bin at security. They don’t, y’know, engage in hazardous materials protocols.. And the TSA has never even caught a terrorist or would-be terrorist. There are far more criminals working for the TSA than ever discovered by the TSA.

The TSA is designed for politicians to look like they’re doing something to protect us, all the while security companies are profiting off sales of expensive, useless equipment to the government. We didn’t get rid of the silly and useless puffers until there was a new boondoggle being promoted by a former Secretary of Homeland Security in the nude-o-scopes.

The key things to remember about the TSA, and the war on terror more broadly, are that:

  • The risk of terrorism is small. Any investment, at any cost, makes no sense.
  • And those approaches don’t work.

There are over 300 million people in the US. Horrible things happen every day, and terrorism isn’t one of those things. Statistically speaking the chances of a terrorist attack happening to anyone are pretty much zero. You’re more likely to be struck by lightning than be the victim of a terrorist attack. But what we get is an arms race for would-be terrorists in which we’re perpetually behind.

Security checkpoints screened for bombs before 9/11. Those hijackers used boxcutters. So no more boxcutters, Richard Reid stuck a ton of wires in his shoes that probably wouldn’t have blown up anything, but now we all have to take off our shoes. So then there was the liquid plot and we get the War on Water. So the underpants bomber brought PETN through security. His plot wouldn’t have worked, but it was airline passengers – not the TSA or air marshalls – who subdued him.

As Bruce Schneier says, “This is a stupid game and we should stop playing it.”

Does that mean we don’t do anything? No, it means that the tactics we’re using don’t protect us so we should look elsewhere. I don’t think it’s a generally good idea that the US is fighting three simultaneous wars with Islam (and pretending that we’re not).

Schneier talks about intelligence and investigation, largely invisible, being the best ways to foil plots. I actually disagree, I think the intelligence bureaucracies aren’t especially effective either. Which is why we want systems which aren’t designed to foil every conceivable past plot, but which are resilient to lapses in effectiveness.

Reinforced cockpit doors, passengers ready to pounce, It’s sad to say but we cannot with 100% effectiveness prevent terrorist plots. But pretending like what we’re doing even attempts that is silly. It’s meant to pacify citizens into complacency and make government contractors rich.

Besides, making airplanes safer – if we were even doing that – would only shift terrorist efforts to less secure but equally high profile venues. Stadiums, public transit, government buildings, other icons like the World Trade Center. We don’t have the resources to secure everything, even if we knew how and genuinely had that as our aim. But in a magical world of such resources, we would need to develop a nationwide Benthamite panopticon to do it.

While the naked images are troubling, especially for my younger female colleagues who are often designated to go through the machines even before getting to the front of the security line, as the TSA agent ‘picking people’ does his buddies a solid, they really are just the smallest problem we face with airport security.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. “I don’t think it’s a generally good idea that the US is fighting three simultaneous wars with Islam” – Interesting choice of words!

  2. OMG… this is the best article you have ever written here, I could not have said it better myself!
    Thank you Gary.

  3. Great post, Gary! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Maybe with a loud enough chorus of voices we can get someone in Washington to end (or at least curtail) this stupid game of security theater.

  4. As a cop once told me, if professional thieves want to steal from my home, they’re gonna get in, regardless of alarms and security. However, alarms and security do put off the amateur and make him look elsewhere.

    The same goes for the threat to aircraft and other public venues. But the fact remains that, over time, people have consistently tried first to hijack planes or blow them up – and they seem to be a target which these people prefer to stadiums, subways etc.

    To support your argument, look at the London 7/7 bombings. There has been no increase in security at tube stations because it’s impossible. It also turns out that some of them were small blips on the counter-terrorism intelligence radars, but not large enough blips to have been fully investigated. We are looking for needles in haystacks and we all know that’s a task that is doomed to failure.

    Having said all that, the consequences of someone shooting a gun in a plane are far more catastrophic than in a subway. From most land-based things, recovery is easier. So I don’t buy the argument that stopping all airport security is the way forward – I do believe it should remain.

    Where I agree whole-heartedly is with your assertion that it is the TSA that needs the most reform. Look at any European airport and the procedures are pretty similar (with the exception that only in the US are shoes removed). But the exercise is far less stressful for the passenger. The staff seem friendlier, more human. You can speak to them, share a joke with them. They essentially start with the premise that 99.99% of people are not threats and are not carrying anything untoward. This doesn’t mean that they are less effective with bad guys, it’s just they don’t piss off the good guys.

    Here are some draft rules for all TSA agents:
    1. Always say please with any request.
    2. Always say thank you when the passenger complies or helps in any way.
    3. Maintain an open and friendly stance towards the passenger.
    4. Engage in conversation consistent with doing the job.
    5. Never, under any circumstances, raise your voice when dealing with a passenger.
    6. If any line extends beyond the bin table, apologise to passengers for the delay – and, while doing so, make eye contact and smile.
    7. Be polite and courteous at all times.

    None of these rules would in any way compromise what they are trying to achieve and would be commonplace in most industries. Not difficult to achieve and would make the exercise far less miserable for all concerned.

  5. this is merely a money motive…now that means some company will get big contracts …jobs will be created and around and around we go….Even if it means making a stupid decision…the gubment will do it..why? cuz theres a $ at the end of the line. Its all about money..always has been,and always will be…Who is at the center of it? Well, I have my opinions, but as a gesture of keeping harmony in my beloved FF community, I wont say 🙂

  6. The Federal Goverment has now by unionizing the TSA created a consituency that will ensure that the security theater will be in place forever

  7. Personally I don’t have any issues with these xrays. My issue is with the amount of time they and other security issues take. This one in particular takes substantially more time than a metal detector. People have to clean out all pockets of all items and stand a certain way for a period of time, then when they don’t they have to be inspected again.
    Just not time efficient.

  8. So wonderfully put! It’s always such a pleasure to read essays that “say it like it is!”

    Isn’t it only a matter of time before the “Anusbomber” is “brilliantly foiled” by the TSA, FBI, or some Marshall service? Then, we could all look forward to the TSA (or whatever agency) phasing in their newest creation, the “Anuscope?” They could pass the cost (not to mention the denigration and possible pain) on to us via a “rectal/large intestine exploratory security surcharge…because terrorism is a dirty business crammed with danger at every twist and turn.”

    (Additional note to Gary: feel free to read this, hopefully chuckle, and remove my post if you feel it does not add to your well-informed and serious thread.)

  9. So wonderfully put! It’s always such a pleasure to read essays that “say it like it is!”

    Isn’t it only a matter of time before the “Anusbomber” is “brilliantly foiled” by the TSA, FBI, or some Marshall service? Then, we could all look forward to the TSA (or whatever agency) phasing in their newest creation, the “Anuscope?” They could pass the cost (not to mention the denigration and possible pain) on to us via a “rectal/large intestine exploratory security surcharge…because terrorism is a dirty business crammed with danger at every twist and turn.”

    (Additional note to Gary: feel free to read this, hopefully chuckle, and remove my post if you feel it does not add to your well-informed and serious thread.)

  10. Well put.

    Last weekend I got “selected for additional screening” to go through the naked machines when I was about to walk through the normal x-ray. I opted out as fast as I could and the TSA were less than professional after that. It was a lousy way to end a wonderful vacation (I was re-entering the US).

  11. there’s only one answer to the security issue and every intelligent person knows it, it’s called profiling. yet left wing america will never allow us to implement it and so the show goes on…

  12. “Schneier talks about intelligence and investigation, largely invisible, being the best ways to foil plots. I actually disagree, I think the intelligence bureaucracies aren’t especially effective either.”

    How do you know this? They truly are largely invisible. Do you have some inside information on this?

  13. How do you conclude that we are at war “with Islam”? Spoiled an otherwise excellent article by inserting a political/religious opinion and not backing it up. It’s your blog, do what you want, but I’m just sayin’

    Were we at war with Shintoism & Buddhism in the WW II Pacific Theater? Or was Japan at war with Christianity by attacking Pearl Harbor?

  14. I share PanAm’s sentiments. IMO there’s no need to inject liberal academic bias, or any other, to an otherwise thoughtful post.

  15. @PanAm it was less about my subjective avaluation of motives and more about how the Islamic world might (not entirely crazily, either) see it. Point is this perception is dangerous, even if you’d rather draw distinctions.

  16. First, any potential health risks of these body scanners should be undertaken by independent authorities to determine their safety and potential hazards. Making every Tom and Sally go through them as a first means of screening is wasteful and improper. If a person keeps setting off the detectors or is deemed as a potential threat from a watch list, then there may be need to use the scanners to rule out risk.

    To improve airport and airline security the following needs to be done. We need to pay attention to whom is getting on the planes and what their security risk would be. Grandpa Fred and Grandma Sue are not a threat and neither is Joey the young kid. We have to screen what is in both checked baggage and identify what goes through security as carry on. Liquids in themselves are not the problem, it is the type and content of liquids, so x-ray machines need to indentify if there is any hazardous material: the UK is currently working on such technology. A trusted traveler program is a step in the right direction as well: if you qualify for Global Entry, then you should qualify for TSA trusted traveler as well.

  17. “Benthamite panopticon”

    Now there’s something you VERY rarely see in a blog post.

    Well done!

  18. Really to be honest all of these protests against the TSA from RIGHT wingers are quite hollow, do they prefer the Israeli security system when you could find yourself arrested or not allow to enter the country or leave when you want and never to be told the Reason? Where were all you people when the RIGHT wing US Supreme Court decisions on stop & search and police powers were coming down the pike 20 years ago? Oh, now its an issue when it affects white americans but otherwise it was OK with you, give me a F–ing break!

  19. @pretty I’m hardly a ‘right winger’ I do have strong objections to growing police powers of the state (although 20 years ago I was in high school) and this has nothing to do with race.

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