Former TSA Agent Explains Full Body Scanners Didn't Work, But Did Let Him See You Naked

from the but-of-course dept

There's been less discussion over the TSA's full body scanners recently, especially since the TSA's brief but insanely expensive (with YOUR money!) experiment with the "nudie scanners" went away. However, Politico has a fascinating story from a former TSA agent revealing that much of what you suspect about the TSA is true: they were able to see you naked even as the scanners had little actual value. They do target attractive women and have a rather long list of official sounding "code names" for good looking women so they can alert each other to them while appearing professional. On those nudie scanners, he has the story of the guy who taught them how to use it, who was then asked what he thought of the machines:
“They're shit,” he said, shrugging. He said we wouldn't be able to distinguish plastic explosives from body fat and that guns were practically invisible if they were turned sideways in a pocket.

We quickly found out the trainer was not kidding: Officers discovered that the machines were good at detecting just about everything besides cleverly hidden explosives and guns. The only thing more absurd than how poorly the full-body scanners performed was the incredible amount of time the machines wasted for everyone.
Of course, what he leaves out is the real reason why these were installed in airports across the country. It had nothing to do with terrorist threats, but the fact that former DHS boss Michael Chertoff was getting rich off of helping to sell them to the government agency he used to run.

As for looking at you naked, yes, the TSA folks would look and laugh:
Most of my co-workers found humor in the I.O. room on a cruder level. Just as the long-suffering American public waiting on those security lines suspected, jokes about the passengers ran rampant among my TSA colleagues: Many of the images we gawked at were of overweight people, their every fold and dimple on full awful display. Piercings of every kind were visible. Women who’d had mastectomies were easy to discern—their chests showed up on our screens as dull, pixelated regions. Hernias appeared as bulging, blistery growths in the crotch area. Passengers were often caught off-guard by the X-Ray scan and so materialized on-screen in ridiculous, blurred poses—mouths agape, à la Edvard Munch. One of us in the I.O. room would occasionally identify a passenger as female, only to have the officers out on the checkpoint floor radio back that it was actually a man. All the old, crass stereotypes about race and genitalia size thrived on our secure government radio channels.

There were other types of bad behavior in the I.O. room—I personally witnessed quite a bit of fooling around, in every sense of the phrase. Officers who were dating often conspired to get assigned to the I.O. room at the same time, where they analyzed the nude images with one eye apiece, at best. Every now and then, a passenger would throw up two middle fingers during his or her scan, as though somehow aware of the transgressions going on.
And yes, he talks about the ridiculousness of confiscating nail clippers and liquids:
I confiscated jars of homemade apple butter on the pretense that they could pose threats to national security. I was even required to confiscate nail clippers from airline pilots—the implied logic being that pilots could use the nail clippers to hijack the very planes they were flying.

Once, in 2008, I had to confiscate a bottle of alcohol from a group of Marines coming home from Afghanistan. It was celebration champagne intended for one of the men in the group—a young, decorated soldier. He was in a wheelchair, both legs lost to an I.E.D., and it fell to me to tell this kid who would never walk again that his homecoming champagne had to be taken away in the name of national security.
Basically, pretty much everything we already knew about the TSA and its security theater seems to be more or less accurate. There's a lot more in the article, but it really paints a picture of typical bureaucratic insanity. The whole setup of the TSA seems designed to do two things: to help make a few ex-gov't officials very wealthy while giving the public appearance that current government officials are "doing something" about terrorism.

As we've noted in the past, even the TSA knows that there's not much of a threat directed at air travel these days, which is probably why they've started giving up the pretense and waving large groups of folks through at times.

Of course, beyond the government officials getting rich part of this, the simple fact is that the political incentives here always will lead to these kinds of ridiculous results. When there is, inevitably, some other attack, questions will be asked about why we weren't "doing enough." So everyone has incentives to do as much useless stuff as possible, even if it's all really useless. That way they can talk about everything they had already been doing -- and then layering on some other idiotic idea (like taking off your shoes, or not carrying water bottles through security) and go on with the myth that they're "protecting" people. It's just that sometimes this leads to bored TSA agents staring at tons of people naked based on no warrant, no threat and no damned reason at all.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Jan 2014 @ 12:08pm

    and of course, Michael Chertoff was arrested and prosecuted for getting government (the peoples!) money under false pretences! yeah right! there's more chance of me being the head honcho!!

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