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The TSA’s Expensive, Controversial Backscatter Scanners Were Utterly Useless

By / 08.22.14

Boycott Of Airport Body Scanners And Holiday Travel Add Up To Long Lines

The “backscatter” scanner needs no introduction. Only taken out of commission at airports in 2013 thanks to Americans being ugly to look at naked, the backscatter scanner was controversial because it was tested in secret and there were serious concerns about public health and safety. Justly so, as it turns out they didn’t work.

Researchers from the University of California at San Diego, the University of Michigan, and Johns Hopkins bought one of the Rapiscan backscatter scanners off of eBay and put it through its paces. According to Wired, they discovered that you could pretty much sneak anything into an airport if you were willing to… well, basically if you were willing to take five minutes to try and fool the scanners:

[They] found that they could pull off a disturbing list of other possible tricks, such as using teflon tape to conceal weapons against someone’s spine, installing malware on the scanner’s console that spoofed scans, or simply molding plastic explosives around a person’s body to make it nearly indistinguishable from flesh in the machine’s images.

It turns out that X-rays are pretty bad at spotting entirely metal objects, something we’ve only known about since we discovered them. So if you sewed, say, a gun into your pants leg, hanging away from your body, only the plastic parts would be visible to the machine.

The good news is that you only find these in places nobody would possibly want to sneak a weapon into these days, like… uh… courthouses and jails. The equally good news is that they’ve been replaced in airports by millimeter wave scanners, which are so effective sweat reads as a false positive. So basically, for the last four years, every indignity you have ever suffered going through the airport has been utterly futile, and also cost taxpayers millions. Hey, at least the government is recouping some of that on eBay!


TAGSair travelbackscatter machinessecurity theaterTSAUseless

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