Travelers file complaints over TSA body scanners

Complaints include lack of instructions, information on alternatives, privacy group says

Documents obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) shows complaints have been lodged with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) over the use of whole body scanners at U.S. airports.

More than two dozen complaints were filed by travelers who were subjected to whole body scans over the past year or so, and were included in a document obtained by EPIC as the result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit.

The 51 pages of documents show that travelers were often not fully informed about the scans or what the process involved. Some complained about a lack of instructions or signage regarding the scanning machines, while others said they were not informed about a pat down alternative available to those who don't want to be scanned. Travelers also expressed concern about their privacy being invaded, of feeling humiliated, of radiation risks to pregnant women and of children being subjected to the scans.

The letters belie the TSA's claims about the disclosure policies related to the use of the technology and of the general level of concern related to its use, said Ginger McCall, staff counsel at EPIC. "The TSA has been reassuring people that travelers will be made aware of what these machines are and of the alternatives that are available," McCall said. The complaints suggest otherwise and appear to show less support for the technology than the TSA has let on, she said.

The new documents are likely to provide more fodder for groups such as EPIC, the American Civil Liberties Union and others that have mounted a vigorous campaign calling for a thorough review of current plans for the technology.

Whole body imagers, or advanced imaging technology (AIT) scanners as the government calls them, are designed to detect non-metallic weapons and explosives concealed under a passenger's clothing, such as the explosive PETN powder that the would-be Christmas Day bomber concealed in his underwear. The TSA plans to install close to 900 body scanners at airports around the U.S. by 2014. About 200 AIT scanners are expected to be deployed by the end of this year at a cost of $130,000 to $170,000 per device. The scanners were most recently deployed at Boston's Logan International Airport.

Privacy advocacy groups have claimed that the use of such scanners is tantamount to doing a strip search of air travelers. Security analysts and even the Government Accountability Office (GAO) meanwhile have called for a thorough review of the effectiveness of the technology in day-to-day operations. Some have expressed concern that whole body scanners will be ineffective in detecting explosives hidden in body cavities. Such concerns have already prompted a three-month review of the technology in Europe.

A majority of the American public however, appears to support the use of the technology. A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted in the immediate aftermath of the Christmas Day bombing attempt showed 78% of the respondents approving the use of full body scans. About 67% said they would not feel uncomfortable undergoing a whole body scan if it improved airline security.

In an interview with Computerworld at the RSA Security conference last week former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff supported the use of whole body scanners. Chertoff, who is currently a security consultant with interests in numerous security vendors, said that concerns about the effectiveness of the technology are misplaced. The technology has proved to be effective at detecting nonmetallic weapons hidden under clothing, he said. The use of such technologies is also likely to force a much higher rate of errors on the part of those trying to smuggle explosives onboard an aircraft, he said.

In addition to the documents received today, the EPIC has also obtained documents relating to other facets of the body scanning program. In January for instance, EPIC obtained documents that cast new light on the security and privacy protections the TSA has in place around the use of body scanners.

The TSA maintains that it has taken numerous measures to protect the privacy of individuals subjected to the scans. For instance, it notes that none of the systems installed at airports are capable of storing images and that those personnel reviewing the scanned images are situated in a room where they cannot see the individuals who are being scanned.

The TSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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