Physicists who led the development of today’s most sophisticated medical imaging technology believe the federal government’s X-rated airport x-ray scanners are useless. Leon Kaufman and Joseph W. Carlson, both former professors of physics at the University of California-San Francisco have been described as the “scientific genius” behind the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines used in hospitals. The pair turned their considerable experience to investigate what the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is using to virtually undress millions of American travelers.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano insists the public should trust her when she says the expensive airport scanners are safe and effective. Until now, there has been no way to verify this claim because the TSA and the scanner manufacturers have cloaked key operational data behind a veil of purported “national security.” That didn’t stop Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Carlson who, as experts in their field, were able to work backwards from the images produced by the devices to determine the radiation levels required for their generation.
In March, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported it was “unclear” whether airport scanners would have detected Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s botched Christmas Day underwear bombing attempt. The agency declined a request to elaborate given the topic’s security implications. Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Carlson showed less restraint in a peer-reviewed article posted online Nov. 26 by The Journal of Transportation Security. They created a computer model to simulate scanner operation and conclude an Islamic terrorist could easily sneak a large quantity of explosives past the device. “It is very likely that a large (15-20 cm in diameter), irregularly-shaped, cm-thick pancake with beveled edges, taped to the abdomen, would be invisible to this technology, ironically, because of its large volume, since it is easily confused with normal anatomy,” the study explains.
The researchers pointed out that the manufacturers of airport scanners positioned contraband like guns, knives and drugs in unnatural ways to conceal the limitations of their device. For example, the simulated drugs are always packed into tight rectangles that show up distinctly on the machine. TSA employees would have a far more difficult time spotting less tidy terrorists. “The eye is a good signal averager at certain spatial frequencies, but it is doubtful that an operator can be trained to detect these differences unless the material is hard-edged, not too large and regular shaped,” Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Carlson wrote.
Firms hawking this dubious technology have their eyes on the $2.4 billion the Obama administration has allocated for the scanning program. It’s not surprising they would leave out mention of its limitations. Unfortunately, government bureaucrats are even less likely to care about this omission. For the public sector, it’s more important to appear to be “doing something” than to achieve measurable results. As long as the public is duped into believing magic machines will protect them, TSA will be all too happy to perpetuate the illusion.
In the end, this false sense of security creates a blindness that real terrorists will exploit. Continuing to rely on this fundamentally flawed technological crutch makes air travel more dangerous. The plug must be pulled on these invasive and ineffective machines.