War on Terror

TSA Scanners Won't Reveal Every Weapon

| by Reason Foundation

By Peter Suderman

A report in the Journal of Transportation Security looks the efficacy of the TSA’s new backscatter scanners. Turns out the machines can see your naked body.

But they might not be able to see your box cutter—or your gun, depending on how you went about hiding it. And if you decided to tape a pancake-shaped container of the high explosive PETN to your gut, the backscatter machine might make it appear as if the bomb was nothing more than your holiday weight gain:

The penetration not only distributes exposure throughout the body (this affecting the calculation of effective dose, which comprises a sum over all organs), but tends to diffuse the effects caused by contraband materials. Images can be made at low entrance exposures, but of very poor spatial resolution and S/N. The calculated signal excursions at high kilovoltage are so small as to make it doubtful that at any reasonable exposure levels density differences will be noticeable unless the contraband is packed thickly and with hard edges. Although the excursions are larger at low kilovoltage, they are still small and in the noise of the device's operational limits. 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. Anatomic features and benign objects add structured noise that interferes with signal averaging. Figure 18 shows a widely-distributed backscatter image. On the left is a complete view of her torso, on the right, a section has been blacked out. While the breasts are easily recognized at right, without some prior knowledge of the subject, it would be hard to distinguish the increase of intensity in the superior part of her breasts from the natural gradients of the image.

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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. Thus, a third of a kilo of PETN, easily picked up in a competent pat down, would be missed by backscatter "high technology". Forty grams of PETN, a purportedly dangerous amount, would fit in a 1.25 mm-thick pancake of the dimensions simulated here and be virtually invisible. Packed in a compact mode, say, a 1 cm×4 cm×5 cm brick, it would be detected.

The images are very sensitive to the presence of large pieces of high Z material, e. g., iron, but unless the spatial resolution is good, thin wires will be missed because of partial volume effects. It is also easy to see that an object such as a wire or a box- cutter blade, taped to the side of the body, or even a small gun in the same location, will be invisible.