Ex-TSA Screener: Yes, America, We Saw You Naked and Laughed

“In defense of the T.S.A., it is on the right track in at least one area: a behavior detection program. Of course, Israel is the paragon of effective airline security, and the adoption of some of its techniques is one of the smartest things that the T.S.A. has done,” wrote former Transportation Security Administration officer Jason Harrington in a January 2010 letter to the editor published in the New York Times. At the time, Harrington was a three-year veteran of the government agency.

The letter came just days after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate 80 grams of highly explosive powder hidden in his underwear while onboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on December 25, 2009. In what Harrington described as “a masterpiece of post-9/11 tragicomedy,” passengers tackled and restrained Abdulmutallab for the remainder of the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

In the end, he burned himself. However, to the TSA, the incident was a “near-miss” and proof that aviation security needed full-body scanners in every U.S. airport. Previously, there were only 40 full-body scanners in use as part of a pilot program at 19 airports in the United States. The decision to make the scanner a ubiquitous part of American airports caused an uproar in the U.S.; it prompted concerns that the detailed and realistic images of people’s naked bodies that the machines were capable of producing would be used inappropriately.

As Harrington went on to describe in a January piece for Politico, his co-workers at Chicago O’Hare International Airport habitually made fun travelers’ bodies when revealed by the full body scanners. “Just as the long-suffering American public waiting on those security lines suspected, jokes about the passengers ran rampant among my TSA colleagues,” he wrote in an article titles “Dear America, I Saw You Naked: And yes, we were laughing. Confessions of an ex-TSA agent.”

Even worse, the instructor of Harrington’s training session for the Rapiscan Systems full-body scanners told students, off the record, that the machines were essentially worthless. “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,” wrote the ex-TSA agent for the publication.

The Rapiscan Systems scanners, which cost $150,000 each, use X-rays to scan passengers, which also prompted concerns about radiation. But the full-body scanners were finally and completely removed from airports in June not because of fears about low doses of radiation from the X-rays used in the process but because of privacy concerns. Congress voted to require all body scanners to have privacy-protecting software by June 1, 2013, but the backscatter technology that created the scanners’ detailed images cannot meet the new standard, according to the TSA.

“TSA has strict requirements that all vendors must meet for security effectiveness and efficiency. Due to its inability to deploy non-imaging Automated Target Recognition [ or ATR] software by the Congressionally-mandated June 2013 deadline, TSA has terminated its contract with Rapiscan,” read a January 17, 2013, statement from the agency. “By June 2013 travelers will only see machines which have ATR that allow for faster throughput. This means faster lanes for the traveler and enhanced security. As always, use of this technology is optional.” Still, the TSA maintained that the backscatter machines were safe and effective, as CNN reported early last year, a statement that runs contrary to the situation Harrington described.

“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,” he wrote on Politico. “The only thing more absurd than how poorly the full-body scanners performed was the incredible amount of time the machines wasted for everyone.” And, that was not the only way in which the technology is flawed.

The scanned images were then analyzed for threats in a room that the TSA called the I.O., short for Image Operator. In that room — which locked from the inside — was a bank of monitors where TSA agents like Harrington looked at “grotesque, ghostly looking black-and-white images” that paraded across the screens, per Politico. That task, Harrington wrote, “devolved into an unofficial break.”

Not only were the no surveillance cameras, but many of his co-workers found I.O. duty humorous. “Many of the images we gawked at were of overweight people, their every fold and dimple on full awful display,” he wrote in his Politico piece. 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.”

Meanwhile, the TSA workers were concerned about the amount of radiation they were exposed to while escorting travels through the scanners. The agency denied formal requests for dosimeters to measure the radiation levels, and workers were instructed by superiors to assure passengers everything was fine. They were also  ordered to tell the public the scanners were 100 percent effective in detecting potential security threats, even though everyone Harrington talked to in the agency knew that if a passenger hid a metal object along the side of the body, it would be invisible to an image operator.

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