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TSA agrees to review of perv scanner radiation risks

Backscatter testing back under the microscope

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The US Transport Security Administration (TSA) has finally agreed to take another look at the potential side-effects of its backscatter Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) scanners, over a year after promising the Senate they'd be right on it.

"Administrator Pistole has made a commitment to conduct the study and TSA is following through on that commitment," was the agency's only comment.

The testing contract will go to the nonprofit National Academy of Sciences, and the TSA said it would be fully independent of any influence. No schedule has been given for the testing process, nor for the release of results.

Ever since the introduction of RapiScan's Secure 1000 series of scanners, there have been arguments over the health risks of the devices. Back in 1998 a panel of scientists assembled by the FDA warned that Secure 1000 series compromised a traditional principle of not using radiation except for a medical purpose. The panel was told by Steven Smith, the machine's inventor, that the machine was unlikely to enter widespread use.

"The places I think you are not going to see these in the next five years is lower-security facilities, particularly power plants, embassies, courthouses, airports and governments," Smith said, ProPublica reports. "I would be extremely surprised in the next five to 10 years if the Secure 1000 is sold to any of these."

The FDA concluded that the chances of the machines causing a cancer were 1 in 400 million, and the TSA began deployment in 2008 with ProVision scanners from L3 Communications. The UK, which favors the RapiScan product, has been testing the devices since 2004 but has not fully rolled them out, while Germany and others opted out of the technology over concerns over their effectiveness and/or health risks.

Leaving aside radiation principles, the core of health concerns is the level of ionizing radiation used by the scanner and any likelihood that it might cause problems such as skin cancer. The FDA declared that the amount of radiation inflicted by the scanning system is the equivalent to that received during two minutes of flight, but US pilots still refuse to use them.

It's pants

The use of the scanners has increased thanks to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – or as he shall ever be known, "the failed underpants bomber." Proponents of the backscatter technology, such as ex–Homeland Security boss and now scanning-industry lobbyist Michael Chertoff, said the case proved the need for the scanners, and the TSA bought hundreds more.

But repeated tests have shown that defeating the backscatter machines is relatively easy, although the TSA has actively objected to hearing it. Earlier this year the agency blocked security guru Bruce Schneier from giving testimony on the effectiveness of the scanners, and TSA security theater in general, to Congress.

"I think the TSA has really painted themselves into a corner over this," Schneier told El Reg. "They've said the scanners were absolutely necessary for security, and made the pat-downs you can have as an alternatives so unpleasant. It's going to be really hard for them to back down, if indeed they can."

The scanners are also unpopular for other reasons. There have been repeated concerns that people were being screened based on attractiveness, and about the amount of bodily details shown and the security of the images. When this hack first tied out a Secure 1000 unit in 2005, the level of detail revealed was embarrassingly high.

In part to allay such concerns, the TSA told flyers that they could always opt out of the scans and go through a metal detector instead, followed by a pat-down. But in 2010 pat-downs became more intrusive, sparking a national day of protest, individual nudity demonstrations, and claims from one politician that the searches could come from "a practicing homosexual secretly getting pleasure from your submission."

Health concerns haven't gone away, either. Earlier this year, legislation to enforce testing of the machines was threatened by Republicans in Congress, but the agency has taken until now to get around to ordering the study. Given its glacial speed, it may be some time before the results come back in. ®

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