Saturday, October 26, 2013

What has changed about airport security since the last time you went through it?

Last year, Congress passed a bill that changed how body scanners work at the airport. TSA agents will no longer see an image of your naked body that looks like this -- they will see a generalized graphic that looks like this. The bill went into effect this summer.

Image courtesy niiicedave

The story begins with the Christmas "underwear bomber." On December 25, 2009, Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab attempted to detonate a device onboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as the plane neared its destination of Detroit, Michigan. The device started a fire inside the plane, but only AbdulMutallab and a few fellow passengers were injured (including Jasper Schuringa and other passengers who helped put out the fire and restrain AbdulMutallab).

AbdulMutallab had boarded the plane on a leg of the flight from Lagos, Nigeria, to Amsterdam without going through a full body scan. The plastic explosive ingredients in AbdulMutallab's underwear (including pentaerythritol tetranitrate) are not detectable by metal detector.

Shortly after the "underwear bomber" incident, the Transportation Security Administration ("TSA") installed body scanners in airports throughout the country. At their peak, about 180 body scanners were in use in airports throughout the United States.

Many have raised health concerns or concerns that the body scanners are not effective, but Congress has acted primarily in response to privacy concerns. In 2012, Congress passed The FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which required all body scanners to employ Automated Target Recognition software that does not display an image of the airline passenger's naked body. The Act initially set a deadline of June 1, 2012, that was later extended to June 1, 2013. 

Despite the extension, Rapiscan Systems failed to upgrade the airport body scanners to use Automated Target Recognition software. As a result, TSA ended the "backscatter contract" with the Hawthorne, CA-based security company. The contract was originally worth multiple millions of dollars. The Rapiscan body scanners are now being replaced with radio body scanners built by L-3 Communications Holdings.

A few Harvard Law students filed Redfern, et al. v. Napolitano, et al., a pro se civil rights challenge to TSA's use of the body scanners. In July, the First Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the claim as moot because the full body image body scanners were already being phased out.

NOTE: You have the option to opt-out of a body scan. To opt out, ask the TSA agent to opt out before you are sent through the line. (See Ana Mana's experience opting out at LAX on YouTube.)

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