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Feb 02 2014

The TSA full body scans scam

There was a furor when the TSA introduced its infamous body scanners at airports. Quickly dubbed the ‘porno scanners’, it was alleged that these devices could be used to see people naked. The TSA vigorously denied it, saying that it was used in such a way that only it would only be used to find weapons.

Now Jason Edward Harrington, a former TSA employee confirms what was alleged, that TSA employees used it mainly for entertainment, to ogle and laugh at people, part of a job that he detested.

I hated it from the beginning. It was a job that had me patting down the crotches of children, the elderly and even infants as part of the post-9/11 airport security show. I confiscated jars of homemade apple butter on the pretense that they could pose threats to national security. I was even required to confiscate nail clippers from airline pilots—the implied logic being that pilots could use the nail clippers to hijack the very planes they were flying.

In private, most TSA officers I talked to told me they felt the agency’s day-to-day operations represented an abuse of public trust and funds.

He said that the secret list of 12 nations whose passengers got automatic full-body examination (Syria, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Cuba, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, North Korea) was purely political since it did not contain Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, the former home to 16 of the 9/11 hijackers, the latter currently home to members of al Qaeda.

Not only that, he said that the machines could not always detect weapons either. He says that it was mainly security theater.

[The training instructor] 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.

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. The only thing more absurd than how poorly the full-body scanners performed was the incredible amount of time the machines wasted for everyone.

The scanners were useless. The TSA was compelling toddlers, pregnant women, cancer survivors—everyone—to stand inside radiation-emitting machines that didn’t work.

What the machines did do very well was picking the pockets of taxpayers and make a ton of money for Michael Chertoff, former head of the Department of Homeland Security, whose company Rapiscan sold those expensive machines (about $150,000 each) to the TSA.

Harrington’s account is a fascinating insider’s look at the farce, the very expensive and exasperating farce, that the so-called war on terror has become at home.

23 comments

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  1. 1
    wtfwhateverd00d

    While TSA deserves a whopping amount of condemnation and more so the politicians who use the TSA to cover their ass, I am not really impressed with Mr. Harrington either, who takes a job that he knows is doing dubious shit morally, ethically and legally, and does nothing about that for months, going to work, JUST FOLLOWING ORDERS.

    He makes a blog that remains hidden until he is mostly ready to go back to school.

    Now he is writing a novel based on it (which will almost certainly be optioned off to Hollywood) and thus this expose comes out.

    Condemn TSA as much as you like and I will join the pile on.

    But I think Harrington’s behavior is also worthy of a discussion on ethics.

  2. 2
    unbound

    The entire security industry has been completely off the rails for years now. Internally, everyone is afraid to argue with the asinine statements that their security groups make, which dramatically increases costs for little to no gain. Security reviewers / auditors continue pull out the “what if” card with insane conditions (e.g. what if someone manages to bypass the front 4 layers of security and they have access to such-and-such) while continuing to ignore fundamental security issues that can be addressed cheaply.

    Security personnel costs are not high, but their insane recommendations, especially around non-critical systems, are costing the tax payers and arm and a leg. Someone at a high level needs to bring a heavy hammer down on the security groups.

  3. 3
    DsylexicHippo

    Is anybody checking, on a recurring basis, if these ineffective machines are properly calibrated? I would not trust the geniuses manning them to know much about it.

    As a lab-rat, a.k.a. flying passenger, you certainly would not know if you got zapped with 50 times more radiation than it was meant for. The upside of that would be the few minutes of juvenile humor you would provide these brave “defenders” of our national security with the glowing, irradiated neon image of your private parts.

  4. 4
    nichrome

    I hadn’t travelled to/through US airports for years but last year I took a trip that put me through security in Detroit, Phoenix, Portland (OR) & Denver. I was the ONLY person to “opt out” of the scanners in all those location. I thought I would be hassled as a troublemaker, but the TSA people were very respectful to me. Of course I wasn’t very threatening as a white male Canadian.

    Still, I was astonished that there weren’t a few more people opting out.

  5. 5
    smrnda

    Exactly what has to be done to end the bullshit with the body scans? Given that these are supposedly *for our protection* if we don’t want them, they should go.

    On the radiation – are they posting the amounts that they are supposedly exposing people to? I doubt they’d be honest or accurate, but if you’re exposed to radiation as part of your job, posting the level if legally required. The idea of subjecting people to potentially harmful radiation as part of a security process that doesn’t work is appalling.

  6. 6
    Marcus Ranum

    I think Harrington’s behavior is also worthy of a discussion on ethics.

    Yeah, because in this climate, it’s really suuuuuuper safe to be a whistle-blower. It’s pretty easy to sit anonymously behind your keyboard and criticize someone for not putting their ass on the line, isn’t it?

  7. 7
    wtfwhateverd00d

    Hey Marcus,

    1) You actually don’t know anything about me, including the time(s) I’ve risked paycheck and worse by blowing a whistle on some pretty massive (failed) public IT projects. Regardless I note your liberal ability to make assumptions about me even though you clearly have no personal knowledge.

    2) No one demanded he be a whistle blower, he could have just left his fucking job and refused to participate. Instead he rationalized his behavior as just following orders, took his paycheck, and continued the groping, the potentially harmful xraying, and the clear privacy invasions.

    I don’t assume you know much about ethics and morality, I recommend check that topic out.

  8. 8
    wtfwhateverd00d

    I think Harrington’s behavior is also worthy of a discussion on ethics.

    Yeah, because in this climate, it’s really suuuuuuper safe to be a whistle-blower. It’s pretty easy to sit anonymously behind your keyboard and criticize someone for not putting their ass on the line, isn’t it?

    Yes Marcus, it’s too much to look at a post designed to push a book (and no doubt a movie) and question the circumstances of the author and the story he is selling us.

    It’s horribly unfair criticism to suggest someone’s behavior is OMFG worthy of a discussion on ethics.

  9. 9
    ildi

    wtfwhateverd00d:

    Yes Marcus, it’s too much to look at a post designed to push a book (and no doubt a movie) and question the circumstances of the author and the story he is selling us.

    Must be painful when people don;t live up to your high standards of purity in thought and conduct. (Do they ever, really…) The book is still a work in progress, so there’s nothing for the post to push yet (much less a movie – aren’t you the dreamer!) Writing his blog was an act of bravery, and more than the thousands of employees who felt no qualms at all did:

    At first, I told no one about the project and quietly sketched out articles; by mid-summer, I had enough material to fill out a year’s worth of blog posts. To be safe, I described myself as a “former” TSA employee, though I was still reporting for duty at O’Hare each day. But still I got cold feet when it was time to actually hit publish. For three months, I thought about it every time I walked past a quote painted on one of the walls at O’Hare: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.”

    They were the words of the urban architect Daniel Burnham. I knew I could continue down the Path of the Little Plan—cling to my stable job with the TSA, carrying out absurd orders with my head bowed. And I knew that by publishing the blog I could very likely lose my government job and, at worst, even land myself on some sort of government watch list. But I felt an obligation to speak out, consequences be damned.

  10. 10
    wtfwhateverd00d

    He worked for them for five years.

    Violating people’s privacy.
    Quite possibly engaging in unconstitutional or otherwise illegal searches.
    Quite possibly subjecting people to harmful x-rays.
    Participating in Security Theater and wasting taxpayer money.
    Quite possibly involved in the harassment and even arrests of otherwise innocent travelers caught up in the TSA nightmare.

    I say that brave and moral people would have a) never accepted the job, b) quit after a few days, c) quit at the next job opportunity.

    You say he was brave.

  11. 11
    jamessweet

    whose company Rapiscan

    Wait wait wait.. the company that made the naked scanners was called “Rapey Scan”?!? Yep, further evidence that Earth was replaced with a satire of itself sometime in the 2000s…

  12. 12
    Mano Singham

    I know. It was a name that begged to be mocked.

  13. 13
    jonP

    What the machines did do very well was picking the pockets of taxpayers and make a ton of money for Michael Chertoff, former head of the Department of Homeland Security, whose company Rapiscan sold those expensive machines (about $150,000 each) to the TSA.

    This is what I hate the most. Working as head of the DHS, and then running a company to sell that agency anything is an extreme and blatant conflict of interest. But to sell them very expensive, very intrusive pervert body scanners that are not effective for anything except to make billions of dollars, and to waste people’s time, and dignity, and then name the company “rapey scan!” This must be intentional hubris.

    I have to meticulously report any POTENTIAL conflict of interest (over $10,000, which was only recently increased from $5,000). I need to disclose this in anything I publish, or report. I can put my career and institution at risk for legal consequences if I don’t. Why don’t Chertoff and DHS face these risks?

  14. 14
    ildi

    I say that brave and moral people would have a) never accepted the job, b) quit after a few days, c) quit at the next job opportunity.

    You say he was brave.

    The vast majority of people don’t meet your standard of brave and moral. The vast majority of people can’t be as choosy or have as many job opportunities as you seem to have. The vast majority of people find it a scary prospect to have no way of paying their bills and do work that is unethical or demeaning to do so. Despite his fear, he documented what he saw and left as soon as he got into a graduate program for creative writing. Yes, I call him brave, because that is what bravery is; seeing the consequences fully, and yet listening to one’s conscience and doing the right thing after all.

  15. 15
    wtfwhateverd00d

    Dude, five years.

    Obama has just now been president for 5 years.
    We started and ended WWII in 4
    We got to the moon in 8.

    It took this guy five years to quit.

    And this is not some naive dude.

    It was May 2007. I was living with a bohemian set on Chicago’s north side, a crowd ranging from Foucault-fixated college kids to middle-aged Bukowski-bred alcoholics. We drank and talked politics on the balcony in the evenings, pausing only to sneer at hipsters strumming back-porch Beatles sing-a-longs. By night, I took part in barbed criticism of U.S foreign policy; by day, I spent eight hours at O’Hare in a federal uniform, solemnly carrying out orders passed down from headquarters.

    I hated it from the beginning. It was a job that had me patting down the crotches of children, the elderly and even infants as part of the post-9/11 airport security show. I confiscated jars of homemade apple butter on the pretense that they could pose threats to national security. I was even required to confiscate nail clippers from airline pilots—the implied logic being that pilots could use the nail clippers to hijack the very planes they were flying.

    In private, most TSA officers I talked to told me they felt the agency’s day-to-day operations represented an abuse of public trust and funds.

    He stuck around for five years.

    Are you honestly claiming this dude couldn’t find another job in that time?

    Despite his fear, he documented what he saw and left as soon as only when he got into a graduate program for creative writing. Yes, I call him brave, because that is what bravery is; seeing the consequences fully, and yet listening to one’s conscience and doing the right thing after all. doing morally objectionable things in order to take the paycheck for five long years.

  16. 16
    jonP

    I say that brave and moral people would have a) never accepted the job, b) quit after a few days, c) quit at the next job opportunity.

    The decisions of this one person are irrelevant. The only way this would work as a solution to the problem would be if everyone quit. If every TSA employee quit, then the government would not be able to screen the passengers (regardless of the effectiveness of the screening), and there would be no risk of government abuse. If everyone quit out of principle, the only people willing to take the job would be perverts who want to see naked people and grope them.

  17. 17
    Marcus Ranum

    1) You actually don’t know anything about me, including the time(s) I’ve risked paycheck and worse by blowing a whistle on some pretty massive (failed) public IT projects. Regardless I note your liberal ability to make assumptions about me even though you clearly have no personal knowledge.

    It still is pretty easy to sit behind a keyboard and second-guess someone else, isn’t it?

    No one demanded he be a whistle blower, he could have just left his fucking job and refused to participate.

    Yep, that sure is easy for you to say.

    I don’t assume you know much about ethics and morality,

    Ask me why I stopped working for the government. :)

    … But, that doesn’t change the point that it’s pretty easy for you to sit there and be some random asshole on the internet saying what he should or shouldn’t do, when you know nothing about him or his situation. Then, you compound the irony of that, by complaining to me that I know nothing about you or your situation. Well, join us in the cesspit of ignorance; we’ve saved a seat for you.

    You’ll notice that I actually made no assumptions at all about you. I simply stated an obvious truth, that it’s pretty easy to armchair quarterback someone else. I did it in such a way that I wasn’t armchair quarterbacking you, either – I didn’t say what you should, or shouldn’t do or how you should run your life or what your morals are. It’s you that’s saying that kind of stuff, but ironically you whine at me for saying it to you.

    Go back and re-read my comment for comprehension.

  18. 18
    Marcus Ranum

    The only way this would work as a solution to the problem would be if everyone quit. If every TSA employee quit, then the government would not be able to screen the passengers

    TSA is already outsourcing some screening (remember: that’s the reason TSA exists in the first place) at airports such as SFO, at least. I know because I asked the guy with the TSA-looking shirt that didn’t say TSA and he said “I work under authority of the TSA” – clearly carefully coached. There will always be people who cross a picket-line, especially when the qualifications for the work are so low.

    The way to “fix” it would be to have an actual representative government in which those in power actually responded to their constituent’s wishes. We will never have such a thing; it’s too late.

    BTW – I can be considered somewhat biassed. I wrote a book called “The Myth of Homeland Security” back in 2002, in which I predicted a lot of the gigantic boondoggles and disasters we’d get. I was also horribly wrong about some things (like: what a turd Bush turned out to be, I thought he was a pseudo-idiot who knew how to work the levers of power and completely mis-estimated the kind of idiot he really was) At the time, I described the likelihood that the NSA was going to run away with the information security prize and how that might be dangerous (but I seriously underestimated the lack of patriotism at NSA, except for Edward Snowden) Anyhow, the security state, now that it is constructed and in place, will not go away. ever, because it’s become one of the self-perpetuating bureaucracies that comprise the framework of what the US has become. It’s too late to fix it. The only solution will be for the US to crumble under its own weight and if it manages to avoid turning into an outright dictatorship, to be reconstructed as a more modern society. I don’t think that’s a likely scenario given the hunger for and acceptance of propaganda by the average American.

  19. 19
    jonP

    It’s too late to fix it. The only solution will be for the US to crumble under its own weight and if it manages to avoid turning into an outright dictatorship, to be reconstructed as a more modern society.

    I’ll start sharpening the pitchforks.

  20. 20
    wtfwhateverd00d

    What a huge load of bullshit Marcus. You were clearly making a claim about me, now you’re just too intellectually dishonest to fess up to that.

    Sorry, not buying it.

  21. 21
    ildi

    It took this guy five years to quit.

    And this is not some naive dude.

    By your standards, he is already unethical for even taking the job, so I don’t know why the five years bothers you. He took a job that he knew would suck because he needed the money. If we’re going to make non-arbitrary comparisons, most careers with the government last at least 30 years. In fact, three to five years is considered the window for either deciding it’s not for you, for settling in and becoming a chair-warmer, or for deciding that you can make a difference from the inside. He chose to move on. His bravery lies in that he made his blog live and made people aware of what was going on from an insider’s perspective while he was still an employee and risked censure or losing his job.

    I consider his approach to a real-life situation more ethical than your empty posturing.

  22. 22
    wtfwhateverd00d

    By your standards, he is already unethical for even taking the job, so I don’t know why the five years bothers you. He took a job that he knew would suck because he needed the money. If we’re going to make non-arbitrary comparisons, most careers with the government last at least 30 years. In fact, three to five years is considered the window for either deciding it’s not for you, for settling in and becoming a chair-warmer, or for deciding that you can make a difference from the inside. He chose to move on. His bravery lies in that he made his blog live and made people aware of what was going on from an insider’s perspective while he was still an employee and risked censure or losing his job.

    I consider his approach to a real-life situation more ethical than your empty posturing.

    Actually what I wrote already in response to you was:

    “I say that brave and moral people would have a) never accepted the job, b) quit after a few days, c) quit at the next job opportunity.”

    But keep telling us how staying at a job five years that he felt violated privacy and groped people he didn’t think should be groped was brave and ethical.

  23. 23
    ildi

    But keep telling us how staying at a job five years that he felt violated privacy and groped people he didn’t think should be groped was brave and ethical.

    wash, rinse, repeat.

    It was brave of him to write his blog when he feared that being discovered would cost him his job. It was ethical of him to make public from his position as an insider the many and varied problems with the use and efficacy of the full-body scanners and to eventually leave his cushy government job because of the many abuses endemic to the TSA.

    These are the ways most people are brave and ethical in the real world. Then there’s the fantasy playing out in your head of the Machiavellian rapscallion staying in a shitty job for five fucking years just to get material for a novel. Yeah, that version flies. (“YOU DON’T KNOW ME!”)

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