House committee focuses on passenger acceptance of whole-body scanners, artificial dog noses


Yesterday, the House Science and Technology Committee, Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation held hearings about airport screening research and development. Chaired by David Wu (D-OR), the subcommittee surprisingly focused on passenger acceptance of the of the new technology rather than on technologies themselves.

The witnesses at the hearing were all science and technology types, but Chairman Wu wanted to initially speak about social issues, passenger acceptance of whole-body scanners, as the questioning began in the hearing room.

In his opening statement, the Chairman noted, “I am troubled by the lack of attention DHS has paid in the past to public acceptance issues. In 1997, the National Academy of Sciences identified the need to pay more attention to public acceptance issues in the deployment of passenger screening technologies. Ten years later the Academies concluded that nothing had changed and these issues were still ignored. No wonder the deployment of body-scanning technologies has proven to be such a public failure: the relevant agencies did not do their homework and follow-up on the Academies’ recommendation in a serious way.”

That set an early tone for the hearing. Though some time was spent on more technical issues, the Chairman pressed the issue of whether the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had ever even surveyed passengers to see what their opinions were about whole-body scanners.

He charged DHS with coming back to the committee with a real survey that can be clearly cross-referenced that presents American citizens’ feelings about being virtually stripped naked. He seemed to suggest that much of the privacy concerns surrounding these scanners were from special interests rather than from the population at large.

It was also interesting to note that the House members never referred to the whole-body scanners by the new DHS moniker, Advanced Imaging Technology (ATI).

At the end of the hearing, the take-away was more of getting the public to accept whole-body scanners rather than a exploration of the effectiveness of current and planned technologies.

There were no questions about whether the current whole-body scanners could have identified the explosives sewn into the Christmas bomber’s underware. No questions were asked about hiding explosives in body cavities. No queries about whether a hand grenade could be hidden beneath a woman’s large breast. No questions about the problems of operator fatigue while working in a telephone-booth-sized room for extended periods of time. No questions about the basic indignity of being stripped naked.

In terms of future technology, the DHS announced the formalization of a partnership with the Department of Energy that overseas the country’s main technology labs at Livermore, Calif., and the Sandia and Los Alamos labs in New Mexico. These labs are now working on explosives detection and other security issues.

Another extended discussion took place regarding the deployment of battalions of bomb-sniffing dogs. Rep. Garamendi (D-CA), half-jokingly mentioned that security was going to the dogs. That thought of canine security patrols was raised again by Chairman Wu who indicated that it may be far more cost effective to have thousands of trained explosive-sniffing dogs rather than thousands of whole-body scanners at $150,000 a pop.

The most interesting portion of the dog discussions was the revelation that the nation’s top labs at Livermore, Sandia and Los Alamos were working on trying to develop an artificial dog nose. The only major problem was that scientists have no idea of how dogs detect explosives. This missing ingredient was making the artificial dog nose project difficult. However, federally-funded research is ongoing in the quest to discover how dogs actually sniff out bombs, bodies and drugs. We can train the animals, but we do not know the mechanics of the dog’s perception.

One of the limited real technology issues that was raised during the hearing was the complexities of explosives detection based on the increasing number of explosives types and on a quest to learn how much of an explosive is needed to cause catastrophic damage to an aircraft.

Another issue dealt with the continuing search for effective liquid explosives detection capabilities. New technologies, such as MagViz, are being tested. Initial testing was successful with small quantities, however the TSA and the science labs still have not determined how to scan a larger collection of items such as a full security-check bin.

Prepared testimony also focused on the research into Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST). This is a high-tech attempt to read people’s minds. In the words of Brad Buswell, DHS’s Science and Technology leader, the department is working to “determine if it is possible to detect malintent (the mental state of individuals intending to cause harm) by utilizing non-invasive physiological and behavioral sensor technology, deception theory, and observational techniques.”

In the meantime, the focus at this committee hearing was more on acceptance by the public of new screening technologies rather than on new technologies themselves.

  • Hapgood

    The focus is not surprising, given that questioning or challenging the TSA about its effectiveness or competence would be political suicide. The only message here is that the TSA’s propaganda department needs to put more effort into hiding unpleasant truths, lying, spinning, and otherwise deceiving the public into accepting (and preferably welcoming) a strip search as the prerequisite for flying. Renaming it “Advanced Imaging Technology” is a start, although something like “User Friendly Protective Scanning” or “Advanced Privacy Protective Scanning” might be better if they combine it with a suitable logo and advertise it enough. Or else they could call it a “Patriot Scanner,” implying that failing to embrace it wholeheartedly is unpatriotic.

    Or better yet, they could hire Karl Rove as a consultant. The Republicans have found a very successful strategy of distilling their view of complicated political issues into simple slogans that are consistently and relentlessly repeated until their “base” accepts them as Established Fact, regardless of whether they contain any truth. Maybe they can get Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity to tell their many fans about the new advanced scanners that “protect us from terrorists and protect our privacy,” while mocking those who call them “strip searches” as liberals who hate America. That sort of campaign would probably be the most effective way to get public acceptance, while drowning out those unpatriotic questions about effectiveness and privacy.

    Security theater works because people buy into it. The key is to get more people to buy into it and discredit those who don’t. That’s a much easier task than actually providing effective security, or correcting the failures that continue to get in the way of stopping plots before they get to the airport.

  • Em Hoop

    Hapgood…thanks for saving me the time it would take to write what you have written…..And you’ve left out my caustic comments, too. Have you sent your excellent précis to our esteemed (LOL) congressmen?

    I can imagine the fuss next time i travel in a muu-muu and hold up the line to strip down to my undies….and maybe hand some poor underpaid TSA person (who thought this job was going to be as easy as the paycheck would indicate) a rubber glove and invite him to finish his search……ah, airport security theatre at its most undignified and explicit………..curtain rises……

  • Hapgood

    Yes, Em Hoop, I think it will be very interesting to see what happens when the scanners start alerting on sanitary napkins, band-aids, and all manner of harmless things large numbers of people routinely carry on their persons. One of two things will happen. There will be a severe backlash from both passengers and TSA “officers” from all the very intimate pat-downs and searches the scans will prompt, since the “officers” probably aren’t any more comfortable with such things than passengers. Alternatively, they’ll just ignore the alarms the scanners continuously generate.

    The latter scenario will, of course, completely eliminate whatever “enhanced security” the scanners supposedly provide. But since the entire process is surrounded in secrecy, nobody will ever know what’s happening. And the screening will probably just as effective at protecting aviation.

    Name the scanners “Freedom Scanners,” paint them with the Flag (and perhaps a poster of the Twin Towers with the caption NEVER FORGET), and people will be eager to step into them to do their sacred patriotic duty– even if the scanners are nothing but empty plastic boxes with a few LEDs for effect!

  • Charlie Leocha

    @Hapgood Keep it up and you may end up on the TSA PR committee.