Jan 13 2010

TSA lies again about what the strip-search machines see

Already this week the TSA was caught in a lie about what it likes to call whole body imaging (virtual strip search) machines, when the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) obtained documents showing that, despite TSA claims that “this state-of-the-art technology cannot store, print, transmit or save the image,” the TSA actually requires all of these capabilities — image storage, printing, and transmission — as part of the contract specifications for the body scanners.

But the TSA can’t seem to keep their nose from growing: the post in their official propaganda blog responding to EPIC’s analysis of TSA documents contains even more lies about what they see when they look under your clothes with these machines.

According to the TSA blog, “Below, you will see accurate examples of what our officers see while using advanced imaging technology. Anything else you see is inaccurate.”

Above, we’ve linked directly to the images on the TSA website, exactly as sized and posted by them.

In fact, it’s the images posted by the TSA that are inaccurate and misleading. The actual images seen by the people in the back room (they watch you through your clothes, but you can’t watch them) are: (1) full-screen, not thumbnail-sized like those the TSA posted in their blog, (2) higher-resolution than those on the TSA blog, and (3) capable of being zoomed even larger, on the actual TSA displays, using the magnifying-glass tool in the lower right corner of the TSA-provided thumbnails.

Accurate images are visible in the video below (although even if you click through to the full-screen version the video doesn’t have as high resolution as the displays used by the TSA, especially when they zoom in on areas of the body that attract their interest):

Note also that the video clearly demonstrates that the TSA policy for pat-down searches to be performed by a person of the same gender won’t be applied to the virtual strip-searchers.

The TSA website says that, “Multiple signs informing passengers about the technology, including sample images, are displayed in plain sight at the security checkpoints, in front of the advanced imaging units.” When the signs are displayed, however, the “sample images” — like the ones above from the TSA website — are only a small fraction of the size and resolution of those the scanner operator sees.

EPIC has now filed another FOIA lawsuit against the TSA for failing to disclose what the images look like. Notably, the EPIC complaint filed in court today confirms that our experience with the ongoing TSA FOIA black hole wasn’t an isolated incident. EPIC’s request for expedited FOIA processing was made on July 2, 2009 — more than six months ago — and referred to the TSA by the DHS on July 16, 2009. On July 31, 2009, EPIC filed an administrative appeal of the constructive denial of its request. An expedited request should have been acted on within 10 days, and an appeal within twenty days. But to date, according to the complaint, the TSA has made no response whatsoever to either the request or the appeal. In our experience, this is typical of the TSA’S complete contempt for the FOIA law.

We aren’t reassured by the TSA’s further claim in the same blog post that, “These machines are not networked, so they cannot be hacked.” Apparently they’ve never heard of an inside job, or anyone hacking a computer from the keyboard. (Security hint to the TSA: The keyboard is the easy way, compared to having to carry out an attack over a network.) That just reconfirms that the TSA’s threat model is grossly deficient and that they aren’t really even trying to rein in the temptations (can you say, “naked celebrity pix”?) that the virtual strip-searchers inevitably will face.

Finally, the TSA is still saying that “Use of advanced imaging technology is optional to all passengers.” What they don’t say is that your other “option” will be to submit to a full manual pat-down, regardless of whether you would have set off the metal detector. So if the alternative to a virtual strip-search is a non-virtual strip search, can someone explain to us how that’s a “choice” that should make us more willing to submit to either option?

If we have to be exposed to the TSA, maybe we should just expose ourselves when we get to the airport.

P.S. We forgot to mention the TSA’s claim that no 8-year-old is on the no-fly list, debunked today in the New York Times. Maybe 8-year-old Mikey Hicks isn’t on a watch list, but his name is, and the effect is the same: He can’t fly without getting the 3rd degree. What did that entail? We can’t show you. The TSA demands the right to look (and feel) under your clothes, but they wouldn’t let Mikey’s mother take pictures of how he was frisked.