Consumerist is reportating that the TSA is attempting to caution media outlets and bloggers from covering this story altogether. They report:
“I received an email from the TSA saying they would ‘strongly caution’ me against covering the story. They say you’re a man that “clearly has an agenda” and should ‘not be aided by the mainstream media.'”
Unpacking these two claims we can see the TSA is going about making a valid point in a very problematic way. As my original post argues vigorously the creator of the video does “clearly has an agenda,” an anti-tsa agenda at that. However, strongly cautioning against disseminating this story is an attempt to chill the free reporting of news (this seems to qualify as news especially if the loophole exists) and continues a strategy of dead silence that will only embolden the conspiratorial logic and rhetoric of the TSA’s critics.
Moreover, the TSA is making the wrong play here. The should address the potential loophole, offer a solution (even if this takes time), and address the video’s creator’s agenda as part of their response. While in general it is bad form for a government agency to go after a private citizen, in this case the invective in the video is full of so much off topic and unsourced editorializing that the TSA’s silence is in part driving the viral nature of the story.
To be clear, no response will shake the anti-TSA fervor of the TSA’s ardent critics, represented in this artifact. However, trying to chill the press from covering it widens the audience susceptible to the conspiracy’s logic and is a strategic blunder for the TSA.
The TSA has publicly responded stating:
For obvious security reasons, we can’t discuss our technology’s detection capability in detail, however TSA conducts extensive testing of all screening technologies in the laboratory and at airports prior to rolling them out to the entire field…With all that said, it is one layer of our 20 layers of security (Behavior Detection, Explosives Detection Canines, Federal Air Marshals, , etc.) and is not a machine that has all the tools we need in one handy device. We’ve never claimed it’s the end all be all.
It is clear that this is a pretty typical non-response. Citing security reasons they cannot say if this method is able to circumvent whole body imagers. As a result there is no actual confirmation of if the gap in security exists. That said, their emphasis on layered security does emphasize the voracious fetish with whole body imagers by anti-TSA critics is detrimental to a holistic conversation about security in the United States.
Disclosure: I am currently writing my doctoral dissertation on the TSA and I cover many aspects of the TSA and one of my dissertation chapters focuses on public resistance to the TSA. As such, I perk up when a video claiming to beat the TSA or to resist the TSA begins to go viral on the internet.
Last night I came across this video purporting to have found a way to beat the whole body imagers used by the TSA to screen passengers, employees, and some visitors to our nations airports.
I am fascinated by this video’s schizoid representation of anti-TSA discourse. On the one hand, if the video’s purported flaw in both backscatter and millimeter wave technology is accurate then it could pose an enormous security risk to the nation’s air infrastructure. That said, his videos of clearing security offer no actual evidence since the videos do not show him actually carrying the device through (admittedly an almost impossible video to get). Thus, as someone concerned about the types of security used this make me nervous as a researcher, traveler, and taxpayer.
Second, as a rhetorical critic I am deeply suspicious of the numerous non-sequeters made throughout the video that draw on a dangerous conspiratorial rhetoric surrounding the TSA and do little to engage the TSA on policy terms they are likely to respond to. To provide some analysis lets move through a transcript of the claims he makes.
Lets move paragraph by paragraph here:
I’m publishing this video because I want the world to know how much danger the American Transportation Security Administration is putting all us all in with their haste to deploy the expensive, invasive nude body scanner program. When the machines came out, we were told that the invasion on our privacy, doses of radiation, and trashing of our Constitution were necessary because the old metal detectors weren’t good enough. That “non-metallic explosives” were a threat, even though no one has boarded a plane in the US with any type of explosive in nearly 40 years. But while America was testing these devices, Rafi Sela, who ran security for Ben Gurion airport in Israel, which is known for being one of the most secure airports in the world, was quoted saying he could “overcome the body scanners with enough explosives to take down a Boeing 747,” and Ben Gurion therefore refused to buy scanners. The US ignored this warning, and Mr. Sela never publicly explained his statement. But it stuck with me.
We have two issue at work here: First in terms of rhetorical framing by calling them nude body scanners (yes they see underneath your clothes and can make out anatomical detail, but this description is just as much a rhetorical trope as calling them whole body imagers) we can see clear political motivation at work that undermines the credibility of the entire effort. A motive based on despising the TSA is apparent and a desire to expose them is manifested far before concern for safety.
Second, Mr Sela’s lack of explanation, while alarming, is not enough on its own. It neglects innovation in the software and attempts to prove the situation with a negative-an absence of evidence as proof of a flaw. We have reason to be suspect already.
As a scientist, engineer, and frequent traveler, as well as the first person to sue the TSA when they rolled out the scanners as primary in Nov. 2010, I studied and learned about both kinds of scanners currently in use by the TSA. Here are several images produced by TSA nude body scanners. You’ll see that the search victim is drawn with light colors and placed on a black background in both images. In these samples, the individuals are concealing metallic objects that you can see as a black shape on their light figure. Again that’s light figure, black background, and BLACK threat items. Yes that’s right, if you have a metallic object on your side, it will be the same color as the background and therefore completely invisible to both visual and automated inspection.
First, his appeal “As a scientist, engineer, and frequent traveler, as well as the first person to sue the TSA when they rolled out the scanners as primary in Nov. 2010, I studied and learned about both kinds of scanners currently in use by the TSA” is of no consequence at face value. As Ben Goldacre reminds us, especially in science, appeals to authority are the weakest forms of credibility. What kind of scientist? What kind of engineer? How frequently do you travel? This may all be relevant, but it is used here to suppose credibility without substantiation. It may all be relevant but the discourse lacks credibility because too much is left unsaid.
Second, the analysis of the images and the use of a negative background is fascinating and the moment where the video is useful. I am interested to know if this is a software or hardware issue with the machines and if this flaw can be addressed procedurally or not. Here the showing and telling is enough to spark concern.
It can’t possibly be that easy to beat the TSA’s billion dollar fleet of nude body scanners, right? The TSA can’t be that stupid, can they?
Alas, he falls back to a snide tone instead of critical discourse. As a litigant I am sure calling the agency you are suing stupid will help your case (See what I did there?). Besides there is a difference between stupid and calculated risk. The point is, vocal critics of the TSA in the face of enormously powerful arguments against agency actions often choose the lowest forms of argumentation to make their points. We will see more evidence of that later.
Unfortunately, they can, and they are. To put it to the test, I bought a sewing kit from the dollar store, broke out my 8th grade home ec skills, and sewed a pocket directly on the side of a shirt. Then I took a random metallic object, in this case a heavy metal carrying case that would easily alarm any of the “old” metal detectors, and walked through a backscatter x-ray at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. On video, of course. While I’m not about to win any videography awards for my hidden camera footage, you can watch as I walk through the security line with the metal object in my new side pocket. My camera gets placed on the conveyer belt and goes through its own x-ray, and when it comes out, I’m through, and the object never left my pocket.
Maybe a fluke? Ok, let’s try again at Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport through one of the TSA’s newest machines: a millimeter wave scanner with automated threat detection built-in. With the metallic object in my side pocket, I enter the security line, my device goes through its own x-ray, I pass through, and exit with the object without any complaints from the TSA.
While I carried the metal case empty, by one with mal-intent, it could easily have been filled with razor blades, explosives, or one of Charlie Sheen’s infamous 7 gram rocks of cocaine. With a bigger pocket, perhaps sewn on the inside of the shirt, even a firearm could get through. It’s important to note that any metal object of any size can use this technique. …and I don’t urge you to try to bring contraband through security, as the nude body scanners often have false positives: so while the metal on your side might get through, a button on your shirt or a sweaty armpit might “look suspicious” and earn you a pat down anyway.
Here we get his experiment, that offers compelling evidence and should come with an even more strident don’t try this at home warning. The video could have been shortened to this point and a solicitation for comment, but alas, it continues devolving into fairly normalized anti-TSA rhetoric.
Now, I’m sure the TSA will accuse me of aiding the terrorists by releasing this video, but it’s beyond belief that the terrorists haven’t already figured this out and are already plotting to use this against us. It’s also beyond belief that the TSA did not already know everything I just told you, and arrogantly decided to disregard our safety: anything to force Americans to give up our liberty to the federal government and our tax dollars to companies that are in bed with that government. The nude body scanner program is nothing but a giant fraud, which should come as no surprise after the Fast & Furious scandal that sent thousands of guns to Mexican drug cartels and cost a Customs and Border Patrol agent his life. THIS is a disgrace. So let’s fix this problem — now — before the terrorists take this opportunity to hurt us: the TSA must immediately end the nude body scanner program, and return to the tried-and-true metal detectors that actually work, and work without invading our privacy, as well as implement better solutions for non-metallic explosives, such as bomb-sniffing dogs and trace detection machines.
First, we have a straw person argument at the top. He offers a direct idea of how the TSA responds allowing him to define the argumentative terrain before the TSA responds (its unlikely they will do so-I have reached out to their blog team for comment).
Second, he reads sets of desires into the TSA that are wholly unsubstantiated:
(1) arrogantly decided to disregard our safety (As opposed to safety being a complex and impossible mandate)
(2) anything to force Americans to give up our liberty to the federal government (The TSA was not the initiating actor it was created and given a mandate)
(3)The nude body scanner program is nothing but a giant fraud, which should come as no surprise after the Fast & Furious scandal that sent thousands of guns to Mexican drug cartels and cost a Customs and Border Patrol agent his life. (There is not enough evidence to deem the program a fraud. Can this vulnerability be sealed? It is evidence irrefutable? What does the TSA have to do with Fast & Furious?-Non-sequitor? On this point we can see extremely poor and paranoid reasoning patterns coming to play.
Last, he makes the claim “the TSA must immediately end the nude body scanner program, and return to the tried-and-true metal detectors that actually work, and work without invading our privacy, as well as implement better solutions for non-metallic explosives, such as bomb-sniffing dogs and trace detection machines” Aside from his demands going nowhere, his mistake is to assume that metal detectors are tried and true, they are not and routinely provide inadequate security. Moreover, trace machines are less efficient than whole body imagers. A massive use of bomb-sniffing dogs is compelling and possibly an interesting layer to consider, but he offers no evidence of their feasibility at massive passenger screening locations.
My point in all of this is not to shame a vocal critic of the TSA. I think we need more vocal critics of the TSA. However, I do believe that when folks take to the public screen to criticize the TSA they need to make clearer arguments that rests less on recycled conspiratorial rhetoric and focuses more on evidence-based discussion of the gaps between the TSA’s mandate to secure the nation’s air infrastructure and its potential shortcomings. Those arguments are likely to be publicly persuasive. Otherwise, the argumentative patters above are too easily dismissed and unlikely to gain the mainstream traction needed to alter public discourse about the TSA.