Lawmakers this morning heard a litany of concerns and complaints from a range of witnesses who testified that full-body scanners were ineffective, invasive, unconstitutional, and possibly unhealthy.
The oversight hearing conducted by the House Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations is in response to a controversial change to airport screening policy made by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) last fall.
In October, TSA mandated that travelers either submit to a full-body scan or an enhanced pat-down search, in which screeners touch a person's intimate areas, to access the airport terminal. Travelers uncomfortable with the full-body scan for health or privacy reasons could opt-out in favor of an enhanced pat-down, while passengers who set off the full-body scanner would also have to submit to a pat-down to clear the anomaly detected by the machine. Any traveler refusing to cooperate with the pat-down search cannot fly, according to TSA policy, because officials at the agency argue the screening methods are necessary to prevent another 9-11-style attack.
Uproar over the policy change has been persistent ever since, with most traveler complaints describing both full-body scans and pat-downs as violating passengers' dignity and privacy. Two witnesses during the hearing testified about the indignity of these screening methods after their medical implants triggered an alert from the full-body scanning technology, necessitating a pat-down search.
Rep. Sharon Cissna, a Democratic state legislator from Alaska, recounted her refusal (.pdf) to submit to an enhanced pat-down search at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in late February, after her passage through a full body scanner revealed an "irregularity from my mastectomy due to breast cancer," she said. Cissna, in her prepared testimony, told lawmakers that she had been previously "felt up" by TSA screeners three months before in an incident she described as "traumatic." Because of her refusal to undergo the pat-down, the state legislator needed to use a rental car, a small plane, and a ferry to get back to the state capital of Juneau from Seattle.
Professor Fred H. Cate, director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University, told the hearing (.pdf) that full body scanners frequently detect his insulin pump as an anomaly, leading to an enhanced pat-down search.
"Under TSA's October policy, an agent would search me head to toe, including a careful pat-down of my genitals—as if somehow my genitals have become suspicious because I use an insulin pump."
But Cate's problem with full-body scanners had more to do with their effectiveness at detecting threats, rather than the enhanced pat-downs they trigger. He said the machines only detected "anomalies" on a person, leading to too many false positives, or alerts that discover no threat.
Using himself as an example, Cate told lawmakers that after an agent examines his insulin pump he "has no better idea than he did at the beginning whether the pump is loaded with insulin or high-tech explosives."
Cate described full body scanners as the epitome of "security theater"—"it looks like the agency is doing something, but it accomplishes nothing."
Health concerns associated with one type of full body scanner, known as a backscatter scanner, also arose. Dr. David J. Brenner, director of Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research, expressed concern that backscatter scanner's use of ionizing radiation does present low-risks of cancer for at-risk populations (.pdf), such as children, radiosensitive individuals, and frequent fliers.
"Give the very large numbers of scans involved, potentially up to one billion each year in the U.S., there is a significant likelihood that, amongst the scanned population, there will be some cancers produced by the associated radiation exposure," he said. "A best estimate is around 100 cancers per year, though this number is quite uncertain."
Because backscatter technology presents a cancer risk, however minute, Brenner said the alternative full body scanner technology, which uses non-ionizing millimeter waves, may be the preferable technology from a "public health perspective." TSA, relying on numerous studies, says backscatter scans are a perfectly safe screening method that delivers a radiation dose equivalent to flying for two minutes at 30,000 feet.
Last week, however, TSA announced it will retest all deployed backscatter machines after recent maintenance tests showed some machines emitted higher than expected radiation levels. The agency says the results are mistaken and has blamed technician calculations for the errors.