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Don’t Be Confused: Backscatter Machines Are Not Being Eliminated

Don’t Be Confused: Backscatter Machines Are Not Being Eliminated
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rapiscanThe “naked body” airport scanners are being scrapped—but that does not mean the end of dangerous x-ray airport screening machines. Action Alert!

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has agreed to drop its contract with OSI Rapiscan, manufacturer of the airport body scanners that produce a naked image of travelers, because of privacy concerns. This really isn’t much of a victory, however. TSA has signed a new contract with a different manufacturer of scanners, whose machines will still have the radiation backscatter problem we reminded you about last month.

TSA decided to end its $5 million contract with OSI Rapiscan because the company couldn’t meet its congressionally mandated deadline to address privacy concerns and create software that showed images of travelers that would be more generic and less explicit. TSA had already decommissioned a third of Rapiscan’s backscatter machines and will now get rid of the remaining 173.

TSA has meanwhile maintained its contract with makers of scanners that use millimeter waves, which produce a generic unisex outline that resembles the cartoon character Gumby. The agency could have gone to all millimeter wave scanning, which is thought to be safer. But no, backscatter machines will still be in airports. TSA signed a $245 million dollar contract with American Science and Engineering, a company that uses the same x-ray backscatter technology as Rapiscan for their machines, but which also has software that addresses privacy concerns.

In other words, while passengers may not have their privacy violated any more, they still will have their health endangered. As you may recall from our report on the machines last July, they emit low levels of ionizing radiation with levels that could be 10 to 20 times higher than the manufacturer’s calculations. A report from the Department of Homeland Security found inconsistencies in how the machines are calibrated to ensure radiation safety and image quality, and noted that not all TSA screeners have completed required radiation safety training. Millions of people go through these machines—and ProPublica reports that up to 100 US passengers could get cancer from them every year.

Both TSA’s own procurement specifications and a subsequent report by the Government Accountability Office indicate that the machines were never designed to detect powdered explosives. This is particularly ironic since the machines’ use was initially justified after the underwear bomber incident—which involved powdered explosives!

The Rapiscan machines were selected by Michael Chertoff when he was head of the TSA under President Bush. As soon as he left office, he signed on with the company as a very highly paid promoter of the machines.

By the way, Rapiscan’s machines aren’t disappearing—they’re just being relocated to government agencies!

Action Alert! Congress needs to know that now is the time to get rid of all the backscatter machines because of their danger to our health—privacy is not the only concern! Tell them TSA needs to use millimeter wave scanners exclusively. A failure to do so when the existing machines are being taken out of airports is inexcusable. Take action now!

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