Much has been written and reported on in the last several weeks regarding TSA’s deployment of whole body imaging technology. To be sure, this technology is badly needed at the security checkpoint where detection capability for explosives on passengers is limited.
However, the process TSA undertook in selecting its technology of choice – millimeter wave – is flawed and should be re-examined. It’s true that TSA has been piloting whole body imaging technology for years, but it was just recently that the agency began focusing on millimeter wave. As far back as 2005, TSA was studying, in detail, backscatter technology for whole body imaging. And there’s a reason for that – backscatter is widely viewed as providing outstanding image quality of potential threats and high detection rates.
TSA recognized the benefits of backscatter technology early in its existence and encouraged the two leading companies to invest millions of dollars to further refine their systems for applicability in U.S. airports (and they did). In fact, the U.S. Government has recognized its performance and is purchasing high quantities of backscatter-related equipment today for the protection of our troops overseas (in Iraq and Afghanistan) as well as here at home. One of TSA’s sister’s agencies – Customs and Border Protection – is utilizing backscatter technology to help secure our southern border by detecting illegal contraband in vehicles and in cargo.
So, given backscatter technology’s proven track record in detecting potential threats, why has TSA chosen not to deploy it at U.S. airports, along side millimeter wave – thereby introducing competition to the procurement process and the “random factor” that TSA talks so much about. Simply put – because it didn’t focus group well enough for TSA. That’s right – TSA conducted a number of focus groups and found that, despite repeated medical studies and evidence that backscatter is safe and harmless, passengers were uncomfortable being x-rayed. Never mind that at Phoenix Airport, where backscatter technology has been operating for several years, over 75% of passengers when given the choice between a pat-down or a backscatter x-ray choose backscatter. And never mind that CBP is scanning individuals every day with the technology at the border. Instead, the agency made a political decision that backscatter would not be publicly accepted and has slow-rolled a small handful of backscatter deployments to airports.
Let’s also not forget the views of the U.S. Congress. Recognizing that TSA was settling on just one technology (which from a competition prospective possibly reduces innovation and increases price), Congressional appropriators directed TSA to spend funds in this fiscal year on millimeter and backscatter technologies.
Passenger feedback is vitally important when examining passenger checkpoint procedures and protocols. However, it should not dictate security technology decisions solely. If it did, passengers would get to leave their shoes on, keep the laptops in their bags and could take more than 3 ounces of liquids through the checkpoint. The current change in Administration provides an opportunity to re-look at past decisions. TSA should re-examine the use of backscatter technology and rely less on the results of focus groups and more on the merits of the technology.