TSA body scanners abysmal failures at detecting contraband

Just yesterday the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) put in place a regulation that even air passengers who opt for a pat-down security check could be required to go through the See-You-Naked Machines (SYNMs), euphemistically known as full-body scanners. (Full disclosure: they no longer see an image of your naked body.) Right now 2% of passengers opt for the pat-down as an alternative to going through the machines but now they may require the Official Peeping. Apparently this rule is in place because full-body pat-downs miss some things that the machines can detect, but I’m invariably groped (sometimes intrusively) after going through a SYNM, and they’ve never detected anything.

But do those machines really work?

No. They should, for they cost $150,000 each, and the bill so far is over $120 million dollars for the units in place.

As Politico reported, their failure rate is abysmal:

A recent security audit found that TSA had failed to find fake explosives and weapons in 96 percent of covert tests. And members of Congress familiar with the classified details say the body scanners are to blame for much of the problem.

Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said that while the TSA has spent a fortune on new equipment, he is “troubled about their capability to detect and prevent dangerous materials from passing through security checkpoints.”

Johnson said that while bomb detection is obviously a complex undertaking, “these things weren’t even catching metal.”

House committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) confirmed that L-3’s body scanners were the technology fingered in the audit and said that “the technology failure was a big part of the problem.” The chairman — a former federal prosecutor who spends much of his time thumbing through secret documents in the windowless bowels of the Capitol — added that the manufacturer guarantees an accuracy far below 100 percent.

. . . Anthony Roman, a pilot and security expert who also designs management software, said probably only a small percentage of the body imaging machines’ failure rate can be chocked up to the technology itself. The rest is likely because of the TSA’s “low-paid, under-motivated, not incredibly well-trained personnel,” he said.

The TSA of course is promising to do better, including adding software “patches” to help detect contraband, but even if the failure rate goes down to 50%, one out of two people smuggling weapons or explosives onto planes will still get through.

I tend to show respect to government officials (after all, they’re representing all of us), but the TSA is an exception. Its behavior is a comedy of errors, it’s reactive rather than proactive, and my experiences with its employees have been dire. They’re rude, loud, and seem to revel in throwing their weight around and humiliating travelers. In all my interactions with them—and I travel a lot—I’ve met exactly two who I thought were trying to be nice and pleasant.



  1. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 26, 2015 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    The best kind of hardware to sell is anything security or health related. You can quadruple the price you’d pay for a similar item in a non health/security setting & make lots and lots of profit.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted December 26, 2015 at 10:31 am | Permalink


  2. Michael Finfer, MD
    Posted December 26, 2015 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    The TSA seems to be bad at finding anything. There have been a couple of occasions when I accidental left those small fluid containers in their clear plastic bag in my carry on, and they did not flag them, and at least one occasion when I left something in my pocket going through one of those whole body scanners, and it was not picked up.

    I get the distinct impression that the entire operation is a scam, intended to make us all feel better without accomplishing anything.

    As for the employees, I have not found anyone who I have to complain about. I am sure that there are some bad apples that I have not run into.

    I find that small airports are the way to go. I fly out of Allentown, PA instead of Newark when practical. I highly recommend it. It is a much better experience than Newark, and the screeners there are very pleasant and have no problem chatting, which is not an issue when there are only a handful of people on line. I remain convinced that a nice chat about nothing is probably the best way for a screener to detect a problem passenger.

    • Randy Schenck
      Posted December 26, 2015 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Nice idea for the departure, although one would suspect a little more costly. What about the return?

      • Michael Finfer, MD
        Posted December 29, 2015 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        The fares at Allentown do tend to be higher than Newark, but the parking is $80 per week less, and the baggage carts are free. The terminal is a two minute walk from the long term parking lot. Allentown is about 20 miles further from my house than Newark.

        I look at the schedules first. I went to Fairbanks a couple of years ago, and there was just no way. You had to change planes twice from Allentown, and it took forever to get there, so I used Newark. I don’t mind changing planes if it does not take me ridiculously far out of the way, but twice kills it.

        I look at cost second. If the flight is not that much more, and the reduced parking covers a significant fraction of the extra cost, I will go to Allentown. I’ve done a couple of trips in recent years when I have found that Allentown is significantly more expensive than Newark, so I went to Newark for those trips.

        As for the return, it is a pleasure. My bags are often waiting for me by the time I get to the baggage return area. I can pay for the parking in the terminal and go.

  3. Mike Sunshine
    Posted December 26, 2015 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    My experience with TSA employees is much different than yours. I also get checked, but they seem to me to be doing their job relatively efficiently and without the rudeness and bullying you seem to get. I don’t know how well rhe job is being done, but there is a basic conflict in the job being done – the public and the airlines want both very accurate searches ( at least for everyone else) and a fast process. You can probably add cheap as well.

    • JJH
      Posted December 26, 2015 at 11:43 am | Permalink


      My experience with TSA has been the same as yours. I fly frequently for work and the overwhelming majority of interactions I have had with TSA personnel have been friendly and professional. I think it may have to do more with the particular airport than TSA in general. Chicago hasn’t been in my region for several years, but I used to fly in and out of there frequently. I never had a bad experience with TSA at either O’Hare or Midway (it’s been several years so things may have changed). Philadelphia, which also is no longer in my region (so again things may have changed), was the only airport where I found the TSA agents to be, let’s just say, less than personable.

      I also think you make a good point about balancing speed and effectiveness. The TSA agents we encounter when traveling didn’t get a say about the technology that they would supplied with, but they must make it work as best they can. I understand that they occasionally miss things, but they also frequently find things. When I was running low on time, I have been delayed by passengers ahead of me line packing large bottles of liquids, knives, and yes, even loaded guns; so they are frequently successful.

      I also agree with DR. Finfer’s idea that personal interaction would probably a big plus in detecting someone with ill-will. But, are we willing to pay the right people and give them the right training to make that work?

  4. larry sullivan
    Posted December 26, 2015 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    The fastest way to fix this is simply stop flying

  5. Posted December 26, 2015 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    It’s all security theater, placebo procedures to make us feel safer. As with placebo, the method matters. Making us stand in a giant machine with whirling parts and computer screens isn’t more effective than a simple metal detector, but it give us the impression of high-tech, high-sensitivity detection.

    I’m fairly certain that most TSA employees are just operating a highly sophisticated “bottled water detector” when they stare at the X-ray screen.

    • Posted December 26, 2015 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

      Interesting that almost all of the courthouses, museums, and other building venues for the public continue to use metal detectors and physical inspections of handbags, etc., rather than TSA-type expensive and flawed equipment.

  6. Posted December 26, 2015 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    TSA and Secret Service. Both agencies “in crisis.”

  7. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted December 26, 2015 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    I’ve met exactly two who I thought were trying to be nice and pleasant.

    Well, they’ll be slated for the sack already then.

    The rest is likely because of the TSA’s “low-paid, under-motivated, not incredibly well-trained personnel,” he said.

    Well, that’s probably the main thing. You forgot the antisocial shift patterns and job insecurity. Plus the pressure to do everything faster. And still do it cheaper.

  8. Scott Draper
    Posted December 26, 2015 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    “The TSA of course is promising to do better”

    This job is probably impossible to do well….it’s just too boring. You could have MIT graduates manning the scanners and it would likely get worse.

    The only real hope is that the software can become a lot smarter.

    • Posted December 26, 2015 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      If creators of internet search programs can continue to make them more sophisticated in order to present more ads to consumers, surely those programmers who deal in safety of the public can improve TSA scanners. Oh! Maybe the money needed to hire better programmers for safety purposes isn’t as readily available as
      for improving access to ads. Maybe our mega-billionaire owners of Amazon, Google, Microsoft, etc., could develop an interest in the area of public safety concerns. It could preserve the numbers of people they can present ads to.

      • Scott Draper
        Posted December 26, 2015 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

        To be fair, visual pattern matching is a very difficult computer science problem. One reason why our robots suck.

        I suspect there’s a lot of money to be made in this field once the way forward is clear.

    • compuholio
      Posted December 26, 2015 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

      Smarter software won’t help much. It will only help to make fewer mistakes in interpreting the raw data coming from the scanner. But the raw data itself is not very good.

      This is a link to a TV show (in German), demonstrating how bad and in how many ways such scanners fail badly. The fun starts around the 1:30 mark. Btw. the guy in the video is a physicist from Austria who is regularly debunking esoteric claims and junk science.

      Also in line with the above video is this little snippet

      All that aside. Even if those scanner did actually work they are an abomination. They are an invasive product of a collective hysteria. They should be rejected by anyone who has retained a little bit of personal dignity.

      • Scott Draper
        Posted December 27, 2015 at 10:31 am | Permalink

        “rejected by anyone who has retained a little bit of personal dignity.”

        The hysteria is real, but the danger is, too. Regardless of their effectiveness, I do think it’s plausible that they provide some deterrent effect. I’m OK with these scanners in principle, because I really don’t care if strangers see me naked.

        • Diane G.
          Posted December 27, 2015 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

          But what if you needed adult diapers? If you needed sanitary pads or tampons? If you were transgender, dressed one way but still with your original body parts? If you don’t want anyone to know you’re pregnant?…

          • Scott Draper
            Posted December 27, 2015 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

            I don’t see why I’d care if a total stranger knew those things. In fact, total strangers likely would know those things. I’m sure I’d prefer that than someone who was continually in my social world.

            • Diane G.
              Posted December 27, 2015 at 4:49 pm | Permalink


              “Transgender Woman Humiliated When TSA’s Scan Flags ‘Anomaly’
              “That’s my penis,” she told TSA agents”

              They can single you out for anything they might think is problematic. There’s an infamous story of an elderly woman who was required to remove her diaper. There’s some fear of cavity searches…

              • Scott Draper
                Posted December 27, 2015 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

                Well, okay, those things might be a little much….

              • Diane G.
                Posted December 27, 2015 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

                While we’re in the spirit of concession, I’ll allow that they’d also be pretty rare. 🙂

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 26, 2015 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    … full-body pat-downs miss some things that the machines can detect, but I’m invariably groped (sometimes intrusively) after going through a SYNM …

    Judging by the way I got groped & scanned during my last go-through, I suspect the full-body pat downs and SYNM are part of a religio-cultural profiling plot — meant to distinguish the uncut from circumcised.

    • Posted December 26, 2015 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      Groping of males apparently can be done expeditiously while the gropees move relatively quickly through the lines. Groping of females external protuberances, ditto. But, it might take too long to remove female passengers from lines to inspect vaginas (unless the TSA hires ex-Texas policemen who have no qualms about doing it in public.)

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 26, 2015 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        I’ll bet sheriff Joe Arpio of Maricopa county AZ could keep that women’s line moving right along, too.

  10. mcirvin14
    Posted December 26, 2015 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    While I agree generally with Jerry’s evaluation and have a lot of experience at some of the same airports he’s flying out of (Chicago O’Hare and Midway) I don’t see the bad behavior as being as universal as he does.

    Unfortunately, air travel in this day and age has resulted in a lot of surly angry people traveling. The poor attitude of the flying public exacerbates the poor attitude and performance of the TSA agents.

    Fore example – I was flying out of Chicago Midway last week – and I am in the TSA-pre (pre-screened passengers)line where you don’t take off your shoes and belts and watches etc. All you do is put your bag and coat through the x-ray and walk through the metal detector and your done – takes less than 5 min. The guy in front of me blew a gasket because they didn’t have tubs to use for putting things through the x-ray. He held up the entire show to shout at the TSA staff. He was rebuked with some sarcasm but it was mild compared to what he might have deserved.

    Just after that I talked to a guy at the bare who regaled me with the story of having his flight cancelled the day before – he said he wend totally ballistic, and the airline agent called the police. He then threatened the cops and was hauled downtown and booked and released the next day. He was allowed to get on a flight that day but has a court date coming up. I don’t find this anecdote to be particularly extraordinary.

    Faced with this kind of behavior – I too would probably be pretty surly.

  11. Posted December 26, 2015 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    I’d rather go through the See-You-Naked Machines (SYNMs), than the Touch-Your-Privates People (TYPP).

  12. Stackpole
    Posted December 26, 2015 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    This is all rather good news, actually. The abject failure of TSA to detect much of anything serious (except possibly resentment on the part of the travelers) indicates rather clearly that there have not been any (serious) attempts to blow up airplanes in the past 10+ years, else the perps would have waltzed through the TSA’s machines and done so. So breath easier.

  13. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted December 26, 2015 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Wasted resources. US (or Europe) isn’t exactly a terrorism hotspot. [ http://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/images/START_GlobalTerrorismDatabase_2014TerroristAttacksConcentrationIntensityMap.jpg ]

    Except … and that is funny, the Global Terrorism Database doesn’t include arson of the refugee housings in Sweden, now the fires are counting ~ 40/year and a minority are accidents. It happens again as it happened when the war in Yugoslavia was ongoing.

    According to a recent article doing the rounds in swedish media at least 2/3 of those fires are set by accelerants and haven’t been tracked to the refugees themselves. (Actually only 1 case of deliberate setting fire is directly tied to those living there, the others are so far unsubstantiated police suspicions.)

    If arson isn’t trying to change policies with violence what is? Is there a finer definition of terrorism that I am not aware of?

  14. Randy Schenck
    Posted December 26, 2015 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    I’m still trying to get over the de-regulation of transportation, including air, that almost overnight, emptied the bus terminals and put everyone on a plane. Does anyone else remember when commercial air transportation was a civilized and pleasant event?

  15. Posted December 26, 2015 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    I think this best sums up TSA policies:

  16. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 26, 2015 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    I once overheard Kinky Friedman claim that he was the only Jew in America without any sense of guilt.

    Well, I’ll admit to schlepping around a tiny bit of Catholic guilt myself, even though I vamoosed the Church out the back door of a chapel at age 15, and haven’t looked back since. But I seem to have been the product of an immaculate conception when it comes to bodily inhibitions, Catholic or otherwise, in that I haven’t any.

    When the TSA people go to juggle my junk or snap a nudie backscatter x-ray pic at the airport, my attitude is, from one upright ape to another, knock yourself out.

    I recognize I may be an outlier in this respect.

    • Posted December 26, 2015 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      Then I am an outlier too. I really don’t care, though I understand that for people who do care, there’s certainly reason to think they’re right about the invasion of privacy issue. My biggest irritation with the whole process is the time it takes and fellow fliers who seemingly have nto only not ever visited an airport, but also seem incapable of following simple written and spoken instructions in a timely manner. Throw all your shit on the belt, get groped and move it along people!

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 26, 2015 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, I’m totally unphased by the see-me-nekkid pictures.

        As to the pat-down grope, I sometimes have to lay out for the TSA officers my personal policy since high-school that anyone who touches me there needs to have kissed me first. 🙂

  17. Posted December 26, 2015 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I fly regularly from Columbus, OH to Atlanta, GA and occasionally to Seattle, WA and Dallas, TX. I think the larger the city, the worse the TSA agents behave. The ones in the smaller cities and Pacific Northwest seem to have the most professional attitudes while the ones in Dallas and Atlanta are awful and treat you like you’re walking past a street gang.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted December 26, 2015 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      I’m sorry to hear that. I mean the part about you having to be in Columbus — the blob that ate central Ohio. 🙂

  18. Hempenstein
    Posted December 26, 2015 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    My experience with the TSA seems to be a lot better than yours, but didn’t they institute some program whereby frequent fliers can get something like a certificate of general approval card that allows them to forego running the gauntlet? Surprised you haven’t gotten one.

    Has anyone else gotten one and does it work out OK?

    • mcirvin14
      Posted December 26, 2015 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

      Best money you can spend if you travel frequently. You will usually spent 10 minutes max in line and you don’t have to disrobe and unpack your luggage. If you are opposed to a thorough background check and fingerprinting then you out of luck though.

      Search for Global Entry and/or TSA-pre.

  19. Posted December 26, 2015 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Still trying to figure out who Johnson is.

  20. p. puk
    Posted December 26, 2015 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    Where I live (in Catalonia) firemen are called “Bombers” and I am the proud owner of a fireman’s jacket with a large “BOMBER” emblazoned across the back.

    Even though I’m sure it’s a bad idea, I simply can’t wait to wear it for the TSA.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted December 27, 2015 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      Hence the old TSA saying “When in Catalonia … “

  21. Posted December 26, 2015 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    This is fascinating and bizarre. How can TSA justify a population-level screening procedure with such a high false-negative rate, when the purpose for screening to begin with is to catch the exceedingly rare event that an explosive or dangerous item might be sneaked on board? When the cost of even 1 or 2 unassimilated (real-life) false negatives could cost lives and cause mass panic, and the cost of the machines is so high, how are the machines even in operation and why aren’t the decision-makers working to improve the test performance???

    They must improve their sensitivity!! We can swallow being groped if we know the test works, that is, we can deal with a sacrifice in specificity (and bear, or bare, if you will, some indignity) in favor of stellar sensitivity, but when both are crappy, it is time to figure this out.

    • Posted December 26, 2015 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

      unassimilated = unsimulated

    • Posted December 27, 2015 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      I watched Dave Rubin’s recent interview of Sam Harris last night(here) in which Harris spoke about his views on TSA and profiling (not new to most on here, but new to me).

      Harris may be correct in suggesting that we could improve sensitivity by profiling those who best fit the ISIS-recruit profile. That is, while it is politically uncopacetic to not have an agnostic screen, he gave the example of someone like Betty White having a low probability of being an jihadist or ISIS-recruit, whereas he (Sam Harris) would fit the profile–young to middle-aged male. But being famous and so often in the public eye also lowers the probability of Harris being an ISIS recruit; as such, it would be better to focus attention elsewhere.

      Nutshell claim from talk: unless they start blowing themselves up, scrutinizing the Betty Whites of the world is TSA theater and impacts the odds of timely, correct detection of the villainous.

  22. Diane G.
    Posted December 26, 2015 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Alas, given the always-stuffed-to-the-gills flights, the insufficient-by-half room for carry-ons, the ever-shrinking seats & leg-space…the TSA may soon be the most pleasant part of flying.

  23. Observer
    Posted December 26, 2015 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    I certainly doubt their competence, but I find the TSA agents to range from generally polite and friendly to disinterested. It’s a minority who are rdue or power drunk. I take around 130 flights per year and have visited the vast majority of commercial airports in the USA, so I think I’ve seen a representative sample.

    • Observer
      Posted December 26, 2015 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

      Rdue = rude

  24. Posted December 29, 2015 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    OK Jerry, I’ll try again since my first post on this matter seems to have gotten lost in the ether!
    I’m now in my 41st year working in the field of Aviation Security or AVSEC as the Acronymists (I hate acronyms)would have it. I don’t have any grand letters to my name and in common with most of my colleagues in AVSEC have basically a GED as you might say here in the US. I’ve worked at every level in AVSEC from Guard to Research Manager for the BAA group in UK. I now am a Consultant to organisations like ICAO and companies such as L3 Communications. I’ve worked with ICAO worldwide to inspect airports, train security personnel and design security systems such as CCTV and also to peruse RFT papers to ensure that the governments of the poorest countries in the world don’t get ripped off by the richest! Of all the comments concerning your article about TSA, I would think that the meanest is concerning the behaviour of the TSA guards. OK, as countries go, the US is probably on a par with Guatemala in terms of oppressive measures and that comes out in the recruitment and training of the personnel. However; across the world, and I include the US here, Aviation security personnel who last longer in the job than 18 months, are proud of their skills and are very effective at their jobs. The MMW (Milli Meter Wave) systems at Boston Logan could pick up a plaster on my back covering a knife wound (OK a surgeon stuck a knife in my back to remove a cyst)and I was treated with courtesy and compassion by the Security Staff. I have trained AVSEC personnel from many countries and find that those who are employed by a government backed organization tend to be better at their work than those employed by commercial organizations, for, in commercial competition I see a race for the bottom as companies compete to bring the lowest cost to their customer. This is the situation that the 9/11 jihadists exploited in America. Let’s not go back to those days.

%d bloggers like this: