We knew the full-body scanners didn’t work before they were even installed. Not long after the Underwear Bomber incident, all TSA officers at O’Hare were informed that training for the Rapiscan Systems full-body scanners would soon begin. The machines cost about $150,000 a pop.
Our instructor was a balding middle-aged man who shrugged his shoulders after everything he said, as though in apology. At the conclusion of our crash course, one of the officers in our class asked him to tell us, off the record, what he really thought about the machines.
“They’re s**t,” he said, shrugging. He said we wouldn’t be able to distinguish plastic explosives from body fat and that guns were practically invisible if they were turned sideways in a pocket.
We quickly found out the trainer was not kidding: Officers discovered that the machines were good at detecting just about everything besides cleverly hidden explosives and guns. The only thing more absurd than how poorly the full-body scanners performed was the incredible amount of time the machines wasted for everyone.
Just as the long-suffering American public waiting on those security lines suspected, jokes about the passengers ran rampant among my TSA colleagues: Many of the images we gawked at were of overweight people, their every fold and dimple on full awful display. Piercings of every kind were visible. Women who’d had mastectomies were easy to discern—their chests showed up on our screens as dull, pixelated regions. Hernias appeared as bulging, blistery growths in the crotch area. Passengers were often caught off-guard by the X-Ray scan and so materialized on-screen in ridiculous, blurred poses—mouths agape, à la Edvard Munch. One of us in the I.O. room would occasionally identify a passenger as female, only to have the officers out on the checkpoint floor radio back that it was actually a man. All the old, crass stereotypes about race and genitalia size thrived on our secure government radio channels.
Then, in March 2012, a blogger named Jonathan Corbett published a video on YouTube, titled “How to Get Anything Past the Full Body Scanners.” In it, Corbett revealed one of the greatest weaknesses of the scanners, known to everyone I talked to within the agency: A metal object hidden on the side of the body was invisible to an image operator. Corbett showed how a passenger could bring a pistol to the airport and get it past the full-body scanners and onto a plane.
More than a million people saw the video within a few days of its being posted. Finally, the public had a hint of what my colleagues and I already knew. The scanners were useless. The TSA was compelling toddlers, pregnant women, cancer survivors—everyone—to stand inside radiation-emitting machines that didn’t work.
If you're not outraged, you should be, especially since we've known the entire time how we can actually successfully secure flights without irradiating anyone.