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21 March 2010

GAO recommends cost and benefit analysis for new scanners

The failed attempted bombing of Northwest flight 253 last Christmas, highlighted the reality that in spite of all of the security measures implemented since 9/11 and the attack by convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid, that someone could still get past those measures and get a bomb on board a US airliner.

One response of the US government was to speed up the delivery of full body scanners to airports around the country, with plans to install about 300 by the end of 2010. While the scanners may be capable at finding explosives hidden under their clothing, a key issue is whether this effort, which may cost several billion dollars, is effective and reliable enough to justify the costs.

Role of the GAO
The General Accountability Office (GAO), a US government organization which examines the use of public funds; evaluates federal programs and policies; and provides analyses, recommendations, and other assistance to the US Congress, reviewed recent efforts to put advanced imaging technologies in US airports, specifically the full body scanners, to help find hidden items under a passenger's clothing.

TSA policy changers after the Christmas attack

After the Christmas bombing attempt, the TSA made two major policy changes. First, to increase the number of planned full body scanners from 878 to about 1,800, and second, to use these scanners as a primary screening device whenever feasible rather than as a secondary screening. Full deployment would not occur until 2014, and even then, these advanced scanners would only be available at about 60% of the checkpoint lanes of the US airports with the three highest TSA security categories.

To give you an idea of how limited this coverage would be, the TSA is responsible for security at about 450 airports, and according to a 2007 GAO report, less than 40% of all airports are in these three highest categories, and nearly 300 smaller airports are in the two less sensitive security categories.

Costs and benefit analysis not done
The most recent report, plus the earlier report from 2007, provided several important insights into the the use of the advanced screening technologies:
  • Advanced imaging systems will not be fully deployed for at least three years

  • When fully deployed, they will be only in a fraction of airports

  • In the airports with these new scanners, not all passengers will be screened using these advanced technologies
Perhaps the most important point made by this report was one that there has not yet been a cost and benefit analysis done for these new technologies. While the rush to do something to prevent airborne bombers appears to have been done with the best of intentions, it seems sensible that someone should review whether this effort will be effective, especially given the expense involved with getting it done.

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