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24 March 2012

A very graphic view of the TSA

The TSA has been a frequent subject of this site, covering issues from the employee screening process to the passenger search policies. Below is an informational graphic created by a team from led by follower Tony Shin. The graphic is based on data from a variety of sources, including media reports and is somewhat critical on the TSA's policies and effectiveness, including claims that although know terrorists have flown on US airlines numerous times since TSA was created, none have ever been stopped from boarding by TSA.

We'd like to know what you think abou the graphic, or what you think about the direction the TSA has taken in recent months, so please feel free to leave comments.

TSA Waste

09 March 2012

Video shows advanced TSA screening devices failing to detect large metal objects

Earlier this month, Jonathan Corbett of the site TSA Out of Our Pants! released a video that allegedly demonstrated that he was able to sneak large metallic objects passed TSA's most advanced screening devices without being detected. These devices have been deployed by the hundreds across the US over the last couple of years and were intended to detect metal objects, explosives, and other prohibited items. In some airports, these have been used as the primary screening device for passengers, bypassing the traditional metal detector.

What is noteworthy is that Corbett performed his tests against both types of advanced screening devices currently in use by the TSA. The video below provides details on how Corbett discovered key weaknesses in these scanning devices, and how he used a very low tech method to successfully get large metal objects through the scanners without being detected:

What may be far more alarming than the demonstrations in the video are Corbett's claims that TSA representatives have attempted to intimidate him, as well as several journalists, warning them not to cover this story. If these claims of intimidation are true, it would represent a very wrongheaded approach by TSA.'s position is that claims such as the ones made by Corbett are best dealt with by providing the information to anyone who is interested and letting them judge for themselves.

This event is similar in some ways to a 2009 incident where TSA accidentally released a TSA document that contained extensive information about TSA testing of devices and TSA security procedures. In spite of concerns in some areas of government about the possible security risks, The TSA could do little to prevent the public from downloading the document. also published an article explaining why the TSA has little authority when it comes to taking documents offline. While these procedures manuals may be currently out of date, they still make for very interesting reading.

The TSA responds to Corbett's video
The TSA, in their official blog at, responded to the claims made in Corbett's video. The highlights of the response by TSA's representative Bob Burns, along with's comments are below:
I watched the video and it is a crude attempt to allegedly show how to circumvent TSA screening procedures.

For obvious security reasons, we can’t discuss our technology's detection capability in detail, however TSA conducts extensive testing of all screening technologies in the laboratory and at airports prior to rolling them out to the entire field. Imaging technology has been extremely effective in the field and has found things artfully concealed on passengers as large as a gun or nonmetallic weapons, on down to a tiny pill or tiny baggies of drugs. It’s one of the best tools available to detect metallic and non-metallic items, such as… you know… things that go BOOM.

With all that said, it is one layer of our 20 layers of security (Behavior Detection, Explosives Detection Canines, Federal Air Marshals, , etc.) and is not a machine that has all the tools we need in one handy device. We’ve never claimed it’s the end all be all.

However, our nation's aviation system is much safer now with the deployment of 600 imaging technology units at 140 airports. It is completely safe and the vast majority use a generic image that completely addresses privacy concerns. Also, keep in mind that is optional. Anybody can opt out of the body scanner for a pat-down.

Dr. Curtis of comments on TSA's response
The most important thing about the response by Burns is that it did not refute the key point made in the Corbett video was true, specifically if it were possible to sneak a large metal object past both kinds of advanced scanners deployed by TSA. It isn't necessary to discuss the detailed detection capability of these scanners, but it would make TSA's response more useful if it came out and said that Corbett demonstration was either real or not.

Burns did state several obvious points about security that I agree with, point which I discussed in some detail in a 2010 article describing how the TSA is unable to eliminate the threat from bombs. The most important point is that there are several layers of security, and that no one layer of security is sufficient.

One area where the Burns article may have misled his readers is in his emphasizing how much more safe the current system is with the advanced devices. There are few problems with this claim. First, he did not define what he means by safe. If he meant some measurable quality such as a reduced likelihood of sneaking a bomb or gun through security, then it would be helpful to tell the audience what that measurement is. Also, he mentions that the machines are at 140 US airports, but does not mention that there are hundreds more US airports that offer some kind of commercial airline service. A review of the the FAA's online air traffic database revealed that in 2011 over 440 airports offered some kind of airline service and 250 of these airports averaged one or more airline flights per day.

Perhaps a more accurate claim from Burns would have been that these advanced screening devices adds a layer of security for some passengers at some airports. Perhaps a more useful response would have been one that emphasized the the risks that the screening technology reduces, in this case the measurable reduction in the likelihood that someone could sneak a dangerous or banned item onto an aircraft, rather than on saying that the system is safer, where he does not define what safety means, and does not give any solid data to support this belief.

What I said in my 2010 article about why the TSA could not eliminate threats of bombs is just as true today, and if anything Corbett's video supports my position:
The threat from those who want to disrupt the air transportation system is one that constantly evolves. For every system or procedure that is put into place, those who intend to bring harm to the system will take steps to either avoid those measures or find a way to defeat them. While extra measures will not make air travel perfectly safe, they will likely make travel less risky.

Related resources
April 2010 reader poll results on the use of scanners