Professors: TSA scanners simple to dupe

Two professors at the University of California, San Francisco say the TSA's body scanners do not detect large, irregularly shaped objects because they could be confused with normal anatomy.

Chris Matyszczyk
2 min read

Just when you thought it was safe to enter an airplane, along comes some professor to tell you that it may not be quite so.

For it seems that, despite the entrance of body scanners and their piercing gaze on every last element of your junk (reference embedded for those who missed it), these machines might not be foolproof.

According to Fox News, two professors at the University of California, San Francisco--Leon Kaufman and Joseph W. Carlson--have released a learned document that suggests it might be depressingly simple to fool a body scanner.

"It is very likely that a large (15-20 cm in diameter), irregularly shaped, cm-thick pancake with beveled edges, taped to the abdomen, would be invisible to this technology--ironically because of its large volume, since it is easily confused with normal anatomy," the researchers claim in their report.

I fear that this irregularly shaped pancake to which they refer might not come from IHOP but from a less reputable purveyor of dangerous materials. I also fear they might be suggesting that, well, you might be able to hide things in the folds that have been created by your indulging in the foodstuffs at IHOP and various other speedy food joints.

This report, however, goes even further.

"It is also easy to see that an object such as a wire or a box-cutter blade, taped to the side of the body, or even a small gun in the same location, will be invisible," it says.

Perhaps you, too, read the phrase "small gun" followed by the word "invisible" and decided to see whether Amtrak has recently cut its fares. Small gun? Are these professors really telling us that it is quite simple to cart a small gun onto a cheery flight to Fort Lauderdale? It seems that they are.

The TSA, quite stoically, stands by the efficacy of its tools.

"Advanced imaging technology is a proven, highly-effective tool that safely detects both metallic and nonmetallic items concealed on the body that could be used to threaten the security of airplanes," a TSA spokesperson told Fox News.

And yet, when one reads the professors' report, one cannot help but be alarmed. One cannot help, indeed, wish that every last piece of everyone's junk be personally inspected by someone with very sensitive fingers.

For the report declares: "A third of a kilo of PETN, easily picked up in a competent pat down, would be missed by backscatter 'high technology.'

PETN, should you not have any in your garage or bedroom, is short for pentaerythritol tetranitrate, a rather elevated form of explosive.

One can only hope that someone can offer the definitive view of whether these allegedly penetrating scanners really do penetrate as far as some claim. After reading this report, it's a little like those ads for cleaning agents that used to claim your kitchen would be "99 percent germ free."

It's the 1 percent of germs you really have to worry about.