Friday, July 29, 2011

Update on the science on scanners

Lew Rockwell published my column today. An excerpt:
A brief background
In advance of the publicity of the installation of naked scanners at US airports, some activists and scientists were already making some noise. A group of UCSF scientists – John Sedat, David Agard, Marc Shuman, and Robert Stroud – sent a letter to the President’s science advisor, John Holdren, in April 2010 expressing their concern about the scanners. I have written about this elsewhere.
The Republican wing of the mainstream media picked up on a peer-reviewed article published in between the holidays last December that ran some simulations of the x-ray backscatter scanners. Recall that this followed shortly on the heels of the protests of last fall – when the TSA was rolling out more and more scanners, and also stepping up the invasiveness of their so-called pat-downs (known as custody searches by law enforcement). The authors, Leon Kaufmann and Joseph Carlson (again of UCSF) concluded that the reported capabilities of the scanners and the reported safety of the scanners were not consistent with each other. That is, either they don’t work as well as advertised, or they are more dangerous than advertised. There are also a number of other results in their paper that should be of interest to travelers, and I summarized them at that time on my blog.
I also wrote up a summary of Dr. Sedat’s second letter earlier this summer, this time to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). But my purpose here is to discuss a couple of peer-reviewed articles addressing the safety of the backscatter scanners that were published recently.
Why does any of this matter? I am of the opinion that even if the naked scanners are 100% safe and effective, they are still an egregious violation of individual rights. I oppose the use of the scanners on this basis. However, it is instructive of how negligent government is, by its very nature, to look at the case of the lack of scientific evidence showing these scanners to be safe and effective. The use of these scanners has been implemented in an incredibly stealthy manner. If you are a student of economics, history, government, or common sense, then this is not a surprise, but it is easy to ignore. I want to make it harder to ignore how the TSA has acted and harder to excuse those actions.