Today's TSA Billet-Doux

By James Fallows

An employee of the US Air Force writes:

>>I'm a 24-year-old male with an implanted defibrillating pacemaker. I grew up in Southern California and now work in Washington D.C. I've flown back and forth to California since 2005, and as a result have been to every major airport in the National Capitol Region, and 7 Airports in the Southern California region, plus a few in the San Francisco bay area. I'd estimate that I've been patted down by TSA agents in excess of 50 times, in six years, across five states.

To this day, the only federal employees who insisted I go through a metal detector are the Secret Service security details at The White House when I took a West Wing tour in 2008. I attempted to argue with them, but their response was: "Vice President Cheney does it every day. Trust me, you'll be fine." Hard to take exception, since Cheney not only has a pacemaker but also an implanted heart pump (the dude lacks a pulse). I also wanted to see what the agents would do if my pacer started beeping, as it has in the past when trifled with. I walked through the metal detector without incident, partially because I was carrying resumes, and figured I could just plaster the place during my tour. I still avoid metal detectors at airports on my doc's advice.

I last flew out of LAX on Dec. 16, and ran into a backscatter for the first time. Two words: Never Again.

On top of the unanswered radiation question, you get to stand there and wait for someone in a back room to clear you and radio the agent working the gate. Meanwhile, I simultaneously stand there wondering; Who are is in the back room? Who do they work for? Where are they? What sex are they? Where is that image going? How much money did the machine cost, and can I REALLY fool it by duct-taping a friggin' hotcake to my stomach? At least the TSA agents narrate what parts they're touching and maintain a modicum of transparency. I can also safely assume that if they pull some shenanigans and begin to pant heavily, I can sue and settle for at least enough money to repay my student loans.<<

On the "unanswered radiation question," more reports from battling physicists are in the queue. On "friggin' hotcake," recent reports (which I can't find right now*) suggest that even the "enhanced" screeners can be fooled by explosives tucked, like hotcakes, into folds of body fat.

While I'm at it, the TSA Status site mentioned two days ago is scaling up significantly. It's becoming a useful resource for seeing which airports are applying which screening standards, and it is soliciting more reports. (An automated system for handling them is the next step.) Please send via Twitter to @tsastatus, or by email to tsastatus @ gmail.com. Also, the ever-vigilant "Department of Fear" has an update on new screening techniques.
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* Info on the "hotcakes" study, courtesy of reader H.R. MD: The study, in the Journal of Transportation Security, is here. Key paragraph:

"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. Thus, a third of a kilo of PETN, easily picked up in a competent pat down, would be missed by backscatter "high technology". Forty grams of PETN, a purportedly dangerous amount, would fit in a 1.25 mm-thick pancake of the dimensions simulated here and be virtually invisible. Packed in a compact mode, say, a 1 cm × 4 cm × 5 cm brick, it would be detected."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/12/todays-tsa-billet-doux/68640/