Scientists Doubt TSA’s Scanner Tests

By Curtis Hewston

Call this the third in an unintentional series of stories on all that is the Transportation Security Administration‘s full-body X-ray — porno — scanners that in the last year have taken our airports by storm. This one is inspired by the work of Michael Grabell at the investigative site ProPublica.com.

Grabell brings to light a letter from prominent scientists to White House science adviser John Holdren that expresses their significant concerns with the methodology of radiation tests performed for the TSA and questions why the TSA won’t make the scanners available for independent testing. It’s the sort of thing that makes you wonder.

Reports Grabell:

“There’s no real data on these machines, and in fact, the best guess of the dose is much, much higher than certainly what the public thinks,” said John Sedat, a professor emeritus in biochemistry and biophysics at [the University of California, San Francisco] and the primary author of the letter.

and

[The scientists] say more testing should be done given the government’s plans to put millions of passengers through the machines. And they have been disturbed by the TSA’s reluctance to do so.

Here’s just one problem with the testing:

… the professors note that the Johns Hopkins lab didn’t test an actual airport machine. Instead, the tests were done on a model built by the manufacturer, Rapiscan, and configured to resemble a system previously tested by the TSA.

The researchers’ names have been kept secret, and the report on the tests is so “heavily redacted” that “there is no way to repeat any of these measurements,” they wrote.

That bothers scientists, when they are unable to replicate the data of other scientists. Peter Rez, an Arizona State physics professor, has made do with what he had. He tried to calculate the radiation by examining a handful of backscatter images that have been released publicly, and he concluded that it was highly unlikely the machines could have produced such high-quality images with doses of radiation as low as those described by the TSA. Rez estimated the dose, while still small, is 45 times higher than the results measured by Johns Hopkins.

That’s a problem, I think, but the bigger concern is why the TSA isn’t cooperating with independent scientists who are merely trying to validate their findings. And while that doubt exists, we must remain wary of those scanners the next time we are coerced to pose for one.

Also see my post from March — Porno Scans Are So Hot!

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