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Thursday, August 30, 2012

TSA Body Scanners: A Billion Dollar Boondoggle

Do I feel safer knowing these machines are checking in passengers"
Score another victory for the good old Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

After spending billions on "body scanners' Wired reports that the current generation (only two years old) of scanners is on the way out as DHS taps the Pentagon and DARPA to create a new design.

I wrote "Dogma of Stupid: TSA Body Scanners" back in March of this year.

I described how a kid figured out that you could put something on your side in such a way as the color of the "thing" matched the background of the scan and viola - you were through the scanner with something bad.

(The TSA said all this anti-body scanner stuff was nonsense at the time - but now that we know they are looking for alternatives I guess it probably wasn't....)

I want to say each scanner costs over a million dollars and there are 700 of them currently deployed.  So with all the training, installation, overhead, etc., involved we probably talking about pitching one billion USD of technology down the crapper because the TSA screwed up.

Of course this is only a 1/000th of a trillion USD - but its hard not to imagine that there aren't a lot more stupid, silly or useless government programs like this - hundreds of not thousands.

The former Israel Airport security chief I quoted in my original post agrees that these things are junk and claims he could easily walk right through with enough explosives to "take down a 747."

So why do we have these and many other US government boondoggles?

One reason is that there is no "intellectual check" on what people who specify and buy these types of technologies do.

Long ago in the Pentagon they realized that you needed something like DARPA to help figure out what to do technologically at a small scale before you spent tens or hundreds of billions at a large scale on a total failure.  So they do small-scale experiments to prove concepts.

Here is where I think something like crowd-sourcing would be a good idea.

Don't let people submit crowd source designs - instead put professionally submitted designs out for critique via crowd source.

Do the same for the initial idea, e.g., body scanners, as well.  People will be happy to find flaws - after all it will be their grandmother that dies if they don't.

Let people have at the concept.  If someone can hack around it their ego will likely allow them to crow about it.

(I am sure you could develop statistical models to analyze the results as well to help ensure no one is trying to pull a fast one on the analysis side.)

Give the guy who finds the biggest flaw $10,000 USD as a prize.

So $10,000 USD versus $1 billion USD.

Seems like a smarter model for me.

(But no, some bureaucratic idiot might feel bad that his vaunted idea using technology from his brother-in-law's company...)

The reason this is not done, I am sure, is because there are many big-ego types at DHS who want to control this and think that they can keep the techy secrets out of the hands of evil foreigners.

But obviously this is nonsense as the original post I wrote shows.  Some kid with a bright idea and $20 for sewing equipment beats a billion dollar security system.

There are many ways create secure airports - but giving one individual or committee billions of dollars to spend unchecked by free global technical analysis is just stupid

So what about the bad guys?

Won't they benefit from this in some way?

I think that, if you are careful about how and what you crowd source, no.

Its not a secret that airports are looking for weapons on people's bodies.

And there is a clear body of at least Israeli evidence that all you have to do is know who to question to stop terrorists.

So US air carriers, in response, come up with the "Self Service" airline check in (see this WSJ article).

Okay - so body scanners are a failure.

Israeli's have a 100% success rate when they look people in the eye and question them.  (And no, I don't think this is unconstitutional because its WAR.  When the goal is indiscriminate killing of innocent women and children its a war situation - not a domestic Constitutional one.  Yes I know the ACLU would like the Constitution to apply to those attacking the US as well as to US citizens but that's another blog entry...)

SO what do WE do?

Eliminate the human element entirely to save money.

Now even happy Airline Check-in Host Bob won't have the chance to call the TSA to say that Achmed just paid cash for a one-way ticket, looked away every time he spoke to him and checked no luggage.

But don't worry - the airline and TSA will be saving a few bucks.

This is what's known as a "false economy."

Penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Driving forty miles to save $.02 USD per gallon on a ten gallon fill-up.

Apparently no one realizes that more people will fly if the security measures are more effective and less invasive.

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