Bodyscanning Captain Underpants

I probably should’ve predicted that a huge story implicating national security surveillance policy would break just as I was boarding a flight to Madrid for the holidays. Jim Harper & c. have by now covered most of the bases admirably, but there are one or two points I feel it can’t hurt to emphasize.

First, there’s been a lot of talk about millimeter wave body imaging scanners in the wake of the attempted Christmas bombing; the New York Times headlined a story about the machines “Technology that Might Have Helped.” Really, that should read “Might Have Helped Had It Been Installed in Lagos,” which might have underscored the weirdness of some of the ensuing discussion. Because the awesome next-gen spytech you’ve got at the most advanced 20% or 50% or 90% of airports matters a lot less than the situation in the bottom 1%, where a global adversary is going to focus their efforts. At a couple hundred thou each, we’re talking about a pretty pricey solution if they’ve got to be near-ubiquitous to work.

The press have set up a familiar security/privacy debate over body imaging, but this strikes me largely as a sideshow. If no records of the scans are kept, and software is used to obscure body contour details while preserving resolution for objects concealed on the person, and the scans are reviewed by analysts in another room who don’t simultaneously see the subject, then it’s hard to see how they’re substantially more intrusive than x-rays of carry-on baggage. (Though I would, of course, want to insist on those three privacy measures.) The real questions to raise about the tech are entirely on the security side.

First, experts have raised serious doubt about the assertion that millimeter wave scanners would have detected the device involved in the Christmas attempt.  It’s hard to imagine a dumber way to blow a few hundred million bucks than on high-tech measures that wouldn’t even work against current terrorist methods, especially when alternative measures like chemical swabs—far cheaper, though without the gee-golly Total Recall factor—are on the menu. But you also have to assume that if it were effective against current methods, terrorists would switch methods—either by selecting different targets or looking for other means of hitting the same targets. Now, forcing that kind of shift can clearly be a benefit: As Jim has noted, the kind of device they had to use to circumvent metal detectors and baggage x-rays was clearly less reliable than a bomb in a suitcase could’ve been, making it possible for passengers to foil the attempt.  The question is whether the countermeasures they take in response to the body scanners require them to incur marginal liabilities that justify the cost.  It seems awfully doubtful, frankly.

If you’ll forgive a bit of frank cynicism, I predict we’ll end up debating body imagers because they’re big, flashy, sexy tech with lots of cool scifi visuals for the weekly newsmags and cable news shows to use.  The anchors get to say “naked” a lot, and air travelers get to feel like they’re being protected by cyborgs from the future.  Meanwhile, measures that actually enhance security, like reinforced cockpit doors, tend to be rather more boring and invisible to the average person. So, for instance, probably Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should have at least been pulled aside for additional screening.  It’s not that it should have been enough, in isolation, that his father had contacted the American embassy with concerns about his son (intel agencies are drowning in vague tips, which is one reason there are half a million people on the terror watchlist, only a handful of whom are actually a threat; you can’t feasibly ground all of them) or that he bought a one-way ticket with cash or that he was traveling without baggage, or that there was chatter about a potential bombing attempt by a Nigerian. Rather, you’d think the combination of those things would have triggered a closer look at the airport. But that’s a question of abstruse and partly classified back-end data sharing procedures, which aren’t nearly as fun to talk about on Meet the Press.