What’s the News: The next generation of bomb detectors may come from an unusual source: bee venom, the stuff that hurts like all get-out when you get stung. A team of researchers at MIT have used fluorescent carbon nanotubes and venom proteins called bombolitins that bind to single molecules of explosives like TNT to create an exquisitely sensitive detector.
It seems like terrorists don’t even need to think of crazy new shoe, underwear, or pancake bombs to get around the TSA, since airport security seems to have forgotten what normal weapons look like. Though they still won’t let me bring four ounces of conditioner onto the plane.
About a year ago, Houston businessman Farid Sief accidentally brought his loaded Glock on a flight from Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport. The loaded gun, which Seif carries for protection, was tucked away in his laptop case, and should have been clearly visible since he had to take his laptop out of the bag, which was practically empty.
“I mean, this is not a small gun,” Seif said. “It’s a .40 caliber gun.” … “There’s nothing else in there. How can you miss it? You cannot miss it,” Seif said. [ABC News]
As the backlash continues against the TSA’s full body scanning and increasingly aggressive pat-downs of those who opt out, the agency has bent a little in one area. The head of TSA today questioned the need to use the added security on pilots. The pilots organization had already told its members to opt out of the scans to avoid extra radiation exposure. Now, the TSA says that as of 2011 pilots will only need to have their airline-issued IDs checked by computer.
“This one seemed to jump out as a common-sense issue,” Transportation Security Administration (TSA) chief John Pistole told Bloomberg News on Friday. “Why don’t we trust pilots who are literally in charge of the aircraft?” That’s exactly the point commercial airline pilots have been making for years. [Christian Science Monitor]
What Pistole did not do, however, was back off the policy of using the scanners on the rest of us. And yesterday on its blog, the TSA tried to launch a PR counter-offensive to the tidal wave of bad press this week. (Though you might not be terribly satisfied with their answer to the question of whether pat-downs are invasive, about which Ars Technica quips, “Nowhere in the “Fact” response does the TSA directly answer the allegation of invasiveness, probably because the pat-downs are invasive.”)
Since the TSA appears disinclined to change its mind about scanning or getting touchy-feely with the general public, lawmakers are beginning to make some noise. In New York, councilman David Greenfield proposed rules to bar TSA from using the x-ray scanners in the city’s airports.
It’s not like this week was the first appearance of the full-body X-ray scanners in American airports. Yet, thanks to the looming holiday travel season, leaked X-ray images that were supposed to be kept private, and high-profile rebellion by pilots’ organizations and disgruntled passengers, anger is rising against the Transportation Security Administration’s new airport rules. Under the policy, those chosen for extra screening face the dilemma of having their naked bodies revealed to TSA scanners or opting out and having agents feel them up in search of explosives.
But behind the outrage at being asked to surrender even more of our dignity just to get on a plane, there’s another full-body scanning issue simmering: the health dangers of radiation.
How much radiation, and where?
This was the main concern of the Allied Pilots Association. Pilots are already exposed to higher levels of radiation than nearly all professionals because they spend so much time at altitude and receive radiation from space; asking them to take an X-ray every time they get on a plane (even one that the TSA says is thousands of times less intense than a hospital chest X-ray) was asking too much. Popular Mechanics posted more details on pilot exposure.
So what about the rest of us, who fly perhaps only a few times per year? Back in May, professors at the University of California, San Francisco, led by John Sedat sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration with a litany of red flags about using back-scatter X-ray with such frequency—mostly that the safety has not be independently proven. The FDA finally replied with a lengthy letter citing study after study that show full-body scanning is safe, the agency says.
John Tyner missed his flight to South Dakota for a pheasant hunting trip with his father-in-law. He wasn’t late to the airport, he didn’t get lost in the terminal. He never made it into the terminal because he wouldn’t partake in either a whole body scan or a physical pat-down of his genitals.
After arriving at the airport, Tyner was pulled aside to go through a “whole body scan,” an radiation-based machine that takes an image of your body under your clothes. He “opted out” of the scan only to realize the alternative is just as bad. He asked the TSA officer who was patting him down not to touch his privates. Actually, he said: “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested.” The matter quickly escalated, according to his blog post about the incident:
She described to me that because I had opted out of the backscatter screening, I would now be patted down, and that involved running hands up the inside of my legs until they felt my groin. I stated that I would not allow myself to be subject to a molestation as a condition of getting on my flight. The supervisor informed me that it was a standard administrative security check and that they were authorized to do it. I repeated that I felt what they were doing was a sexual assault, and that if they were anyone but the government, the act would be illegal. [John Tyner's blog post]
After the incident, Tyner was escorted from the area, and was able to get a refund on his ticket and was eventually allowed to leave the airport, but not without being threatened with a $10,000 fine for doing so without having finished the screening procedure. At his blog you can read his post about the event and see his videos (he apparently had his smart phone recording video throughout much of the incident).