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Did a Blogger Really Expose a Fatal Flaw in Airport Security?

What if the TSA spent a billion dollars on new technology to keep us safe, and then someone found a way to fool the technology—and posted it on the Internet for everyone, even terrorists, to see?

Well, Miami-based entrepreneur and iPhone app developer Jon Corbett claims he’s done just that.  Corbett says he’s found a loophole that would let people smuggle guns and other metallic weapons past the TSA's Advanced Imaging Technology (also called "AIT" or body scanners) and onto planes. And he’s posted a video on his blog, TSA Out of Our Pants, that claims to prove it.

"This beats all the [security] that the TSA is currently using, including backscatter and millimeter wave technology." —Jon Corbett

"If you’ve ever seen a body scanner image, you’ll know that it’s a dark background with a light image of your body. Dense or metallic objects such as a firearm will show as black on top of your light body. So if the object is not on top of your body, but rather on the side of your body, it’s going to show as black on top of a black background," Corbett said in an exclusive interview with SmarterTravel. "This beats all the AITs that the TSA is currently using, including both the backscatter and the millimeter wave technology with the automated threat detection," he claims.

Not so fast, says the TSA. When we spoke with a representative from the agency (who requested anonymity), we were told that the "naked" body scanner images used by Corbett in his video are not accurate, and that the vast majority of machines used by TSA screeners only show a generic image generated by an automated threat detection system rather than an actual human body. No image is shown if no threat is detected. (See a picture of the process on the TSA’s website.)

So, problem solved? Well, maybe not.

Says Corbett, "The TSA tries to obfuscate what the images actually look like. The images that you see [in Corbett's video] were produced by backscatter body scanner machines. Those images are what the machine can produce. The millimeter wave machines have the automated threat detection systems on them [which produce the generic image] and that means they're going to try to identify if you have something on you in the computer rather than by visual inspection, and then report that on a generic figure … However, the images in my video are essentially the base image, whether or not an operator actually sees it.”

"[We] conduct extensive testing of all screening technologies in the laboratory and at airports prior to rolling them out into the field."—TSA

Put simply, Corbett alleges that the TSA's automated threat detection process may be just as likely to miss a hidden item as would a human screener.

Corbett says he tested his theory at airports in Florida and Ohio by concealing a metal container that theoretically should have triggered a response from a body scanner. His video is difficult to follow during the airport inspection process, so we can't say conclusively that he was successful in his efforts. (Watch for yourself below.) But let's assume for the sake of discussion that he has exposed a major loophole—why is he going public with it? It depends who you ask.

Corbett tells us, "I’ve been fighting with the TSA in court for about 18 months. I was the first person to sue them over the use of the body scanners [and] the new enhanced pat down … Aside from the flaw I’ve already exposed, there are lots of other possible exploits for the body scanner."

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The lawsuit is at the heart of the discussion when it comes to Corbett's motives. Some have speculated that he's just in it for the money—he is currently moving forward with a second case against the TSA that seeks financial damages for an incident at a Florida airport in which he refused to allow a screener to touch his genitals—or that he's looking for his 15 minutes of fame. And it's worth noting that Corbett’s initial lawsuit has been dismissed by a U.S. District Court, and the dismissal was later upheld by a U.S. Court of Appeals.

Corbett says, "The goal is not to win the lawsuit or to get a judgment against the TSA. My point is that I want to fly, and I want my friends and family to be able to fly without being violated by the TSA. So, whatever gets us to that method first is the right way to do it. The courts are taking their time, so if showing that the scanners are flawed in a video on YouTube makes it happen faster, then that’s enough."

Is he worried that terrorists will take advantage of the alleged flaw? "We have this big security flaw, which is a hole that can either be exposed by the TSA in an investigation, which obviously hasn’t happened yet; by a citizen investigation, which has now happened; or by a terrorist doing an investigation, which is what we don’t want to happen.  So hopefully by identifying this flaw the TSA can fix it. Ultimately, the scanners need to go."

Corbett argues for greater use of metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs, which he believes are both safer and more cost effective. "They can save a lot of money and put something in there that is very effective against explosives, and not invasive.”

The TSA dismisses Corbett's claims in a public statement: “For obvious security reasons, we can’t discuss our technology's detection capability in detail. However, TSA conducts extensive testing of all screening technologies in the laboratory and at airports prior to rolling them out into the field." On its blog, the TSA acknowledges that no machine is a foolproof device against terrorist attacks, and that body scanners are one of 20 layers of security—a layer that consistently stops guns, drugs, and non-metallic weapons.

Readers, what do you think? Did Corbett expose a major flaw in airport security? Should he have gone public with his findings? Or is this whole thing overblown? Share your thoughts in the space below.

(Body Scanner Photo: TSA)

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