Wednesday, December 24, 2014
By Beth Fertig
Wednesday, April 03, 2013
Tony Bennett is a two-time felon. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. He's been free since 2008 because a former Queens Assistant District Attorney violated a basic rule-of-law; he withheld critical evidence from Bennett’s attorney.
Friday, March 22, 2013
In the next couple of months the Supreme Court will issue a decision in the case of Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin. The case may determine the future of Affirmative Action, but news coverage that centers on the sympathetic plaintiff in the case misses a fascinating back story. Bob talks with ProPublica reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones about the case.
Monday, March 11, 2013
By Tracie Hunte : Assistant Producer, WNYC News
For the past three years, ProPublica reporters Tracy Weber and Charles Ornstein have been investigating the sometimes cozy relationship between drug companies and doctors. Their reporting has revealed that some doctors receive thousands of dollars a year promoting pharmaceutical products in speeches all over the country.
Wednesday, March 06, 2013
If Staten Island’s Great Kills Marina Cafe is able to reopen this spring after Sandy ripped apart its interior – blowing out windows and punching through walls – it will be thanks to assistance from the federal government.
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
(Michael Grabell ProPublica) Following months of congressional pressure, the Transportation Security Administration has agreed to contract with the National Academy of Sciences to study the health effects of the agency's X-ray body scanners. But it is unclear if the academy will conduct its own tests of the scanners or merely review previous studies.
The machines, known as backscatters, were installed in airports nationwide after the failed underwear bombing on Christmas Day 2009 to screen passengers for explosives and other nonmetallic weapons. But they have been criticized by some prominent scientists because they expose the public to a small amount of ionizing radiation, a form of energy that can cause cancer.
The scanners were the subject of a 2011 ProPublica series, which found that the TSA had glossed over the small cancer risk posed by even low doses of radiation. The stories also showed that the United States was almost alone in the world in X-raying passengers and that the Food and Drug Administration had gone against its own advisory panel, which recommended the agency set a federal safety standard for security X-rays.
The TSA maintains that the backscatters are safe and that they emit a low dose of X-rays equivalent to the radiation a passenger would receive in two minutes of flying at typical cruising altitude.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Senate homeland security committee, introduced a bill mandating such a test earlier this year.
"I am pleased that at long last the Transportation Security Administration has heeded my call to commission an independent examination into the possible health risks travelers and TSA employees may face during airport screenings," she said in a statement Monday night.
According to a brief contract notice posted on a government procurement website, the National Academy of Sciences will convene a committee to review previous studies to determine if the dose from the scanners complies with existing health and safety standards and to evaluate the TSA's methods for testing and maintaining the machines.
Collins' office said the language in the contract notice wasn't final and that the study would be consistent with the senator's calls for an independent investigation. TSA spokesman David Castelveter added, "Administrator [John] Pistole has made a commitment to conduct the study and TSA is following through on that commitment."
Still, it's unclear how much the study that the TSA is proposing will add to what's known about the machines, mainly because it's not known if the National Academy of Sciences will conduct new tests or confine itself to examining previous studies. In the past, TSA has contracted with the Food and Drug Administration, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Army Public Health Command to test the scanners. All three studies found the radiation was in line with a voluntary standard set by an industry panel that included FDA scientists.
A 2012 study by the Department of Homeland Security's independent watchdog supported the findings but based its report on previous tests performed by the TSA and the other groups.
This fall, the TSA began replacing the X-ray body scanners with millimeter-wave machines 2013 a technology radiation experts consider safer 2013 at most of its biggest airports. The TSA said the move was done to speed up lines and that the X-ray scanners would eventually be redeployed at smaller airports.
Europe has prohibited the X-ray scanners while Israel, which is influential in the security world, has recently begun testing them.
The TSA study will not address privacy, cultural or legal concerns that have been raised by the scans, the contract notice said.
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
(Michael Grabell, ProPublica) The Transportation Security Administration has been quietly removing its X-ray body scanners from major airports over the last few weeks and replacing them with machines that radiation experts believe are safer.
The TSA says it made the decision not because of safety concerns but to speed up checkpoints at busier airports. It means, though, that far fewer passengers will be exposed to radiation because the X-ray scanners are being moved to smaller airports.
The backscatters, as the X-ray scanners are known, were swapped out at Boston Logan International Airport in early October. Similar replacements have occurred at Los Angeles International Airport, Chicago O'Hare, Orlando and John F. Kennedy in New York, the TSA confirmed Thursday.
The X-ray scanners have faced a barrage of criticism since the TSA began rolling them out nationwide after the failed underwear bombing on Christmas Day 2009. One reason is that they emit a small dose of ionizing radiation, which at higher levels has been linked to cancer.
In addition, privacy advocates decried that the machines produce images, albeit heavily blurred, of passengers' naked bodies. Each image must be reviewed by a TSA officer, slowing security lines.
The replacement machines, known as millimeter-wave scanners, rely on low-energy radio waves similar to those used in cell phones. The machines detect potential threats automatically and quickly using a computer program. They display a generic cartoon image of a person's body, mitigating privacy concerns.
"They're not all being replaced," TSA spokesman David Castelveter said. "It's being done strategically. We are replacing some of the older equipment and taking them to smaller airports. That will be done over a period of time."
He said the TSA decided to move the X-ray machines to less-busy airports after conducting an analysis of processing time and staffing requirements at the airports where the scanners are installed.
The radiation risk and privacy concerns had no bearing on the decision, Castelveter said.
Asked about the changes, John Terrill, a spokesman for Rapiscan 2014 which makes the X-ray scanners 2014 wrote in an email, "No comment on this."
The TSA is not phasing out X-ray body scanners altogether. The backscatter machines are still used for screening at a few of America's largest 25 airports, but the TSA has not confirmed which ones. Last week, Gateway Airport in Mesa, Ariz., installed two of the machines.
Moreover, in late September, the TSA awarded three companies potential contracts worth up to $245 million for the next generation of body scanners 2014 and one of the systems, made by American Science & Engineering, uses backscatter X-ray technology.
The United States remains one of the only countries in the world to X-ray passengers for airport screening. The European Union prohibited the backscatters last year "in order not to risk jeopardizing citizens' health and safety," according to a statement at the time. The last scanners were removed from Manchester Airport in the United Kingdom last month.
The X-ray scanner looks like two blue refrigerator-sized boxes. Unseen to the passenger, a thin beam scans left and right and up and down. The rays reflect back to the scanner, creating an image of the passenger's body and any objects hidden under his or her clothes.
The millimeter-wave scanner looks like a round glass booth. Two rotating antennas circle the passenger, emitting radio frequency waves. Instead of creating a picture of the passenger's body, a computer algorithm looks for anomalies and depicts them as yellow boxes on a cartoon image of the body.
According to many studies, including a new one conducted by the European Union, the radiation dose from the X-ray scanner is extremely small. It has been repeatedly measured to be less than the dose received from cosmic radiation during two minutes of the airplane flight.
Using those measurements, radiation experts have studied the cancer risk, with estimates ranging from six to 100 additional cancer cases among the 100 million people who fly every year. Many scientists say that is trivial, considering that those same 100 million people would develop 40 million cancers over the course of their lifetimes. And others, including the researchers who did the EU study, have said that so much is unknown about low levels of radiation that such estimates shouldn't be made.
Still, the potential risks have led some prominent scientists to argue that the TSA is unnecessarily endangering the public because it has an alternative 2014 the millimeter-wave machine 2014 which it also deems highly effective at finding explosives.
"Why would we want to put ourselves in this uncertain situation where potentially we're going to have some cancer cases?" David Brenner, director of Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research, told ProPublica last year. "It makes me think, really, why don't we use millimeter waves when we don't have so much uncertainty?"
Although there has been some doubt about the long-term safety of the type of radio frequency waves used in the millimeter-wave machines, scientists say that, in contrast to X-rays, such waves have no known mechanism to damage DNA and cause cancer.
The TSA has said that having both technologies encourages competition, leading to better detection capabilities at a lower cost.
But tests in Europe and Australia suggest the millimeter-wave machines have some drawbacks. They were found to have a high false-alarm rate, ranging from 23 percent to 54 percent when figures have been released. Even common things such as folds in clothing and sweat have triggered the alarm.
In contrast, Manchester Airport officials told ProPublica that the false-alarm rate for the backscatter was less than 5 percent.
No study comparing the two machines' effectiveness has been released. The TSA says its own results are classified.
Each week, the agency reports on various knives, powdered drugs and even an explosives detonator used for training that have been found by the body scanners.
But Department of Homeland Security investigators reported last year that they had "identified vulnerabilities" with both types of machines. And House transportation committee chairman John Mica, R-Fla., who has seen the results, has called the scanners "badly flawed."
Friday, May 04, 2012
In January, we covered a proposal to put the 'public files' of television stations online and the broadcaster's objections to the move. A public file, which stations are legally required to keep, contains information about what organizations are buying political ads and how much they've paid for each ad. Brooke speaks with Justin Elliott, reporter at ProPublica about a recent FCC ruling that will require some stations to put the files online.
Friday, February 03, 2012
ProPublica's Michael Grabell speaks with Brian Lehrer on his new book "Monday Well Spent?" analyzing the stimulus bill.
Other insights: the bill created the tea-party, no one had any idea which projects were stimulus projects, and no one noticed when their teachers weren't fired.
And -- the bill wasn't nearly as effective as it could have been.
Check out the full segment.
Friday, December 30, 2011
(Michael Grabell, ProPublica) This is part of our year-end series, looking at where things stand in each of our major investigations.
It has become routine for airline passengers across the country: Instead of walking through a metal detector, they now step into a body scanner, hold their arms over their heads and wait until a machine peers through their clothing to make sure they're not hiding explosives.
The Transportation Security Administration has deployed more than 500 of the body scanners, which they call "advanced imaging technology." And the agency plans to install them at nearly every security lane by 2014.
The TSA has insisted that the new scanners present "no health or safety concerns for any passenger." The agency has said they have been used around the world. And it has reiterated that the machines were evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, leading many to believe that one of the government's top safety regulators approved the technology.
But a ProPublica/PBS NewsHour investigation this year detailed how the TSA had glossed over cancer concerns about one kind of scanner that uses X-rays. In independent, peer-reviewed studies, radiation experts concluded that the X-ray scanner could cause six to 100 airline passengers each year to develop cancer. Outside the United States, few countries use X-ray imaging machines, also known as backscatters, in their airports. And the FDA has no authority to approve body scanners before they are sold because they are electronic products, not medical devices.
In 1998, an FDA advisory panel recommended a federal safety standard for the X-ray scanners. But the agency decided to go with a voluntary standard set by an industry group made up mostly of manufacturers and government agencies that wanted to use the machine.
In November, the European Union decided to prohibit X-ray body scanners in European airports. In the United States, members of Congress have pushed the TSA to conduct a new, independent safety review. And in Florida earlier this month, Broward County commissioners voted  to demand the TSA prove that the X-ray imagers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport are safe.
The TSA uses two types of body scanners:
- The backscatter X-ray machine looks like two blue boxes and is used at major airports, such as Los Angeles, Chicago O'Hare and John F. Kennedy in New York.
- The millimeter-wave machine looks like a round glass booth and is used at hubs such as Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Francisco.
The X-ray scanner emits extremely low levels of ionizing radiation, a form of energy that strips electrons from atoms and damages DNA, potential leading to cancer. That risk, although small, has led some prominent scientists to ask why the TSA doesn't use just the millimeter-wave scanner, which uses low-powered electromagnetic waves that have not been linked to adverse health effects.
The TSA has said that keeping both technologies in play encourages the manufacturers to improve detection capability while lowering the cost for the taxpayer. The agency says the X-ray machine is safe because the radiation is equivalent to the amount passengers receive in two minutes of flying at altitude.
But ProPublica found some potential problems with the millimeter-wave scanner. Several other countries have reported a high rate of false alarms caused by innocuous things, such as folds in clothing, buttons and even sweat.
Other studies and a congressman briefed on classified tests have suggested the scanners could miss carefully concealed plastic explosives like the weapon used by the underwear bomber on Christmas Day 2009.
As Congress continues to debate the safety and quality of the body scanners, government investigators are set to release two important reports in the new year. The inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security is evaluating how well the TSA is monitoring the radiation of the backscatters. Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office is wrapping up an investigation of the machines' detection capability, the results of which are likely to be classified.
Thursday, December 22, 2011
(Michael Grabell, ProPublica) It was the end of a four-hour congressional hearing, and Florida Rep. John Mica was fuming at Transportation Security Administration officials.
The TSA had begun deploying hundreds of body scanners  to prevent suicide bombers from smuggling explosives onto planes. But Mica, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, had asked the Government Accountability Office to test the machines. The results, he said, showed the equipment is "badly flawed" and "can be subverted."
"I've had it tested, and to me it's not acceptable," Mica said at the hearing earlier this year. "If we could reveal the failure rate, the American public would be outraged."
Mica's comments received almost no press coverage. But his outrage, together with other reports by government inspectors and outside researchers, raise the disturbing possibility that body scanners are performing far less well than the TSA contends.
The issue is difficult to assess since the government classifies the detection rates of the devices, saying it doesn't want to give terrorists a sense of their chances of beating the system.
But the evidence is mounting.
Just last week, Department of Homeland Security investigators reported that they had "identified vulnerabilities " in the scanners' detection capability, though the specifics remain classified. Previous research cast doubt on whether the scanners, which are designed to see underneath clothing, would detect a carefully concealed plastic explosive like the one used by the underwear bomber on Christmas Day 2009. One study suggests the $170,000 scanners would likely miss some explosives that could be found during a pat-down.
And recently, Mica and other members of Congress were briefed by the GAO on the full findings of its covert tests. The results, Mica told ProPublica, are "embarrassing."
Other lawmakers who have also been briefed declined to comment.
How effective the machines are at thwarting terrorism is critical for evaluating whether the TSA is making airline passengers more secure or wasting taxpayers' money -- and possibly jeopardizing their safety. Research shows that one type of scanner, which uses X-rays, could slightly increase the number of cancer cases . The other scanner, using millimeter waves, has been hampered by false alarms  caused by folds in clothing and even sweat.
The TSA says the body scanners are the best technology available and an improvement by leaps and bounds over the metal detectors, which cannot detect explosives or other nonmetallic weapons.
The agency says its body scanners have found more than 300 dangerous or illicit items -- everything from a loaded .380-caliber Ruger handgun  to exotic snakes  that a man tried to smuggle inside his pants.
Last month, TSA administrator John Pistole boasted to Congress that a scanner had picked up a piece of Nicorette gum . And in Buffalo recently, a passenger who was caught with a ceramic knife  after a pat-down admitted that he had opted out of the scanner because he figured it would find the knife.
Although the TSA's machines have yet to find an explosive, screeners frequently come across bottles of alcohol and drugs, which could easily have been a powder or liquid explosive, spokesman Greg Soule said.
Two homeland security officials, who asked not be identified speaking about vulnerabilities, said recent intelligence that terrorists are considering implanting explosives  inside their bodies shows that the scanners are forcing would-be suicide bombers to adapt their methods. The body scanners see only underneath clothing, not inside the body. Carrying out an attack with an implanted weapon, the officials said, would be technically more difficult than if an attacker had a bomb strapped to their chest.
The GAO reported  in 2010, however, that it was "unclear" if the scanners would have caught the explosive PETN that underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate on a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit.
After the failed attempt, the TSA ramped up its deployment of two types of body scanners  -- one using backscatter X-rays and another using low-powered electromagnetic waves, known as millimeter waves. The TSA says both are highly effective, but a small number of studies that have been released publicly raise questions about each machine's ability to detect explosives.
Last year, Leon Kaufman and Joe Carlson, two physicists at the University of California, San Francisco, simulated what the backscatter X-ray scanners might see if a passenger carefully molded explosives to blend in with the human body. The machines were effective for seeing metal objects hidden on the human body and could detect the hard edges of organic materials, such as a brick of explosives, according to the study published last year in the Journal of Transportation Security .
But a thin, irregularly-shaped pancake taped to the abdomen would be invisible in images because it would be easily confused with normal anatomy, Kaufman and Carlson wrote. "Thus, a third of a kilo of PETN, easily picked up in a competent pat-down, would be missed by backscatter 'high technology,'" they concluded.
"The amount of contrast between an explosive and tissue is very, very low and not in the range where someone viewing the images could discriminate it by eye," Carlson said in an interview.
Peter Kant of Rapiscan Systems, which makes the backscatter machine, declined to comment on the researchers' study but said the scanner "has exceeded all aviation security detection testing globally."
No recent study of the millimeter-wave machine, manufactured by L-3 Communications, could be found. But initial tests at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 1996 showed a detection rate of 73 percent.
Bulk plastic explosives were the hardest threat to detect, according to the study by researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Screeners who were new to the machine found nearly all the Glock pistols in the images, but they were able to identify the bulk explosives only 56 percent of the time.
Another study a few years later tested a primitive version of the privacy software now used in airports in which detection is performed by a computer, not a person. The detection rate was comparable, the researchers concluded, but the test did not break down the results by type of threat.
"Certain objects are tougher to find than others," said Tom Ripp, president of L-3's security and detection division. "I would think that both technologies have the capability to find these threats. Is it easy to find these threats? I would not say it's easy to find these threats. But they can be detected."
Prompted by an outcry over the graphic images the body scanners produce, the TSA began installing privacy software  on all of its millimeter-wave machines this summer. Instead of creating an image of the passenger's body, the machines now display a generic outline of a human body with potential threats highlighted by yellow boxes.
"The TSA has said that automated detection had to be as good as or better than the required detection by an operator," said Bill Frain, a senior vice president at L-3. "Right now, we're on par."
The X-ray body scanner, however, still produces images of passengers' bodies, which are examined by TSA screeners in a separate room. Rapiscan has developed an automated system, but it is undergoing tests in TSA research labs.
Before such software was developed, many security and imaging experts believed the backscatter X-ray machine produced sharper images than the millimeter-wave machine. Millimeter waves have longer wavelengths than X-rays, resulting in a lower resolution.
But with automated detection software, the machines would no longer produce images, and the ability of the machines to detect threats is more dependent on the algorithms used in the software.
The TSA has spent more than $100 million on the body scanners and plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more as it outfits nearly every airport security lane with a scanner by 2014.
Monday, December 19, 2011
The scanner, known as the millimeter-wave machine, uses low-level electromagnetic waves that, unlike X-rays, have not been linked to cancer. The Transportation Security Administration already uses the millimeter-wave machine and says both types of scanners are highly effective at detecting explosives hidden under clothing.
But two of Europe's largest countries, France and Germany, have decided to forgo the millimeter-wave scanners because of false alarms triggered by folds in clothing, buttons and even sweat.
In Germany, the false positive rate was 54 percent, meaning that every other person who went through the scanner had to undergo at least a limited pat-down that found nothing. Jan Korte, a German parliament member who focuses on homeland security, called the millimeter-wave scanner "a defective product."
While it's difficult to know for sure if the millimeter-wave machine has a worse false-alarm rate than the X-ray machine, recent tests suggests that it does. The TSA wouldn't release its results, citing national security. But a British study found the X-ray machine had a false-alarm rate of just 5 percent.
For the millimeter-wave machines, a complicating factor is new privacy software  that was installed in many countries after a public outcry over the scanners' graphic images. The software automates detection and no longer creates an image of a passenger's body. While false alarms were reported before automation when human screeners interpreted images, the software appears to have made the problem worse.
The privacy safeguards are also an obstacle to lowering the false-alarm rate, researchers say. The machines do not save images or data, which could be used to teach the software how to distinguish real threats from false ones.
The problem of false alarms comes down to fundamental physics. Millimeter waves penetrate clothing and reflect off objects. But because of their frequency, millimeter waves also reflect off water, which can cause the scanner to mistake sweat for a potentially dangerous object, said Doug McMakin , the lead researcher who developed the millimeter-wave scanner at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. (X-rays, which operate at a higher frequency, pass through water more easily.)
In addition, millimeter waves penetrate clothing materials differently, and layers of clothing can create a barrier, triggering a false alarm.
"These are known as clutter issues in the imaging," McMakin said.
The manufacturer, L-3 Communications, said that in the United States the scanners have not experienced a high rate of false alarms caused by either clothing or sweat. L-3 executives noted that the millimeter-wave machine is installed in airports in some of America's most humid cities, including Houston, New Orleans and Miami.
But as late as last November, the head of the TSA told Congress that false alarms were too frequent to deploy the privacy software. The TSA said the rate has improved since then and now meets its standards, which it would not disclose.
"As with many types of technology, there will be an anticipated amount of false alarms that are considered acceptable, and we continue to work with industry vendors to improve both the detection and operational capabilities for all of our technology," spokesman Greg Soule said.
But results from other countries, as well as tests conducted in the United States before 9/11, show false alarms occurred between about a quarter and half of the time. Moreover, dozens of U.S. travelers told ProPublica they had to get a pat-down despite passing through the body scanners.
Only one report of the false alarm rate for the X-ray body scanners could be found. At Manchester Airport in the United Kingdom, where 13 machines have been tested on more than 2.5 million people, the rate has been less than 5 percent -- and that includes passengers who left items such as keys in their pockets, said airport spokesman John Greenway.
Referring to the false alarm rate, Peter Kant of the manufacturer, Rapiscan Systems, said, "Our numbers internally are in the very low single digits." The company, as well as several physicists, said sweat does not cause false alarms with the X-ray scanners.
In an effort to close a gaping hole in its ability to catch explosives, the TSA in 2009 began installing body scanners alongside metal detectors for routine screening. The deployment ramped up quickly after a Nigerian man tried to blow up a plane that Christmas with explosives hidden in his underwear.
The TSA purchased both types of scanners  with plans to deploy them at nearly every security lane by 2014. In hubs, such as Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth, it installed millimeter-wave machines, which look like round glass booths and emit low-powered electromagnetic waves similar to those found in police radar guns.
In other major airports, such as Los Angeles and Chicago O'Hare, it installed X-ray machines, also known as backscatters, which look like two large blue boxes and emit extremely low levels of ionizing radiation, a form of energy that strips electrons from atoms and damages DNA, potentially leading to cancer.
The possible health risk of the X-ray scanners, while small, has prompted several prominent radiation experts to ask why the TSA doesn't just use the millimeter-wave machine. The agency has said keeping both technologies in play encourages the contractors to improve their detection capabilities and lowers the cost for taxpayers.
The United States is almost alone in deploying the X-ray body scanners for airport security: Nigeria has installed them, and the United Kingdom is testing them for random screening and to check passengers who have set off the metal detector. Last month, the European Union prohibited the X-ray machines , effectively leaving the millimeter-wave scanner as the only option in Europe.
The United Kingdom will have to stop using the machines once its test is completed, according to the European Commission. But the commission has also asked one of its scientific committees for a health study that could change its position on the backscatters.
Guns, Sweat and Privacy Fears
During a Republican presidential debate in 1988 , George H.W. Bush, pulled out a .22-caliber miniature revolver made with only a small amount of metal to dramatize the new types of guns that could pass through airport metal detectors.
"That weapon at this point cannot be detected," he said. "That weapon can kill the pilot of an airplane."
The comments, along with concerns over a new Glock pistol made of plastic, spurred the Federal Aviation Administration, which was then in charge of security, to fund research into a millimeter-wave imaging system at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
After 9/11, the lab licensed the technology to a startup company, which was acquired by L-3 in 2006.
When the scanners debuted, TSA officials boasted that they were so good at detection, that screeners could literally see the sweat on someone's back.
At that time, human operators viewed the image. Although sweat might appear similar to a threat, trained officers learned to recognize normal sweat patterns, said Kip Hawley, TSA administrator from 2005 to 2009. In fact, sweat could help officers detect a sheet explosive, he said, because something taped or glued to the body changes the natural sweat pattern.
"It never popped up where we said, 'Oh God, we're getting killed with false positives,'" Hawley said. "I think it's a training issue, training the officers on interpreting the images."
But because of the uproar over agents seeing passengers' bodies -- what critics decried as a "virtual strip search" -- other countries began installing automated detection software last year, and the TSA followed suit in July.
Now, instead of displaying an image of a particular passenger's body, the machine shows a generic, unisex outline that's reminiscent of the cartoon character Gumby. Any potential threat is indicated by a yellow box that shows up roughly where the software detected it -- on the right ankle, for example, or the left elbow.
"It looks for abnormalities," said Tom Ripp, president of L-3's security and detection division. "It looks for objects that are not supposed to be there."
The advantage, L-3 officials said, is that screeners can focus their checks on the highlighted area instead of patting down a passenger's entire body.
"If you go out to an airport like D.C., Reagan, you'll see how easily the process works," said senior vice president Bill Frain. "Usually somebody left something in their pocket. We sat there and watched for 20 minutes. The duration between an alarm and a check -- they were just putting people through. It was a very quick check."
The European Experience
That wasn't the case in Germany.
The German interior ministry tested two L-3 body scanners with the automated detection software at Hamburg Airport, screening 809,000 airline passengers from September 2010 through July 2011. Despite the high rate of detection, the delays caused by frequent false alarms were so unbearable that Germany decided that the technology was not ready for everyday use.
Nearly seven out of 10 passengers had to be stopped for further screening. Although some passengers had forgotten coins or tissues in their pockets, 54 percent of all passengers who went through the scanners triggered true false alarms -- meaning that no hidden objects were found on those people, a ministry spokesperson said.
The vast majority of false alarms, affecting 39 percent of all passengers, were attributed to sweat, buttons or folds in clothing. Another 10 percent resulted from passengers moving during the scan, while 5 percent couldn't be explained at all.
Ripp from L-3 said the high alarm rate comes down to how diligent the screeners are about asking passengers to take off belts and boots, remove bulky sweaters and assume the proper stance with their hands over their heads. In the United States, the stance has become routine, he said.
"That was not the case in these trials in Hamburg," Ripp said.
The German interior ministry, however, dismissed the idea that it hadn't followed the manufacturer's protocol. Officials there provided ProPublica with a flier  that was handed out to passengers before the screening that specifically tells them how to stand and to remove sweaters, belts and boots.
"Prior to the field test, the security personnel was specially trained to deal with body scanners and has adhered to the control procedure," the spokesperson said via email. "The passengers were asked to take off the named items."
Germany wasn't the only country to have problems with false alarms.
France tested the scanners with and without the privacy software on more than 8,000 passengers flying out of Paris's Charles de Gaulle Airport to New York from February to May 2010. But the government decided not to deploy them because there were too many false alarms, said Eric Heraud, a spokesman for the French civil aviation authority.
Heraud wouldn't release specific figures but said the false alarm rate was higher with the automated detection than when officers interpreted the images. France plans to conduct a new test of the millimeter-wave scanners in 2012.
In Italy, the rate of false alarms was 23 percent, said Giuseppe Daniele Carrabba, head of the airports coordination department for the Italian civil aviation authority.
Italy tested two L-3 scanners with the automated detection software at the airports in Rome and Milan. The test ended in September, and officials are awaiting a final decision on whether to deploy the machines later this month. Carrabba said he thinks Italy will use them, and that the false positive rate will improve with more training and better preparation of the passengers for screening.
L-3 attributed the variations in experiences to the different settings that countries choose for what to detect and what to ignore.
Other countries that have deployed millimeter-wave scanners -- Canada with 51 machines and the Netherlands with 60 -- said they had not experienced problems with false alarms. They declined to disclose their false-positive rates.
The American Experience
In the United States, the TSA has deployed more than 250 millimeter-wave machines and plans to install 300 more by next spring.
The TSA declined to answer detailed questions. Instead, the agency released a statement saying that it had tested the automated detection software rigorously.
"Once it met the same high standards as the technology currently in use, TSA successfully tested the software in airports to determine whether it was a viable option for deployment," the statement said. "While there are no silver bullet technologies, advanced imaging technology with this new software is effective at detecting both metallic and non-metallic threats."
Shortly after the machines were developed, preliminary tests at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 1996 resulted in a false alarm rate of 31 percent, according to a research paper presented at a conference the following year. During the tests, screeners who were new to the machine viewed images of people carrying various weapons, explosives and innocuous objects and had up to 27 seconds to identify them. According to the paper, researchers did test the results with layered clothing.
In 2000, those same images were run through a primitive model of the automated detection and privacy software. The false alarm rate increased to 38.5 percent when the machine was set on high sensitivity but decreased to 17 percent when set on low sensitivity, according to another study by the same researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
"Overall, these results show comparable performance" between the software and the human screeners, the researchers concluded.
The TSA ran additional tests over several years before deploying the scanners, but late last year, administrator John Pistole told Congress the tests were still showing a high rate of false alarms with the software. Officials said the false alarm rate improved, and the agency began installing the software over the summer.
Still, American travelers frequently complain about false positives similar to those experienced in Europe.
Lynne Goldstein, an archaeologist at Michigan State University, said she generally prefers the scanners because, with two knee replacements, she always sets off the metal detectors and has to undergo a pat-down.
But, she said, a cotton shirt she frequently wears while traveling set off the millimeter-wave machine several times while flying out of Detroit. TSA agents told her it was the shirt's "kangaroo pocket" similar to those found on sweatshirts that triggered the alarm.
"The last time, they did a full pat-down," Goldstein said. "The thing that's ironic to me: I actually like the machine."
Many travelers, however, also reported false alarms with the X-ray body scanner.
Jason Ritchie, an associate chemistry professor at the University of Mississippi, said he was flying out of Memphis on his way to a conference in August when the operator of the X-ray machine spotted something that required further checking.
The suspicious item: The pockets of his cargo pants, he was told.
"It kind of annoys me when I have to go through the X-ray system because I don't like to be irradiated unnecessarily," Ritchie said. "To have to go through that and then be told I also had to get a pat-down was frustrating."
ProPublica tried to get a handle on the false alarm rate in the United States by commissioning a poll by Harris Interactive. The poll of 2,198 people was conducted online to ensure that those who responded could view images of the machines in addition to reading a description.
Of the 581 people who said they had taken a flight in the past six months, nearly two-thirds, or 367, reported going through a body scanner.
About 11 percent of those scanned said they were patted down anyway despite having nothing on them -- the equivalent of a false alarm.
Among this group, the rate of false alarms was slightly higher for the millimeter-wave machine over the X-ray scanner. But Harris Interactive cautioned that because the sample size of people reporting this experience was small, the result cannot be generalized to the population at large.
Improving the technology to increase detection but limit false alarms is extremely challenging because of the great variety of body shapes and clothing, said McMakin of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
The machine can be taught to recognize patterns in clothing such as a left breast pocket in men's dress shirts, he said. But whereas screeners could generally see the outline of an abnormal pocket or buttons in an image, the privacy software eliminates such human discretion.
One option is to combine the millimeter-wave scan with an optical camera to weed out those issues, McMakin said. For example, software could compare the millimeter-wave scan with the photograph to determine if a button or a zipper was causing the alarm. Developers could also increase or decrease the frequency of the waves or improve the shape and location information in the algorithm, he added.
"We're just at the beginning of where this technology can go," McMakin said.
Ripp from L-3 said it all comes down to "machine learning."
Getting the information of what's normal in order to improve the technology requires many thousands of scans. But because of the privacy outcry, the machines used in airports do not save the images or data from the scans. Without that real-world data, developers have to find other ways to teach the software to distinguish real threats from false ones.
Christian Salewski, a former fellow at ProPublica and a staff writer for the Financial Times Deutschland, reported from Hamburg.
Wednesday, December 07, 2011
(by Michael Grabell, ProPublica) Even if X-ray body scanners would prevent terrorists from smuggling explosives onto planes, nearly half of Americans still oppose using them because they could cause a few people to eventually develop cancer, according to a new Harris Interactive poll conducted online for ProPublica.
Slightly more than third of Americans supported using the scanners, while almost a fifth were unsure.
The Transportation Security Administration plans to install body scanners, which can detect explosives and other objects hidden under clothing, at nearly every airport security lane in the country by the end of 2014. It's the biggest change to airport security since metal detectors were introduced more than 35 years ago.
The scanners have long faced vocal opposition. Privacy advocates have decried them as a "virtual strip search" because the raw images show genitalia, breasts and buttocks – a concern the TSA addressed by requiring software that makes the images less graphic. But in addition to privacy objections, scientists and some lawmakers oppose one type of scanner because it uses X-rays, which damage DNA and could potentially lead to a few additional cancer cases among the 100 million travelers who fly every year. They say an alternative technology, which uses radio frequency waves, is safer.
Some travelers like Kathy Blomker, a breast cancer survivor from Madison, Wis., have decided to forgo the machines altogether and opt for a physical pat-down instead. "I've had so much radiation that I don't want to subject myself to radiation that I can avoid," she said. "I decided I'm just not ever going to go through one of those machines again. It's just too risky."
After ProPublica published an investigation, reported in conjunction with PBS NewsHour, showing that the X-ray scanners had evaded rigorous safety evaluations, the head of the TSA told Senator Susan Collins that his agency would conduct a new independent safety study. He subsequently backed off that promise, prompting the senator to write the TSA pressing the agency to go ahead with the study and asking it to post larger signs alerting pregnant women that they have the option to have a physical pat-down instead of going through the X-ray scanners.
The TSA has repeatedly touted a series of polls showing strong public support for the scanners. But those polls and surveys – conducted by Gallup, The Wall Street Journal and various travel sites – largely dealt with the privacy issue.
Only one of those polls – by CBS News – asked specifically about X-ray body scanners, finding that 81 percent of Americans thought that such X-ray scanners should be used in airports. But that poll – like all the others – did not mention the risk of cancer.
When confronted with the cancer-terrorism trade-off, however, Americans took a much more negative view of the scanners.
Harris Interactive surveyed 2,198 Americans between Dec. 2 and Dec. 6. (Full survey methodology can be found here.) The international polling firm asked, "If a security scanner existed which would significantly help in preventing terrorists from boarding a plane with powder, plastic, or liquid explosives, do you think the TSA should still use it even if it could cause perhaps six of the 100 million passengers who fly each year to eventually develop cancer"
Forty-six percent said the TSA shouldn't use it, 36 percent said it should, and 18 percent weren't sure.
Asked to comment, TSA spokesman Michael McCarthy said in a statement that the X-Ray scanners are "well within national standards."
"TSA’s top priority is the safety of the traveling public and the use of advanced imaging technology is critical to the detection of both metallic and non-metallic threats," he said. "All results from independent evaluations confirm that these machines are safe for all passengers."
The number of potential cancer cases used in the poll comes from a peer-reviewed research paper written by a radiology and epidemiology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and posted on the TSA's website.
The professor, Rebecca Smith-Bindman, concluded that 'there is no significant threat of radiation from the scans.' But she estimated that among the 750 million security checks of 100 million airline passengers per year, six cancers could result from the X-ray scans. She cautioned that the increase was small considering that the same 100 million people would develop 40 million cancers over the course of their lifetimes.
Another study by David Brenner, director of Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research, estimated that as airlines approach a billion boardings per year in the United States, 100 additional cancers per year could result from the scanners.
The TSA uses two types of body scanners to screen travelers for nonmetallic explosives. In the X-ray machine, known as a backscatter, a passenger stands between two large blue boxes and is scanned with an extremely low level of ionizing radiation, a form of energy which strips electrons from atoms and can damage DNA, leading to cancer. In the millimeter-wave machine, a passenger stands inside a round glass booth and is scanned with low-energy electromagnetic waves which don't strip electrons from atoms and have not been linked to cancer.
There is a great deal of uncertainty when performing cancer risk assessments from the very low levels of radiation that the backscatters emit. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration put the risk of a fatal cancer from the machines at one in 400 million. The U.K. Health Protection Agency has put it at one in 166 million.
Some experts say such estimates of population risk create a distorted picture of the danger because humans are constantly exposed to background radiation and already accept risks that increase exposure, such as flying on a plane at cruising altitude.
In the authoritative study on the health risks of low levels of radiation, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the risk of cancer increases with radiation exposure and that there is no level of radiation at which the risk is zero.
Given that risk, Brenner and some in Congress have argued that the TSA should forgo in the X-ray scanners in favor of the millimeter-wave machine.
European officials have gone so far as to prohibit the X-ray body scanners, leaving the millimeter-wave scanner as the only option. But some countries, including Germany, have reported a high rate of false alarms with the millimeter-wave machines.
The TSA has said that keeping two technologies in play creates competition, encouraging the manufacturers of both technologies to improve the detection capabilities, efficiency and cost of the scanners.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
"One of the interesting things about the Recovery Act was most of the projects came in under budget, faster than expected, because there's just not a lot of work there."
"Obama makes a valid point about this being a good time to get deals on infrastructure projects. The recession has created desperate workers willing to work cheaper, and the cost of materials is still relatively low. Obama's point that this was borne out by the stimulus projects is on target. But he stretched the facts -- at least what is actually known -- when he claimed most projects have come in under budget and faster than expected. And so we rate his claim Half True."
But whether the work is done faster and cheaper than expected, that may not address the concerns of many Americans: did it create enough jobs? For Obama's thoughts on that, continue reading.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
(Jackie Yamanaka, Yellowstone Public Radio) Where you stand depends on where you sit. And so Republican Senator John Barrasso says he's concerned with the share urban projects will get in the next federal transportation bill -- even though the state has long benefited from federal highway formulas per Wyomingite.
The White House's "Sustainable Communities" initiative has caught Barrasso's eye, and his ire. Barrasso says the affordable housing and transit program favors larger metropolitan regions areas over places like his spread-out home state. "People in rural communities are paying for the big cities' mass transit, instead of just for our roads," he tells Yellowstone Public Radio.
The story, here. Transcript after the jump.
But as Pro Publica and others have reported, Wyoming was given $1,519 per capita in Stimulus funding, and historically has done well in federal highway funding, because formulas favor "states with lots of roads and few people."
Monday, August 10, 2009