Monday, January 11, 2010

Full-Body Scanners and Error Rates

Ah, full-body scanners. They're supposed to make us safer. But will they?

My hunch is: not much. My guess is based not on the scanners themselves (which are intrusive and come with real risks, like additional radiation deaths), but on the people who do the scanning.

Undercover tests conducted at major airports show that the "miss rates" for baggage inspectors using conventional technology is between 60% and 75%. That's a lot.

Has the Transportation Security Administration (or anyone else) assured us that full-body scans will result in lower error rates? If so, I've seen no such assurance.

Ultimately, all scans must be interpreted by the people behind the scanners. And that's where the problem comes in. As work by researchers like Jeremy Wolfe has demonstrated, human beings have real-world limits on their ability to detect objects, especially ones that they rarely see, such as bombs and guns. That's why the current miss rate is so high -- and why it is unlikely to improve with full-body scanners.

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