High-Tech Body Scanners Could Give TSA a False Sense of Security

Body scanners could be giving TSA a false sense of security.

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Metal detectors. Body scanners. Pat-downs. The loss of personal dignity.

Over the past several years, airport security has ramped up and brought with it, some would say, more invasions of privacy, especially when it comes to the technology used to pick out the bad guys and thwart their plans.

But all those extra hoops travelers jump through might actually be making air travel more perilous.

That's because more isn't always better when it comes to security, according to a recent report from research firm RAND Corporation.

Though newfangled body scanners expose virtually everything and anything that could pose a threat on an airplane, researchers say all those high-tech bells and whistles on nifty new scanning machines could be giving Transportation Security Administration personnel—trained to pick up on more subtle signs of trouble—an exaggerated sense of comfort when it comes to spotting terrorists concealing bombs or detonation wires.

"The addition of new safety or security interventions causes participants to exercise less care," the RAND report found. "The introduction of body scanners could cause security screeners to feel that they do not need to be as vigilant and can therefore shift more of their attention to increasing throughput or better interactions with passengers."

[Read: 5 Ways to Improve Air Security.]

In other words, TSA personnel—relying on technology such as body scanners to alert them of potential security threats instead their own training--could become more concerned with getting testy travelers through mile-long security lines than with trying to identify the next would-be shoe bomber.

Scary stuff, right?

The report goes on to say that while layering security measures is somewhat beneficial and can help plug up vulnerabilities in the broader system, ladling on more and more measures becomes counterproductive at a certain point and could even deter consumers from using air travel to avoid the hassle of security checkpoints.

"We've got to think very clearly about how the different layers and different things we're adding interact with each other," says Brian Jackson, director of RAND's Safety and Justice Program. "We need to think through how we're doing aviation security and whether all the pieces that are in place now are the right ones."

Instead tacking on additional security measures for every perceived threat that pops up, the researchers suggested a different approach: positive rather than negative profiling of passengers.

Essentially, the point is to weed out low-risk travelers from the broader population of travelers and spare them—and TSA personnel—the sometimes laborious process of a full airport screening. Those who undergo and pass a background check could have faster, less invasive screenings, and potentially shorter security lines.

[Read: TSA Puts Millions of Dollars of Equipment in Storage.]

Beyond the convenience aspect for travelers, security benefits exist as well. The resources freed from screening trusted travelers could instead be applied toward screening the general passenger population, and allow security staff to be more meticulous in scrutinizing X-ray images or searching bags.

But a lot rides on the inability of terrorists to defeat the system and plant an operative with a clean background check on the trusted travelers list.

Still, the point of the program is making reasonable tradeoffs, Jackson says. While no system is perfect—he points out that contraband items, including the Christmas Day underwear bomber's equipment, make it through security checkpoints all the time—we should not be held hostage to the concern that a bad guy will sneak through a trusted traveler line.

"The risk is not zero," he says. "The goal is to try to put something in place where we can make another risk tradeoff more intelligently."

Meg Handley is a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can reach her at mhandley@usnews.com and follow her on Twitter at @mmhandley.