Airport Security Scanners Don’t Work, Johns Hopkins Research Says

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Though the scanner doesn't pick it up, n this image, there is a .380 ACP pistol taped above the subject’s knee. Image via radsec.org
Though the scanner doesn’t pick it up, n this image, there is a .380 ACP pistol taped above the subject’s knee. Image via radsec.org

If you’ve flown out of a major airport (like, say, BWI) over the past five years, odds are you’ve gone through one of those fancy new full-body scanners at airport security. They certainly seem more useful than the old-school metal detectors — but, according to recent research by a group of computer scientists, including one from Johns Hopkins, they have serious flaws of their own.

In order to conduct the first-ever independent evaluation of the full-body scanner, the team bought a surplus unit on eBay in 2012. Then they tried to figure out how to conceal knives, guns, and explosives in ways that the scanner wouldn’t notice. Alarmingly enough, they were able to do so fairly easily. “Frankly, we were shocked by what we found. A clever attacker can smuggle contraband past the machines using surprisingly low-tech techniques,” said J. Alex Halderman, a University of Michigan computer science prof who worked on the study.

And the security risks didn’t stop there. The computer scientists were able to hack the scanners’ software to make it present an “all-clear” message even when weapons were detected.

“I was not surprised that there were security vulnerabilities in the system because they made a lot of faulty assumptions,” Hopkins computer scientist Stephen Checkoway told the Hopkins Hub. “For example, they believed a scanner operator would be able to detect a block of C-4 plastic explosive material under a person’s clothes because it would cast an X-ray shadow. But when we molded the material tight against a person’s body, it didn’t show up.”

 



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