Airport body scanners are under fire again, this time by groups questioning the devices’ safety after the Transportation Security Administration admitted to improperly testing radiation levels — in some cases reporting radiation levels that were 10 times higher than actual results.
But according to Wired’s David Kravets, it seems TSA field technicians — not the machines — are to blame for the reporting incongruities. The government contends that the backscatter X-Ray machines, which produce a complete image of a traveler’s body, are completely safe and instead chalk up the mistakes to human error. In order to check a device’s radiation output, technicians test each machine 10 times consecutively and then divide the total by 10 to produce an average — and then record that number on the report. But some technicians simply forgot to do the math. An unfortunate but innocent mistake.
More surprising, however, is the antiquated information-gathering method that the government relies upon for such highly scrutinized reports. The field technicians assigned by Rapiscan, the manufacturer of the $180,000 scanners, don’t use computers or handhelds to record and secure data and to make precise critical calculations. Here in 2011, they’re instead given a paper form, a pen, and a calculator.
The TSA has installed nearly 500 body scanners at 78 airports across the country. The discrepancies, however, were associated with about 250 machines produced by one company, Rapiscan. According to a company spokesman who spoke with USA Today, the reporting flaws were the result of “regrettable errors” by Rapiscan technicians.
What will Rapscan do to correct the reporting problems in the field? Perhaps switch to mobile devices that can collect data and prompt error alerts if a test result isn’t completed, and record that data directly to back-office systems? Um… no. The government’s answer might have come right out of some middle-management memo at Initech. Here’s what Rapscan explained to TSA in December:
“To address these ambiguities, Rapiscan is in the process of redesigning the form and its work instructions. Once the redesign is complete, Rapiscan will train its FSE’s to the new form and work instructions. Thereafter, the formatting ambiguity should be resolved. These steps will be completed on or before January 31, 2011.”
Only under the umbrella of a government contract might such arcane processes and methods allowed to carry on. How might a private firm in a competitive situation handle complicated testing in the field? With service techs who carry handhelds, perhaps iPads, that do all of that without the ambiguity, the inefficiencies — or human error.