Naked Body-Image Machines Questioned by TSA, Congress

sfgate.com | Nov 15, 2012

by Jeff Plungis

Nov. 15 (Bloomberg) — OSI Systems Inc.’s Rapiscan unit, one of two suppliers of passenger-scanning machines in U.S. airports, may have falsified tests of software intended to stop the machines from recording graphic images of travelers, a U.S. lawmaker said.

The company “may have attempted to defraud the government by knowingly manipulating an operational test,” Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Transportation Security Subcommittee, said in a letter to Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole Nov. 13. Rogers said his committee received a tip about the faked tests.

“At no time did Rapiscan falsify test data or any information related to this technology or the test,” Peter Kant, an executive vice president with the company, said in an interview yesterday.

While Rogers’ letter doesn’t identify the company, his spokesman, Shea Snider, confirmed in an e-mail that he was referring to Rapiscan.

OSI fell $18.81, or 24.7 percent, to $57.48 at 12:11 p.m., the biggest intraday decline since December 2000. More than 2.2 million shares had changed hands, about 20 times the three-month daily average. Earlier, shares fell as much as 27 percent.

‘Incredibly Serious’

If wrongdoing is proven, Rapiscan could face fines, prison terms and a ban on government contracting, said Dan Gordon, former head of federal procurement for President Barack Obama’s administration.

“Fake test results are incredibly serious,” said Gordon, now a dean at George Washington University Law School in Washington. “Every false statement is a criminal act, sending someone in that company to jail.”

TSA relied on a third-party vendor rather than Rapiscan to verify the technology, so the agency may be attempting to find a scapegoat for a poorly managed program, Rogers said at a hearing today.

The Alabama Republican, who has oversight of TSA operations, said the agency first said it was moving Rapiscan machines to smaller airports, then couldn’t produce a list of airports. The agency is moving 91 units worth $14 million to a warehouse instead of redeploying them, Rogers said.

“It appears we not only have a technology problem, but a significant transparency problem on our hands,” Rogers said.

Show-Cause Letter

The TSA intends to keep the machines in a warehouse until the privacy-protection software works, John Sanders, assistant administrator for the agency’s office of security capabilities, said at the hearing.

Sanders said the agency doesn’t have evidence that tests on the backscatter machines were manipulated.

“At this point we don’t know what has occurred,” Sanders said. “We are in contact with the vendor. We are working with them to get to the bottom of it.”

Kant said Rapiscan received a so-called show-cause letter from the TSA on Nov. 9 seeking detailed information about the testing of technology used in the machines.

Rapiscan became aware of an issue related to software under development months ago and promptly notified the TSA, Kant said. The company is fully cooperating with the agency’s investigation, which doesn’t relate to software that detects anomalies on passengers’ bodies, Kant said. Passenger safety was never affected, he said.

Show-cause letters are sent when the government believes a contractor isn’t complying with terms, said Gordon, the former federal procurement administrator. It’s a last chance for the company to demonstrate it hasn’t violated the contract, he said.

Underwear Bomber

Show-cause letters are rare because most contractors try hard to meet the government’s requirements, Gordon said. Companies that default on contracts may have a difficult time winning business again from that agency or other parts of the government, he said.

The TSA accelerated the use of advanced scanners in 2010, following the Dec. 25, 2009, attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight by igniting explosives in his underpants. Almost immediately, privacy advocates complained that the machines produced almost-naked images of travelers.

The agency, in response, asked Rapiscan and its other vendor of the advanced scanners, L-3 Communications Holdings Inc., to write software that would replace the explicit depiction of passengers’ bodies with generic images that indicate where a weapon might be. L-3 has been able to develop such software. Rapiscan hasn’t.

Machines Moved

The TSA recently said it was relocating Rapiscan machines, which use backscatter radiation to detect objects under a passenger’s clothes, from seven larger, busier airports to smaller ones.

The change related to extra time it takes for passengers to be scanned with the backscatter machines, not over any doubts about whether the technology works, Pistole told reporters at a news conference in Washington Nov. 13. Backscatter machines require staff in a separate room to look at the images and radio back to an officer at the checkpoint if extra screening is needed, he said.

TSA believes backscatter technology is still effective in finding non-metallic objects, Pistole said.

“We originally went with two companies to help drive competition and try to get to the next level of detection with the best possible performance,” Pistole said. “We’re still committed to doing that.”

TSA has contracted for increasing levels of detection and other efficiency and privacy enhancements, David Castelveter, an agency spokesman, said in a statement yesterday.

“We fully expect our vendors to deliver on their commitments, and are working with them to that end within the federal contracting process,” Castelveter said.

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