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1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
TSA: Body Scanners Cannot See Through Turbans
More screenings for Sikhs

By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2011 | 07:11 pm

The Transportation and Security Administration will use secondary screening measures for turbans, such as a hand-held metal detector and pat-down chemical detection, even after travelers successfully pass through full-body scanners, because the new scanners being deployed across the country cannot see through the layers of a standard Sikh turban, TSA told Sikh advocacy groups.

In a statement emailed to SikhNN on Dec. 28, the agency said: “With the addition of Advanced Imaging Technology (body scanners), TSA continues to screen bulky items (including turbans) to ensure they do not contain a threat, which includes the use of a hand-held metal detector."

Since 2007, when TSA initiated a bulky clothing policy, dastaars (Sikh turbans) have been disproportionately scrutinized at airports. TSA has cited insufficient security technology for what Sikhs complain is racial profiling.


Daljeet Singh Mann does not wear his turban anymore while flying. After being forced by Transportation and Security Administration officers to take off his religiously mandated turban on two separate trips within one week, he said he couldn’t face another “humiliating” incident like that again. Now he wears a hat on business trips.

In November 2010, I was supposed to catch a flight from San Francisco to Modesto, California. After clearing the metal detector at the San Francisco airport, I noticed a TSA officer had spotted me. She did not say anything. She came with three or four more officers and told me I had to go for further screening. They took me to a private room and checked my luggage. Two more officers came and asked to remove my dastaar. They did not give me a chance to do my own hand pat down of my dastaar. They avoided that procedure. They forgot everything and targeted my dastaar.

I am a regular traveler. I fly twice a month for my hotel/motel business. I knew my rights but I kept silent. I wanted to see what these people wanted. They forced me to take off my dastaar. They said I could not get on the plane, nor could I leave the airport. When the supervisor came I told him I should have been given a chance for a self-pat down.

“Someone from our department dropped the ball,” he said. “They made a mistake.”

That lady, she targeted my dastaar and beard. It took 35 minutes. It was kind of humiliating.

I took my time, collecting information. Got badge numbers to report them and reported to the TSA.

Two days later I had a flight from Sacramento, California, to Seattle, Washington. I was at security one hour before the flight when I was approach by officers. I cleared the metal detector. My luggage also cleared. I was given the option to do a self-pat down. He did the hand swab and said it alarmed. Once it alarms, he could not do another swab.

I was taken to a room with my luggage. This time they also did a full-body pat down. He searched my whole body in an extremely hard way.

Then they told me to remove my dastaar turban. This time I was more nervous. Why was this happening again? I removed it, they brought a plastic container, took my dastaar outside to be scanned and brought back.

I missed my flight. I got names of the officers and decided to go home.

I feel too bad. How can they make a scene every time I travel. I have no problems with a hat. They don’t ask me to take it off. I clear every time with a self-pat down.

I think I have no strength inside. They demoralized me two times. When things improve I’ll go back to wearing a dastaar. I don’t wear it when travel at all anymore. I just use a hat.

In early 2010 TSA told Sikh advocacy groups that the body scanners would solve the problem for Sikhs because the screenings would apply to all traveling passengers, and they would be able to handle screening turbans, said Manjit Singh, chairman of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “In early October they told us they were rolling out the machines at all major airports, but they could not handle multi-layered clothing. They were not solving the problem.”

TSA is silent about the machines’ ability to see through layers.

“I can’t comment on the capability of security equipment,” said Kawika Riley, a TSA spokesman.

SikhNN asked a security expert, Bruce Schneier, whether the TSA was correct in its claim that body scanners cannot see through layers of a dastaar.

“I don't know, but I doubt this is true,” said Schneier, chief security technology officer at British Telecommunications, who has testified several times before Congress and has been quoted in major new media.


TSA specifically claims on its Web site that the body scanners can see through layers of clothing: “Advanced imaging technology safely screens passengers for metallic and nonmetallic threats including weapons, explosives and other objects concealed under layers of clothing…”

And according to one of three body scanner manufacturers, Rapiscan Systems, its Secure 1000 X-ray machine “has easy to use operator software that provides the ability to detect even the smallest hidden item on a person,” it says on its Web site.

Rapiscan did not return several calls and emails for comment, but in a statement previously emailed to SikhNN in November, it said: “The technology allows for the detection of threats concealed under clothing, without providing enough detail to enable identification of a person. A software-generated privacy filter blurs sensitive screening areas while still providing the best detection capabilities available.”

TSA was again silent about Rapiscan’s claims of producing detailed images of the body.

Rapiscan is welcome to make its own public statements but “I can’t get into specific screening detection capability,” Riley said.


The only public indication that body scanners have a problem with layered clothing occurred in November 2010 when the German broadcaster, Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR), reported that a second type of scanner, which uses millimeter-wave technology, can be fooled by creases in clothing, like pleats.

These scanners, which are being tested at the Hamburg airport, are unable to tell the difference between a fold in shirts or sweaters and a knife or hidden objects, NDR reported. Security staff in Hamburg said even lightweight clothes like blouses and T-shirts constantly trigger alarms because creases are mistaken for weapons.

Every passenger at Hamburg airport must now undergo a full-body prison-style pat down and pass through a metal detector, even after passing through the scanners.

According to NDR, the manufacturer is developing new software to solve part of the problem but it is not yet ready.

TSA also uses millimeter-wave scanners, as well as X-ray scanners. But unlike Hamburg authorities, TSA is only targeting pleats of a dastaar, which it considers as bulky clothing. TSA does not target blouses and T-shirts because they are not considered bulky clothing, but these form-fitting clothes also fooled scanners in the Hamburg tests.


TSA was working on draft guidance in late December. It’s an internal process that is not shared with public, Riley said. But he did offer that TSA adjusted its security procedures in 2007 to include provisions for bulky clothing, which includes headwear.

“The turbans issue would be that they could be identified with bulky clothing procedures,” he said. Removal of all headwear is recommended but if a passenger does not want to remove the item, 
Transportation Security Officers can use their discretion to subject the passenger to extra screenings. These are general bulky clothing procedures. For security reasons, he said he could not comment on the specifics.

TSA released it body scanner guidelines at the end of December to include hand-held metal detection and other additional measures for bulky clothing.

But all bulky items are not treated equally.

In discussions with advocacy groups last fall, TSA said something completely contradictory to Sikhs: “You are supposed to be stopped 100 percent of the time,” said Amardeep Singh, Sikh Coalition’s programs director.

“They’re telling the (Sikh) community this then telling the mainstream press its policy has not changed since 2007,” he said.

The 2007 policy also was problematic for Sikhs. It was vague and implemented differently at different airports. According to complaints received by Sikh advocacy groups, dastaars were targeted more often than other bulky clothing for secondary screenings. And at several large airports they were targeted 100 percent of the time.

Advocacy groups were cautiously optimistic at the beginning of 2010 that the new body scanners would eliminate these issues.

TSA’s policy has changed.

“The dastaar is the only piece of clothing identified by TSA that will have to undergo additional screening 100 percent of the time because AIT is deficient in looking through folds/layers of the turban,” said Hansdeep Singh, senior staff attorney at United Sikhs. “(In Germany) even pleats or folds creases in blouses, jeans etc. were causing anomalies, so why is it that only the folds/layers of the dastaar are being scrutinized in such a fashion?”


TSA is in the process of replacing full-body metal detectors, commonly used throughout airports until last year, with full-body imaging scanners. According to its Web site, it has already installed 486 body scanners that are currently being used at 78 airports.

The agency had been piloting body scanners since 2007. But after the December 2009 attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound Northwest flight from Amsterdam by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who had hidden plastic explosives in his underwear, TSA rushed acquisition of additional body scanners and planned to deploy them in more than 1,800 airports by 2014, according to a March 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office, the government’s own watchdog agency.

The machines initially were to be used for secondary screenings but after the underwear bomber incident, TSA decided to use them for primary screenings, the GAO report says.

Each machine costs about $170,000, excluding training, installation, and maintenance costs. The total could add up to $2.4 billion over the expected service life of the investment, it says.

The GAO expressed concern that the scanners had not been tested at the time of its review in October 2009 and “recommended that TSA operationally test and evaluate technologies prior to deploying them.”

By December 2009 , the agency said it was requiring that all scanners were to successfully complete both laboratory and operational tests prior to deployment. TSA officials told the GAO that body scanners performed as well as full-body pat downs in operational testing.

The underwear bomber was TSA’s justification for the massive expenditure and deployment of the body scanners in 2010. But, in its report, the GAO said it was uncertain that these machines could have caught the underwear bomber: “While TSA officials stated that the laboratory and operational testing of the AIT included placing explosive material in different locations on the body, it remains unclear whether the AIT would have been able to detect the weapon Mr. Abdulmutallab used in his attempted attack based on the preliminary TSA information we have received.”

Abdulmutallab used Pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), a powder chemical that is the main component of powerful plastic explosives. It can only be detected by hand pat-down and swab tests known as Explosives Trace Detection (ETD), or by dogs, Schneier said in his security blog, Schneier on Security.

All dastaars are subjected to the ETD test, but all underwear are not.

Body scanners maybe going by way of the “puffer” machines, said Manjit Singh, chairman of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. TSA spent $30 million on these machines to test for chemical explosives but they didn’t work and have been scrapped.

“How much money have they spent on technology?” he added. “Now (TSA has) given out big contracts and they are finding that (body scanners) are not effective either. “They have no clear vision how to do effectively do screening without spending millions.

“After the underwear bomber, TSA wanted to prevent this but they can’t,” Manjit Singh said. “They’re always playing catch up. Those people who are intending to do harm are one step ahead.”


Not only are Sikhs embarrassed like the rest of the public by the naked images produced by the scanners, the layers of their dastaars are being used to single them out for additional layers of security measures and causing extra layers of humiliation.

“Our position is to understand why they can’t see through layers,” Manjit Singh said. “We want to see demonstrations with volunteers of Sikhs wearing turbans… to make sure they are not using lack of capability to do racial profiling.”

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington filed a lawsuit in July 2010 “to suspend the deployment of body scanners at US airports, pending an independent review.”

EPIC argued that the federal agency violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, among others, and “cited the invasive nature of the devices, the TSA's disregard of public opinion, and the impact on religious freedom.”

With regard to turbans, the government’s statement could be correct that its procedures are part of a typical protocol to remove clothing, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director. But that only turbans are required to go through extra screenings is “troubling.”

“This may be a case, base on the facts you described, where the government has not selected the least restrictive alternative,” he told SikhNN. The government has to state “why isn’t this (previous methods) sufficient to address government concerns. It’s haphazard how government chooses (security measures).”

“Maybe we need to go back and rethink our legal strategy,” Amardeep Singh said. “A lawsuit is never off the table… It’s a matter of timing.”



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