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TSA: Body Scanners Cannot See Through Turbans
More screenings for Sikhs

By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2011 | 08:11 pm

Updated: Friday, January 14, 2011 - 5:00pm

Daljeet Singh Mann was asked to remove his dastaar twice in two days, once at San Francisco International Airport and at Sacramento International Airport in California, after successfully passing through a metal detector. He no longer wears a dastaar while traveling.

Photo Source: Daljeet Singh

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 adjusted its security procedures in 2007 to include provisions for bulky clothing, which includes headwear, Riley said. “The screening of turbans can fall under TSA’s 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.



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