The TSA and full-body scanners. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Posted on
Nov 8, 2010

It's what I had to go through to get here that scares me.

I’ve never been afraid of flying. I figure if anything does go wrong at 30,000 feet, worrying won’t really make it any better. Turbulence bothers me only so far as it makes me feel nauseated – I’m never concerned that I’m going to fall out of the sky. And if disaster did strike? I’d honestly be okay, provided Rand was with me. To paraphrase the brilliant Morrissey, to die by my husband’s side, well, the privilege would be mine.

And yet, despite this somewhat macabre but nevertheless fearless attitude towards flying, I am currently petrified to step foot on a plane. Or, more specifically, to step foot in an airport.

I’m absolutely frightened to death of the new full-body scanners.

Knowing that I have this biased approach, let’s talk a bit about the scanners first. There are two types – the Millimeter Wave Scanner and the Backscatter scanners.

Millimeter Wave Scanner

From a health perspective, this is the less controversial of the two scanners (from a privacy perspective, they’re both equally invasive). The scanner uses incredibly high frequency radio waves submitted from two antennae, which rotate around the body, passing through clothing, and rendering a 3-D image of the surface of a subject’s skin. Apparently the waves are not inherently carcinogenic, as opposed to x-rays, which are.

Backscatter X-Ray Scanners

This one is a bit confusing, and it doesn’t work in the same way traditional x-rays do (which go straight through an object). Instead, it hits the surface of an object with x-ray photons (it’s a small dose, but they are carcinogenic); the radiation that is reflected back then produces an image of the object. Unlike the MW Scanner, it creates only a two-dimensional picture, so a traveler’s front and back must be x-rayed.

In either case, the machines perform a “virtual strip search” essentially creating a monochromatic photo of the traveler’s naked body, revealing the naked body and anatomy in detail.

Having said that, let’s talk about why the machines freak me the hell out:

1. They aren’t necessarily safe.

The backscatter machines hit your body with a dose of radiation. Government officials have noted that it’s a very small amount – about about .02 microsieverts (a medical unit of radiation). But the issue is that the incredibly small dosage they’ve quoted comes from averaging the amount of radiation travelers are exposed to throughout their body. And that’s not how the machine works. The radiation doesn’t hit us everywhere evenly. Instead, it only hits the surface of our skin – making the concentration on those parts much, much higher.

Detractors say that this isn’t a big deal, because it’s still an incredibly low dose – according to the TSA, you’d have to go through a scanner “thousands and thousands of times a year to get to the point where it would even possibly reach the equivalent of one chest X-ray” (again, that’s according to the TSA.) Even if the amount of radiation is small, that doesn’t mean it’s safe. It’s like trying to assess how much secondhand smoke is safe. And to compound matters, about 5% of the population are incredibly sensitive to radiation – increasing their chance of cell damage and cancers.

There’s another issue, too: Women and men who are exposed to x-rays near the time of conception are more likely to have children who will later develop leukemia. Even traditional x-rays avoid this problem, because genitals and the lower abdomen are generally shielded from radiation. This isn’t the case with the backscatter machines, which expose everyone’s gonads to radiation. (Note: I never thought I’d be writing about gonads in the TSA, outside of the sentence “The TSA is made up of a bunch of …”)

Additionally, pregnant women and children are more vulnerable to radiation damage, and there’s not a lot of research on how it will affect them. Though again, the TSA claims otherwise.

2. It’s a complete violation of privacy.

The TSA has come up with a lot of reasons why the scans aren’t an invasion of anyone’s privacy, and in my opinion, they’re all pretty much b.s. For one, the TSA claims that the images are not saved, and immediately destroyed after someone passes through the scanner. But there’s already evidence that this isn’t the case – just this year CNET reported that the Feds have admitted being able to store the images for training and research purposes. And honestly, why wouldn’t they? Imagine if someone did manage to sneak something onto a plane. I’m sure one of the first things Homeland Security would want is a copy of their security x-ray, to see what they missed (I’m not saying saving the images is a good idea – I think it’s heinous. I’m just saying, it makes sense that the TSA would keep the images).

The TSA further maintains that it’s obscuring faces and genitalia in the scans, and that the person looking at the images is doing so in another room, so they can’t associate the x-ray image on their computer screen with a real-life passenger. But that’s kind of besides the point: if someone told me that they were going to show someone naked photos of me, but my face was obscured, I’d still be pretty pissed off, especially if I didn’t have a choice in the matter.

Fact: if this were of me, it would NOT be on my blog.

And that’s another thing – the TSA is trying to say that we have a choice, which just isn’t true. If you decide that you don’t want to be exposed to radiation and humiliation, you can opt for a physical pat-down search (which just exposes you to the latter). The TSA claims that the machines must be great, because 79% of people chose them over a physical pat-down. But the choice is simply a lesser of two evils, and the TSA has orchestrated it to be so. The physical pat-down is incredibly intrusive – a traveler will have their hair, breasts, genitalia, and buttocks patted down, and agents can use the front of their hands (they previously had to use the backs). It takes more time, and you’ll be singled out and essentially treated like a criminal.

Given the choice between being molested or being exposed to a tiny bit of “harmless” radiation, it seems the choice is clear for a lot of travelers.

3. They don’t actually do anything to protect us.

The funniest part about all this? It’s once again a completely reactionary measure by Homeland Security. Someone tries to sneak a bomb onto a plane in a certain way, and then they develop a policy against it. The shoe bomber led us to remove our shoes. The guys in the UK with the liquid explosives are the reason we pack our less-than-3-oz of liquids into Ziploc bags (I am convinced have seen a spike in sales during all of this). And the idiot with the bomb in his underwear has made it so our genitals are a matter of national security. But all this means is that terrorists will find other ways of getting explosives or deadly weapons on to planes.

Time Magazine notes that terrorists can simply start concealing bombs internally. If that happens, we’ll all be grabbing our ankles for the next wave of TSA security measures. And what’s worse, the same article notes that a heavy reliance on technology is not a good thing – it means that agents aren’t looking for suspicious or otherwise unusual behavior that can’t be measured on a machine.


I’m trying to stay positive in light of all this, but it’s kind of hard. After all, we’re now at the point where we can’t have a friggin tissue in our pocket before going through security. The rules keep changing on us, so quickly that we don’t have time to even complain (not that there’s anyone who’d listen, if we did).

There are some points of levity in all of this – Jeffrey Goldberg shares his rather hilarious tale of being felt-up by the TSA. And xkcd suggests a great way to smuggle a little surprise for whoever is manning the backscatter machines.

But this doesn’t escape the fact that things are, really and truly, going down a dark path. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is calling for an immediate halt for all of the airport screening machines, but odds are they won’t be listened to. And more than one group has brought up the startling and horrifying point that the airport scanners, when applied to children, amount to child pornography. If fact, a violation of child pornography laws are one of the reasons for the delay in deployment of the machines in the U.K. thus far. But, despite being downright unconstitutional, that’s not the case in the U.S.

I’m trying to be upbeat about it, but really, there aren’t too many options left for those of us who are frequent fliers. And the TSA has made any alternatives to the backscatter machines as inconvenient as possible, ensuring fewer people will opt-out. I guess I can arrive at the airport early. I can hope I will be searched by someone with soft hands. Or I can go through the machine, provided I find a nice pair of lead underwear.

But in either case? I’m petrified about my next trip. And it has nothing to do with being afraid of flying.

P.S. – If this post resonates with you, join my Facebook Group dedicated to this issue.

Leave a Comment

  • I’m creeped out by these machines too! I haven’t been forced to use one yet, but I will probably go with the pat down option instead of the scanner. It’s all part of “security theater” which doesn’t make us safer in the least.

    • Everywhereist

      Chris – I totally agree. It is, in every respect, just for show.

  • So which machine is the one that you have to stick your thumbs on your head and make moose antlers? I experienced this on Friday for the first time in San Diego, and did not like it.

    Plus the line moves so slowly, it takes them forever to get you set up and then take the image and then get radioed from their friend in the back room before you can grab your stuff.

    • Everywhereist

      Bekka – ugh. Sounds awful. did you see anyone opting out?

      • No I didn’t, but you were allowed to choose your line: the regular scanner or the new one. I wasn’t paying attention or I would have gone with the regular scanner, even though the line was shorter for the x-ray one.

        Also when I was leaving Sea-Tac last night, they didn’t even have the x-ray thing open, they were only having people go through the regular metal detectors. I wonder if the TSA staff is finding it too much of a pain to use since it goes so slowly, or if they didn’t have anyone on staff last night that knew how to use it?

  • The whole thing about exposing children and pregnant women to radiation without rigorous testing of the effects is really terrifying to me. And it’s not just because I’m knocked up now; I’m not going on any trips for the remainder of this pregnancy and probably won’t take the baby anywhere near an airport until next Thanksgiving, at the earliest. But just thinking of the countless children who are being dismissively exposed to radiation puts me in a panic just thinking about the childhood leukemia and cancer rates that we’ll be seeing over the next 20 years. By the time any sort of data comes back showing the rise in disease, I’m afraid that it will already be an epidemic. If all the US children get horribly sick, won’t the terrorists win anyway?

    • Everywhereist

      Celeste – first off, congrats! And yes, it’s freaky. Incredibly so. One of those times I’m thankful I don’t have a kid – I’m just infuriated hearing about other people going through it with their kids – can’t imagine if I had one of my own.

  • I do not like this one bit. Are these scanners already up & running at Seatac? We have our first trip with Finn in almost a year coming up at Thanksgiving time and will go three hours early if it means skipping xrays for a creepy pat down. i had no idea this was going on… thanks for posting!

    • Everywhereist

      Cindy – see Bekka’s comment above – it sounds like they are in place in SeaTac, though it wasn’t on one of the times she was there. Your guess is as good as mine.

      If they try to pat down Finn, I suspect they will live to regret it. 🙂

      • Seriously. I’m pretty sure I’m going to be arrested next time I’m in an airport. I don’t want to put my kid through one of these machines (could “back-scatter” be a more unfortunate name, by the way?) but I’m pretty sure I’ll punch the first T”S”A person who puts a hand on my kid.

  • I don’t approve of these machines either. I hardly fly domestically – I don’t have a chance to travel in the USA at all. But I do travel internationally at least 1-2 times a year and on my last trip we had a stopover in Boston to connect to a Southwest flight back to Chicago.

    I was appalled at what we went through going through security – it was ten times worse than flying out of the UK. I was horrified to see the full body scanning machines – as was my wife was still newly pregnant at the time.

    The real highpoint was when they made a 90 year old lady get OUT of her wheelchair and shuffle through the scanner. All I could think “This is America? Where even old ladies are suspects?”

    My wife went all ‘pregnant lady’ on them and refused to go through the scanner and they had to let her through the regular metal detector with a pat down. I had to go through the scanner and I certainly hope our future children don’t come out with 3 arms!

    Great post and I wish more people were raising a stink about this. It’s awful.

    • Everywhereist

      I did – it made my round up last week. Crazy, right?

  • I looked into this a few month’s back when I was considering flying out of London Heathrow (pregnant). As far as I am aware there is no opt out in the UK. So if you’re picked to be scanned – tough! If you refuse then you miss your flight. I would rather be molested by airport security than x-rayed. But then i’m very weird.

    Great article *thumbs up*

  • I can only hope that enough people refuse this electronic cavity search that the TSA is forced to abandon it. I’m not holding out hope.

  • Arrrrrrgh. Here’s what I really hate: we’re likely going to be trying for #2 in 2011. So in order to not expose myself to radiation, it seems that worst-case scenario, I’m going to have to discuss my reproductive plans with a total stranger (“Not sure, could be pregnant” if we’re trying) and then get molested, and best-case scenario I’ll just get straight felt up. Not to mention what these scanners could do to my husband (who has a family history of nasty cancer) or child (who had a grandmother die young of a very aggressive form of breast cancer, and is therefore at much higher risk of developing it herself already). Hate. Hate. Hate. Grr.

  • Chris

    Although I fully agree with your right to be concerned about the radiation, for me the privacy and waste associated with these systems is the greater threat. The radiation portion remains for the most part an unknown as we are exposed to all sorts of radiation on a daily basis. Do some searches on increased risks for pilots flying at altitude due to the decreased protective effects of the thinner atmosphere at cruise. Again, it’s for the most part an unknown.

    What is known is the fact that this is clearly an invasion of privacy and a violation of our rights. The most vulgar fact being what has already been mentioned regarding children. A parent’s (I am not) option is to have a stranger who you cannot see or have an established relationship with, unlike a medical professional, view your child practically naked or have a stranger “pat” them down. What message does this send to our children? How many years have parents been teaching their children about being touched inappropriately by adults? I would certainly argue that the new TSA pat-down technique is highly inappropriate for a child to experience.

    My best advice to all of you is to write your congressman, representative, and the TSA themselves. These systems are an outlandish violation of our freedoms. The new scanners and procedures do not improve security as evidenced by the “printer cartridge” bombs of two weeks ago. The latest attempt at terrorism did not involve passengers at all. The individuals who wish to harm us and our way of life, which may be slipping away, are dedicated and patient. Their attack vectors will easily circumvent these new technologies.

    As has become the slogan around my life, “Opt-Out and Pat-Down.” In other words, aside from writing our legislatures, opt-out of the screenings and deal with the federally mandated groping. (Children are another story.) As adults, I feel we can overcome the embarrassment and violation associated with the pat-down. If enough people object to the screenings and request the longer pat-down process perhaps the delays caused will make someone think about this atrocity. At the very least you can look your molester in the eyes. Be polite, smile, and thank them for the experience. With the right touch (pun intended), I assure you the TSA employee will be just as uncomfortable as you.

    Spread the word. Opt-Out and Pat-Down.

  • Geraldine, I almost had to go through one of the body scanners at O’Hare this morning. One security line led to the metal detectors, the other toward the scanner. One man decided which person entered which line. I luckily got a cursory wave toward the metal detector, but not before I had a minor panic attack. When these were just theoretical, I could laugh as much as anyone–the images, though frightening from a privacy perspective, seemed surreal. Some sci-fi movie director taking over airport security. But once I was faced with the very real possibility that I might have to go through the humiliation of either the scanner or the pat-down, I almost turned on my heel and rented a car to return to Seattle. I wish there was something I could do, some way that I could make my terrified voice heard, so that these awful machines are turned off and shipped far, far away. Like you, I’m now terrified of flying and it has nothing to do with the plane.

  • keaver

    Geraldine, just pick a day and tell everyone flying to opt for the pat down. get enough people who have some flexibility with their time and suggest they all arrive early for their flights and opt for pat down. Basically do a non violent civil protest. see if you can get a tech company or two with lots of flying employees to forgive any tardiness to their meetings if they are demonstrating in this fashion. make it so painful for the TSA they either are forced to violate our privacy and bear the full social cost of it or they drop these machines. You’ve got a blog that is read. try it.

  • LL

    I have been confronted with the scanner or pat down choice several times in the last several months, traveling out of Toronto, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Vancouver. I have opted out and opted in for the pat down each time. Toronto’s TSA agents were more professional if you can call it that – more subdued and to the point – and Vancouver’s TSA agents were a circus. Long story on that one but suffice to say the 50-something woman giving me a sufficient pat down while OTHER MALE PASSENGERS WATCHED WITH SMILES ON THEIR FACES has forgotten what it’s like to be a young woman and to care about the sanctity of one’s body parts. The pat downs are getting worse, from my experience (more intrusive on private parts) and what’s worse – not only are TSA agents surrounding you while it’s happening, other passengers seem to enjoy the free show. Even still, I will not be opting for the scanner though. I plan to have children soon, am sensitive to EMFs as it is and will not knowingly expose myself to more radiation if it’s not necessary. I am truly horrified at the whole situation, feeling like such a sheep because we all know this won’t stop those who specialize in terror and feeling very badly for children and uninformed pregnant women, would-be parents and the populace in general. I don’t eat McDonald’s (metaphor for manufactured food), I shy away from drugs, I try to live as healthily as possible and yet now – I can’t travel without molestation or known carcinogenic harm/perversion? Fed up with the feds.

  • LL

    Please write a follow-up article on what informed people can do to speak out and how to protect our rights. Thank you for your courage to write on this subject!

  • Tom

    Great post. I think the ramifications of such checks (such as health issues) should be of paramount importance when they plan and implement such precautions.

    However, for me – I think the privacy argument is a poor one. Personally, I would be prepared for my naked x-ray to be plastered all over Times Square if it meant my air travel was free from terrorist threat. We may not like the idea of such images being seen by others, but I think the benefits of these images being taken outweigh the downsides… Just my opinion 🙂

    The reactionary nature of the security checks (as opposed to pre-emptive) is of the most concern to me.

    • Everywhereist

      Tom – I respectfully disagree! I think the privacy comment is the strongest one to be made about these machines! After all, it’s really the only known factor (everything else can be debated, but we can’t argue that the machines violated someone’s privacy). However, I’ve spoken to a few individuals who agree with you – they didn’t mind the privacy violation personally, but they were upset that other people were made uncomfortable by it, and so thought they should be banned on that point alone.

      Still – one point we CAN agree on – if the machines don’t even work, what the heck is the point?

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  • Lisa

    I’m so very very glad that there’s so many places I have yet to travel that are in driving range. Which just became about 3000 miles…

  • Rere

    Please do a follow up on what happens to toddlers and babies who clearly cannot stand still and therefore go through the machines. Nobody is reporting on this!!

  • Rere

    Also, I’ve seen original copies of that blog pic of the female TSA and her nipples were shopped out. In the first few days that was posted, you could see much more detail. Surprise!

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  • When I was at the doctor’s office today I heard two of the nurses and the doctor talking about this actually. The nurse was saying how she thought it was cool!?!?!?! And the doctor laid the smack down and explained to her about the two types of scanners and that it was like getting a ct scan!!

    I had two ct scans within two months, and they’ve told me they won’t give me another one for at least a year because of the radiation. Now if my doctors are hesitant to do it, why in the hell would I go through one of those and risk a third bout of radiation. I’ve already dealt with cancer once this year, I’m not about to add more risk to my body.

    I’m about to go on a trip to Madrid, and I’m going to do some research and see if they have these in the airports I’ll be in. Honestly, I’m more concerned about the health issues. If some numb-nut wants to look at a fat chick naked, then let his sad, pathetic self look.

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention!

    • Everywhereist

      Swoon. God, I miss you lady. 🙂

  • Okay… this stresses me out so much! This is from Chicago O’Hare this past March. The last couple of sentences freak me out! Don’t travel during that “time of the month!” You might be considered a major risk and confronted!

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  • JP

    In stance of using this technology for body scan, why don’t they use it to scan the Luggage. they don’t allow you to locked your luggage, because for security reason, they want to be able to search when they needed it too. but they never try to understand that they are not the only people handling those luggage. what if some one put some illegle drug in your luggage. Whoes is going to get in trouble?? you or TSA??? Seems like TSA create more security leaks than protecting security!! they need to use their brain to think not seat on it..

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