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.

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