Full-Body Scanners at Airports: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

body scan

In our absurdly terrorism-fearing World, and after Christmas's near tragedy, it was inevitable: Full-body scanning tech will be coming to an airport near (or not so near) you. But what are these machines, and will they invade your privacy?

Tulsa's been trying one out for ages, and yesterday Chicago's Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino confirmed that the tech will be coming to O'Hare airport lickety-split: We're talking about the next-gen in anti-terrorism tech at airports, full-body scanners. These are large machines that will go alongside the metal-detectors and baggage x-ray machines at the security point on your way into the departure lounge, and they do pretty much what you think they do: They scan your entire person for concealed weapons, bomb-making material, and, as a bonus, for stuff like baggies of marjihuana stuffed into trousers. They use various technologies, and as a front-line defense they'll be extremely useful. But, if you think about it, they'll have to be human-operated, and they effectively let the operator see you—or your wife, or your tween-age daughter—naked.

body scan

The Good

Full-body scanners use different systems, but there are two main competing technologies: Backscatter x-ray and millimeter-wave. Both of these use radiation (of a non-harmful kind, before you start worrying) that penetrates clothing.

In a baggage x-ray system, the device works pretty much like a medical x-ray, with rays penetrating through your bag to a sensor that's then connected to a screen—they use strong radiation, which is why they're plastered with those scary orange signs. Backscatter body scanners subject you to a far gentler burst of x-rays, and then detects those ones that are bounced back (scientifically: "backscattered") from your body, or objects on your person towards the machine. Concealed packets containing liquid bombs, drugs, or ceramic knives that would otherwise have passed through metal detectors undetected scatter the x-rays and are shown up.

Millimeter wave tech uses a similar system, with rays transmitted out to you and bounced back. But in this case technology borrowed from military radar designs allows for detailed "radar" images of your body to be created in a computer, and there's no use of the scary-sounding "x-ray" science. Detection of foreign, concealed objects on a body work the same.

As such, both systems are absolutely ideal for defeating the efforts of some knife-wielding would-be hijackers or bomb-laden terrorists.

The Bad

Firstly, when these systems were first dreamed up there was a notion that they'd be quicker and more efficient at doing the screening of passengers than current systems—that's better for travelers. But maybe, in our crazed-TSA-suffering society of today, they'll be an extra security layer, which will actually slow you down.

back scan

Then there's the awkward bit: While these things do certainly reveal your weapons...they also reveal your body. In detail. Down to the furry bits. And, given that they're going to have to be human-operated (with some computer assistance, for sure, but still man-in-the-loop) like the baggage machines, that means you're effectively going to be taking your clothes off for a TSA guy/gal (and how long before there's a law suit about there being no TSA girls on duty to scan women for a particular flight?) Yup—that's a stranger, a government employee. And one who's almost certainly empowered to arrange for you to be thrown in jail if you object or are, in these stupidly super-sensitive times, deemed as being "uncooperative."

body scan

Now the companies who make the machines know about this issue, and they've even worked out ways to blur the imagery of your personal regions so that the operator doesn't get to see how well you do your panty topiary.

But given where the "pantsbomber" concealed that bomb...can you imagine this system being allowed to remain? Nope.

The Ugly

The privacy implications of all this have worried individuals and pressure groups for ages, and since the machines are also being trialed for use in situations other than airports, a new lawsuit (PDF file) has just been brought against the Department of Justice concerning the illegal strip-search nature of the technology.

Full body systems are coming though, you can bet on it: Anything the TSA can do to try to justify its billion dollar budget. And in other countries too—the Dutch have just confirmed that they've started to scan people on flights to the U.S. starting now.

The moral and ethical issues are going to be vicious, and if you dissent...well, imagine you're not going to be in for a comfortable flight. How does this affect Islamic women in concealing clothes (who'll possibly be profiled as high-risk targets anyway)? What if you suffer sever psychological body image problems? What about female-to-male transsexuals, who sometimes wear a prosthetic penis? How long before some low-brow operator at LAX succumbs to the tempting dollar prize and sells on a scanner image of Britney or Tom Cruise to the gutter press? The questions just keep popping up.

And there's the last bigger question—the capacity of these machines for detecting devices/weapons concealed inside a body. Watch for that answer to emerge soon...in graphic detail.

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  • ark33

    While privacy is a matter, would you care more if a government certified officer saw your boobs (which they see thousand upon thousands daily) or if they caught someone with a weapon? I'd rather be safe. The government isn't controlling us, they are protecting us. I believe that they give us plenty of privacy. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to be scared of.

  • Jim Milan


    "While privacy is a matter, would you care more if a government certified officer saw your boobs?" -- I'm a male. When was the last time they found a woman with a giant bomb hidden underneath her boobs? Can you point me to that news article? While privacy is a matter? It apparently is not at all, to you.

    Please, inform me, as to what acts of terrorism or horrendous crime the TSA has deterred via its disgusting and invasive existence.

    While you're at it, could you please inform me at what point it became acceptable to:

    A) Take away the rights of the people because, supposedly, somebody from ANOTHER COUNTRY attacked your country?

    B) Consider the citizens of a given country guilty, no matter their age, skin color, nationality, or anything else, as hostile or "suspicious" individuals? From 4 year old, disabled children, to senior war veterans, the US public is consistently humiliated and harassed by the TSA.

    This is all unacceptable.

  • Julysstorm

    oh, for gosh sakes, it's ONLY the fourth amendment. (just a couple past the second which is also going away) Drop it already. We don't need no stinkin constitution! You Obama and other leftest, communist, liberal voting idiots

  • Art Lindielee

    Can you update this article?   Have scanners been updated or changed in any way?   I refuse to fly, am I the only one?  If I refuse a scanner and the groping pating down can they use a metal detector instead? 

  • Emily Awesome

    There are much easier/less intrusive ways to get the exact same results. This is just more proof of how the government is slowly trying to take away what little privacy citizens have left.

  • Cindy Cuthbertson

    What are we turning into a bunch of SHEEP! First they take away are dignity and are rights to privacy. What is next. Do we really think terriost are all stupid! If we know that the airports are using full body scanner then I surely think they do to! Do you really think a teriost will strap on a bomb to there leg or any other body part???? of course not. They will have to take it to the next step. In their body.

    Next scan we will be taking will be "bend over and spread your cheeks!" and ladies spread those legs!

  • darrel lane causey

    I cant believe the people in this world! Put something like privacy over their lives!!

  • Jim

    Let us remember what these machines are here for. The ability to stop tragedies. I have read all this talk about the lose of right. We are not given any rights to fly and if you don't want to be check then don't expect to get to fly. We have to be vigilant in these time as the great nation in which we live has many enemies foreign and domestic and sure this in part what they are trying to accomplish (scaring us into fighting ourselves). We have to give the powers that be the time needed to rid the world of the people against humanity and you will see a down scaling of the needed protection. If its your picture posted on the internet then that is not the problem of the machine but the discipline need for the operators.

  • Richard

    Jim, I have a 16-year-old daughter, 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. Do you think for one minute I want some perverted sex offender I don't care if he's a government agent or whatever looking at naked images of my kids! This is an invasion of privacy and goes against our constitution. I have no problem going through myself but for my wife and kids I don't think so. It's different for a man because most of us really don't care much who sees what but with women and children it’s a different story. I'm sorry but I will attest to the scanners and I have no problem getting a pat down but the methods these TSA agents are using is disgusting! I could not see some grimy pervert feeling up my wife and kids! Think about that before you support this non-sense... What's next? Keep giving the government all the power they want and before you know it we'll be walking robots!

  • darrel lane causey

    would you rather your kids and wife be patted down by someone they will probably never see in their life again or would u rather the searching rules have lots of slack in it and someone board the plane with a bomb, because you put something like privacy over the saftey concerning their lives! If they died and you survived the bombing somehow you would have definately regreted not wanting people to be properly checked!!

  • Chris Temple

    want to be in bits or have a slightly revealing image taken? bomb or image... bomb or image... hum. i think id rather be killed that let some guy check me for a bomb.


  • Ilene Wells

    Wear Your Bathing Suit Through Security The Next Time You Fly.

    I was sexually assaulted when I was 18. I fought the guy off, who had a gun. He shot me in the head, but luckily all I got was a bad burn (the gun didn't fire properly or it was a starter pistol). Anyway, I didn't fight this guy off just be subjected to flashing my naked body to strangers in order to get on a plane. I refuse to consent to letting a stranger put their hands all over my body either.

    So, I will wear my one-piece bathing suit - a racing suit which fits me like a glove - and will respectfully ask to be allowed through without being scanned or patted down. They will be able to see everything a scanner or a pat-down would detect - without subjecting me to being touched by a stranger or flashing my boobs.

    I may be flying through Chicago in a few weeks so if you hear about some woman who stripped down to her bathing suit and refused to go through the scanner - that's me. Care to join me?

  • Johnsmith

    No. You should respect the need for the top security. If they keep that machine around, and see my naked body 1000 times I don't care, as long as it is helping fight terrorism and improve flight safety. 

  • Alisha

    I'm so sorry u were attacked. I just want to let you know that wearing a swim suit won't matter.  The machine will x-ray right thru it.  Not trying to be rude, just thought you should know.

  • Michele Woody

    This is exactly what I told my husband I wanted to do when traveling....to strip down to my bathing suit and this (I feel) should show what they 'need' to see.  Personally I think dogs would work much better, be MUCH LESS expensive and they cannot be BRIBED to allow things to go through as this stuff has been happening.

  • Lex Vilanova

    I see no talk of so called "ionized radiation" exposure and it's health effects. Are we at risk with this scanner and the amount of radiation it will use?

  • jen

    Ionizing radiation is high-frequency radiation that has enough energy to remove an electron from (ionize) an atom or molecule. Ionizing radiation has enough energy to damage the DNA in cells, which in turn may lead to cancer. Gamma rays, x-rays, some high-energy UV rays, and some sub-atomic particles such as alpha particles and protons are forms of ionizing radiation.

  • Analyst Mike

    It's not always convenient to drive or take the bus if your business takes you abroad, so a 'take it or leave it' attitude just isn't appropriate. And right or wrong, good or bad, this technology will reduce the number of domestic air passengers. And given the standard solution applied by the current socialist government, the airlines would likely be another public owned utility after the bailout. First banks, then car companies, then health care and on to transportation. And to think people have died, and continue to die, defending this democratic republic!

  • Joseph Stauffacher

    This is ridiculous, how many poisons will go into our bodies with these machines? How long before a TSA employee is caught in a sex scandal in relationship to the images being taken?