Fast Company

Should You Be Afraid of Airport Body Scans? Or Just the TSA?

We've talked a lot about full-body security scans in airports, as it's powerful and challenging tech. But should travelers worry about them--or is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) what they should be more concerned about?

Over two dozen complaints filed with the TSA over the last year suggest that it's failing to do this job as well as it really should. Over 51 pages of these documents have just been requested by the Electronic Privacy Information Center under the Freedom of Information Act. They cover a broad swath of issues, with the main issue being lack of full disclosure by the TSA. Travelers complained there wasn't enough signage, or explanations about an alternative to the scan (a detailed pat-down by a person.) And others expressed concern that there was no explanation about the safety or potential risks involved in exposing children or pregnant women to the scans--medical issues which it's frankly inexcusable of the TSA to not be open about.

Some background: Most full-body scans essentially use electromagnetic radiations which are capable of penetrating through clothing but which bounce off flesh. Image sensors then create a picture of your body as if it were unclothed--leaving few places left to conceal weapons or contraband items. The scans are an augmented layer of security, designed to accompany metal detectors and pat-downs, alongside x-raying of your hand luggage. And they're being promoted all around the world as the next great thing in terrorism prevention, partly in the wake of the underwear bomber.

But of course, with a system that effectively renders you naked for some TSA employee to ogle over there will be privacy concerns. And, frankly, these things are such new technology that the public is wary. After all, the concept of being gently x-rayed or illuminated with millimeter-wave radio just doesn't necessarily seem particularly safe to the lay mind. With these issues in the forefront of your mind, if you were in charge of security wouldn't you think it wise to be open and informative to the millions of members of the public in your care?

So lets set the record straight on the TSA's behalf: Being exposed to the low-intensity waves from a millimeter-wave scanner is really not much different to sitting at home being bathed in your broadband's Wi-fi signals and cell phone waves. There's controversy about these radiations in terms of long term exposure, sure, but the overwhelming scientific evidence is that they're safe, and that safety umbrella should also extend over millimeter wave scanners. There is some fuss about the potential for the waves in question to damage DNA, which may have future health implications, but for now the majority of evidence weighs on the "safe" side.

Meanwhile backscatter airport scanner systems use x-rays, which sounds like a tech the public will be afraid of--when you go get an x-ray in hospital, the nurses are wearing lead protection for example. But each time you're scanned you're exposed to less than 0.001 mrems of radiation: For comparison, the safety limit is around 25 mrems per year from a single source of x-rays. In other words, it's safe for everyone.

That about wraps it up in terms of safety for the appliances in question. But the TSA, it would seem, needs to get its act together on this matter--as full-body scanners are going to become ubiquitous whether we, the public, like it or not.

Update: While we are aware that the full body scanner pictures that appeared in this article were only a simulation, some readers felt that they were a misleading depiction of what the image from a full body scanner looks like. The images have been removed to avoid any confusion.

Folks--a lot of you have got yourselves all in a twist about the image that originally accompanied this piece. There are two things to note: First up, the main thrust of the writing is to highlight how well or badly the TSA appears to be performing when it comes to explaining this (potentially unsettling) technology to citizen travelers who are obliged to face scanning. The issues of personal privacy the tech raises have been oft-debated elsewhere. Secondly, check out the image below. The left portion contains a "mocked up" scanner image, created by inverting a picture of a naked person. The right two are scans from real airport-grade machines. It's up to you to decide which reveals more "intimate" details of the bodies in question.

body scans

[Via PCWorld]

To peep through the clothing of more news like this follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.

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19 Comments

  • Billy Gands

    I say a better course of action would be to just ban clothing all together. It would also speed up the security lines because there would be no need to scan anyone. Hey, it would also reduce the weight of luggage as there would be no more need to pack clothes. Of course, this would put clothing manufacturers out of business, and I shutter to think of where I might have to carry my wallet. It would also make the clerk at the local 7-11 a little reluctant to accept any cash that came from the wallet. But hey, isnt that the new American way? Security at ALL cost?

    No, Im not advocating a "nudity required society". But I guess when people are scared, constitutional rights mean nothing. Whats next? Road side strip searches for all traffic stops just to make sure people arent carrying drugs?

    If you look back over the last decade, this violation of rights is nothing compared to what has been stripped from us in the Patriot Act. My hope is this will cause enough outrage that people will finally decide to take a stand to restore the ENTIRE constitution of the US.

  • horace manoor

    a picture's worth a thousand words -- the photo showing the tsa worker taking the image of that svelte young woman is racial stereotyping

  • Jo-Anna Reilly

    are these the same reassuring scientists who vetted the many prescription drugs that have been yanked off the market? and cell phones?

    so what comes after the next terrorist hides something vaginally or anally or behind his penis?

    more money for the scam war on terror is what.

  • Tracy Corbett

    Regardless of the accuracy of the images in this article, the main point for me is that these machines are a further invasion of our privacy by government officials in the holy war on terrorism. Ironically, we are all probably much likelier to develop medical problems from this radiation than we are likely to ever experience a genuine terrorist attack. -Tracy Corbett @ Harmonic Relaxation

  • Shannon Sofield

    They removed the "inverted" image, but left the equally fake "Before Invert" picture up which is still lying. Compared to the real pictures on the right, it gives much more detail and is still an image created from the CGI model used for the original fake image they removed. They are still lying by using the details able to be seen by the scanners. This is hurting the debate.

  • Bob Lee

    Gosh - scanners, of course, should be required for entrances to all government buildings in the interest of promoting transparency - especially for civil marriage license bureaus to promote real-time truth in betrothal vows. Social Security and Medicare Benefits offices could use this for on-site review of benefits claims. With respect to public venues which attract a high-volume of traffic, like football coliseums and basketball arenas, scanners would prove to very useful in reducing the importation of prohibited beverages and other contraband, while improving alcoholic beverage concession sales by at least 49% at all major league franchises. This will likely lead to a reduction in the famous American reserve or Puritan prudery, which is not shared with Europeans at large. It will also likely lead to an increase in weight reduction program sales. Scanner vendors only need to add a user option to connect an image to Facebook to improve unit sales across the world. These units should be popping up at Coney Island and other popular tourist venues to replace the old photo booths. The sky is the limit for body scanner opportunities. Find one at a tanning booth near you in the near future!

  • Robert Mood

    Ok. I was so fascinated with the picture and at the same time made me concerned how people can abuse this.
    I mean don't you think people would abuse it as a new porn?
    I hope this is a hoax picture like David point out below but who know?
    Am I too concerned on this? I would love to scan Angelina Jolie and so do TSA employees.

    I made a poll on this. vote on here.
    http://www.livecitizen.com/201...

  • Jonathan W

    I agree with Kashmir Hill, I think that it's deceptive not to openly state that this photograph is not legitimate. You seem to be a thoughtful person Mr. Eaton; concerned about people and their rights but you have to understand it's examples like this that make people skeptical of certain media outlets. You should add a brief statement now, so as not to mislead anyone (better late than never). If you won't, I think Fast Company needs to alter the illustration or add a comment to the page somewhere.

  • David Steadson

    @kit So what you're saying is you put up a picture of a naked women to get more readers ... :-)

    (and yes, it's quite dissimilar to authentic pics)

  • Kashmir Hill

    Kit Eaton, you say you knew those "inverted images" were a hoax (http://trueslant.com/KashmirHi... and that you used them anyway. But you did not note that anywhere in this piece, which makes me think that you're being dishonest. If you're not being dishonest, then you're being unethical. It's inappropriate to use those images without noting anywhere in this piece that they are fake.

    In fact, it does not appear possible to "invert" the true TSA scanner images this way -- when these photos first surfaced, many bloggers played around with actual images in Photoshop. In fact, they are highly dissimilar and I'm shocked and dismayed as a fellow journalist/blogger to see your response to David Steadson.

  • J T

    irony? notice that the person with the athletic body is being scanned, the overweight TSA employee is doing the scanning.

  • Lou Sullivan

    First, Nurses don't x-ray. Radiologic Technologist x-ray people. Which is a seperate profession.

    Second, it is not 25 mrem a yr, it is 5 mrem a yr, not from a single source but from multiple x-rays or sources.

    Third, aprons are only worn when we are exposed to x-rays either from fluoroscope or when we have to hold a patient.

  • Chuck Wilson

    In my opinion full-body scans and detailed pat-downs should be reserved for those who arouse suspicion. I've heard a lot of stories about people being afraid of the statistically small chance they have of being killed by terrorism, but I haven't heard a good argument for stripping everyone of their 4th amendment rights out of fear alone. I will support, however, the ubiquitous use of these extremely invasive measures provided we get rid of the last line of the Star-Spangled Banner. We have no business pretending we're free or brave anymore.

  • Chuck Wilson

    In my opinion full-body scans and detailed pat-downs should be reserved for those who arouse suspicion. I've heard a lot of stories about people being afraid of the statistically small chance they have of being killed by terrorism, but I haven't heard a good argument for stripping everyone of their 4th amendment rights out of fear alone. I will support, however, the ubiquitous use of these extremely invasive measures provided we get rid of the last line of the Star-Spangled Banner. We have no business pretending we're free or brave anymore.

  • Whys Alives

    David, I suspect the author knows the image is a hoax. Their article's failure to even mention in passing the elephant in the room could only be intentional. How cleaver. Put up a hoax image and then only talk about the health issue, which is itself a non-issue. This doesn't even qualify as "reporting".

  • Kit Eaton

    @Noel. Lol.
    @David. Yup. We know. But that's basically the point, since it's not *too* dissimilar to the imagery these things produce, which taps neatly into the privacy issues.
    @Joseph. Hmmm. I wouldn't single out a particular group like that... I suspect many a person will get privacy heeby-jeebys when exposed to these things, no matter who they are. And we'll all be *legally* expected to accept it as a state-enforced re-definition of privacy.

  • Chuck Wilson

    In my opinion full-body scans and detailed pat-downs should be reserved for those who arouse suspicion. I've heard a lot of stories about people being afraid of the statistically small chance they have of being killed by terrorism, but I haven't heard a good argument for stripping everyone of their 4th amendment rights out of fear alone. I will support, however, the ubiquitous use of these extremely invasive measures provided we get rid of the last line of the Star-Spangled Banner. We have no business pretending we're free or brave anymore.

  • Joseph Taylor

    If possible, would like to sop the implementation of these airport scanners. We must admit that we are still conservative when it comes to privacy especially for women. It will be very uncomfortable for them if they undergo with this test.Joseph Taylor

  • David Steadson

    The "inverted image" picture you posted at the top is a known hoax. Someone talk a naked image of a CGI generated girl and inverted it and then claimed it was a scanner image. Not surprisingly, inverting it back produced the naked image.

    More here -
    http://www.tatumba.com/blog/ar...