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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 graphic detail.

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