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TSA body scanner controversy explored

by Kambra Potter

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The term “body scanners” is at the forefront of many conversations among traveling Americans today. However, many individuals possess a limited understanding of the Transportation Security Administration’s advanced imaging technology, which is commonly recognized as a body scanner. TSA first began deploying these AIT machines in 2007 and currently has 488 units located in 78 airports. These high-tech body scanners are also present in several U.S. courthouses and correctional facilities.

The TSA website describes AIT as a device used to screen passengers without physical contact while detecting “metallic and nonmetallic threats, including weapons, explosives and other objects concealed under layers of clothing.”

There are two types of imaging technologies used by TSA: millimeter wave technology and backscatter technology. Millimeter wave technology uses electromagnetic waves that bounce off the body to generate black and white 3-D images. In contrast, backscatter technology projects X-ray beams over a person’s body to create a chalk-etching reflection of the body on the monitor. A TSA officer in a remote location views the screened images for any irregularities. This is a different officer than the one conducting the screening; therefore, the officer does not see the actual passenger, only the scanned images. This process typically takes about one minute per passenger. Any abnormality viewed on the monitor requires further inspection such as a physical pat down. Passengers who don’t want to be scanned by the AIT have the option to receive a pat down instead.

The devices have caused quite a controversy in terms of personal privacy and the safety of the technology. TSA claims “screening is safe for all passengers, and the technology meets national health and safety standards.” It supports this claim by stating that backscatter technology was evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. According to its research, radiation levels were found to be well below the limits specified by the American National Standards Institute.

To put this into perspective, TSA claims “the energy projected by millimeter wave technology is thousands of times less than a cell phone transmission. A single scan using backscatter technology produces exposure equivalent to two minutes of flying on an airplane.”

Contrary to TSA’s safety assertions, the World’s Premier Independent Aviation News Resource explained that four University of California researchers challenged the safety of AIT by declaring the ionizing radiation used in the devices poses serious health concerns. The researchers argued that “even though the backscatter machines operate at low beam powers, the majority of their radiation is directed at the skin and underlying tissue, not the entire body.” Because the X-ray is not absorbed by the entire body, the skin dosage may be dangerously high in localized areas. Furthermore, some passengers may be at more risk, such as individuals 65 years or older, pregnant women and those who are sensitive to radiation.

In regards to privacy, the TSA website declares AIT cannot store, print, transmit or save the images after scanning is complete. However, according to, the Electronic Privacy Information Center discovered documents during a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that revealed otherwise.

“If you look at the actual technical specifications and you read the vendor contracts, you come to understand that these machines are capable of doing far more than the TSA has let on,” EPIC’s executive director, Marc Rotenberg, said in an interview with CNN.

TSA is currently taking action toward improving body screening software. Changes have already begun in millimeter wave technology machines, including the elimination of passenger-specific images. All potentially threatening items detected are indicated on a generic outline of a human body, which is the same outline for every passenger. If no threat is detected the monitor simply displays “OK” and no body outline is used. TSA began testing this new AIT software in select airports in February.

Despite the negative attention AIT has received, according to The Wall Street Journal, 73.9 percent of travelers said they would be willing to undergo body scans before getting on a plane. Nevertheless, it seems the question of whether national security can exist without infringing upon personal liberties and safety will likely remain a topic of hot debate for some time.

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