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Myth Busting: The Facts about TSA Full Body Scans

January 6, 2010 | Posted in: DOT,Security,Travel Safety,Travel Tips

myth busting facts about tsa full body scans

There are a handful of the so-called full body scanners in the nation’s airports, and according to the Washington Post, we can expect to see another 150 scanners in airports across the country in the next few months.

In the meantime, we’ve heard every kind of dire predition about their use from, “My naked body will end up on YouTube” to “Could this be used as kiddie porn?”

Let’s look at the myths — and lay out the facts about people’s fears.

Myth #1 — You Must Submit to a Body Scan

False. This techonology is optional for everyone. If you decline to submit, however, you will undergo a pat-down procedure (and according the the TSA, most prefer the scan).

Myth #2 — Everyone Will See Me Naked

False. First of all, facial features are blurred, so chances are no one could connect you to your scan image. Second, the TSA screener who actually sees the scan picture is “remotely located” in a separate room and never sees the actual passenger being screened; likewise, the TSA officer assisting the passenger never sees the scan picture.

Keep reading — we have more body scan myths to bust…

Myth #3 — My Naked Body Will Turn Up on YouTube

Unlikely. According to the TSA, the officers who see the images in that separate room are not allowed to have cameras, cell phones, or anything that can take a picture. Also, “each image is automatically deleted from the system after it is cleared by the remotely located security officer.” By the way, I just did a quick scan of YouTube, looking for body scan pictures and found nothing.

Myth #4 — Body Scans of Children are Illegal

Unclear, in the UK. According to the Guardian, a children’s rights group claims the scans violate the British “Protection of Children Act” which makes it illegal to create an “indecent” image of a child. Government officials have not said exactly what passengers will undergo the scans. In the U.S., scans are optional (see Myth #1).

Myth #5 — Scan Pictures Might Inflame Viewers

Unlikely. True, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but as a former Dept. of Homeland Security official told CBS news, body scan pictures are not the kind of thing “that is going to make a thirteen year old boy very excited.”

Myth #6 — Body Scans will Solve All Our Security Problems

False. No technology is foolproof and people who wish to do harm are inventive — but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use all the tools at our disposal.

40 Responses to “Myth Busting: The Facts about TSA Full Body Scans”

  1. Former traveler says:

    How about in twenty years we’ll hear, “oops, we thought the body scan was harmless, but now we now it’s not. Sorry.”

  2. Rick Seaney says:

    Former traveler,

    Does your name mean you’ve given up on flying? I hope not.

    Rick

  3. Bob Rinehuls says:

    I still have not heard anyone explain what technology is employed in creating these images (x-rays? , radio waves?, magnetic field?,) and whether there is any danger from radiation or something.

  4. Rick Seaney says:

    Bob,

    It’s properly called “wave imaging technology” and there are two kinds in use, one that using radio waves and another that uses low level x-rays.

    You can go on the TSA website and read more about it and also see a video showing exactly what happens during the procedure and how it works. Here’s a link: http://www.tsa.gov/approach/tech/imaging_technology.shtm

    Hope this helps.
    Rick

  5. rainyb says:

    According to the sample image, would this body scan have detected the explosive taped to the Detroit terrorist’s crotch? I don’t think so…..

  6. McMurray says:

    The body scans make it so much easier for my husband, with his two artificial knees, to get through security. No more pat downs. We will choose over other methods any time.

  7. Rick Seaney says:

    rainyb,

    Don’t go by that image in the story, sorry, it’s a bit outdated. I did google “body scanners airport” and came up with this pictures: http://images.google.com/images?sourceid=navclient&rlz=1T4GZAZ_enUS330US330&q=body%20scanners%20airport&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=N&hl=en&tab=wi

    Rick

  8. Rick Seaney says:

    McMurray,

    I’ve heard similar comments from other folks with medical issues like your husband’s. Glad to hear this works for you!

    And thanks for writing.
    Rick

  9. Travels too much says:

    What about the men who due to prostate cancer and subsequent surgery experience ED and as a corrective measure employ a penile pump. This information should be private between the patient, his doctor and significant other. Seeing the implant will identify the passenger for secondary screening. What about a female who had her breast(s) removed because of cancer or a family history of cancer and had reconstructive surgery. The membrane holding the silicone or liquid is of a different density of the skin and will result in secondary screening. No one in either situation should have to explain to a complete stranger or group of strangers why they had the surgery which resulted in the implant or reconstructive surgery.

  10. Chris says:

    RE: Myth #3 ??? My Naked Body Will Turn Up on YouTube

    @ MIA last week the screener was sitting ~ 20 feet from the machine and looking at the scan images there…..

  11. Rick Seaney says:

    Travels too much,

    I’m a little puzzled by your comment, in that, I don’t see a screener questioning your motives for surgery…

    Rick

  12. Rick Seaney says:

    Chris,

    Hmm, the screener was that close, huh? Has anyone else seen this? You might want to contact the TSA about this, at http://www.tsa.gov

    Rick

  13. Jenny Daniel says:

    I am not sure what all the fuss is about. I am a nurse, look at bodies all the time and it doesn’t do a thing for me. We all have the same parts, just in different proportions. I would think that safety, rather than “modesty” should be the issue. My only concern would be the amount of xray exposure required.

  14. Traveler says:

    This is a scam I sent in ligimate questions and obiviously Rick Seaney couldn’t answer them. So if they don’t like your questions or they can’t answer them they don’t print it. Don’t waste your time these are probably fake questions anyway.

  15. Rick Seaney says:

    Traveler,

    I agree, I don’t have all the answers, but I can answer your “scam” allegation: my readers’ questions and comments, which are thought provoking and are often all over the map, are genuine. Do you really think I could make them up?

    I can also tell you that a couple of days ago, we had a glitch in the system and we lost one or two comments. If one of them was yours, send it again.

    And nope, I can’t answer all questions but I’ll try to help if I can. In any event, thanks for writing (twice).

    Rick

  16. kevin says:

    In response to some of the myths and posts:
    1. Under “Myths busted”, EPIC just sued the TSA under the FOIA Act. Not only are the images able to be saved, but they are able to be “unblurred”. The images that were released on the Web were specifically toned down. More information is here:
    http://epic.org/2010/01/update—epic-posts-tsa-docume.html

    Public: read for yourself. Don’t believe what you’re told. Once you submit to this you will never get that level of privacy back again. Enough is enough.

    2. Insofar as the comment from the nurse above, yes, you see naked bodies all of the time. The difference is that the people that you see ELECT to show you themselves to better themselves. In this case, people are forced to show themselves naked to a stranger, not even a nurse who has built up a relationship.

    Finally, like I said, enough is enough. Next up a terrorist will implant something inside their body. Body cavity searches to board a plane? Come on people. Stand up for your rights and privacy or it will be taken away!

  17. Rick Seaney says:

    Kevin,

    Please see my post on the “saved images”: it addresses some of the concerns raised by EPIC
    http://rickseaney.com/2010/01/14/lets-clear-up-the-latest-myth-about-tsa-body-scan-imaging/

    Regards,
    Rick

  18. bert says:

    For all those who object to full body scans on the premise that “i don’t want anyone to know i’ve got a small [deleted] or a big fat [deleted]“, we may one day have to use these same body parts to find identify your stupid [deleted] in the rubble…

  19. Rick Seaney says:

    Bert,

    Harsh, but effective commentary. Sorry I had to delete some of it, but your point still gets across.

    Thanks for writing.
    Rick

  20. worn says:

    Rick

    I am glad this site has comment moderation. My previous 2 posts have exposed me as a gullible fool. The news article I posted the link to is a fabrication:

    http://trueslant.com/KashmirHill/2010/01/27/tsa-scanner-porn-hoax-fools-gizmodo-drudge-report/

    Man, oh man, I feel very foolish today.

    Worn had previously posted a comment that indicated the “images” from TSA body scan machines looked almost pornographic – they do not – as Worn discovered from reading the story on the link above — Rick

  21. Scott says:

    One reason the scanners are not a “magic bullet” is that they would not be able to tell an adult diaper (or other item) from underwear lined with explosives. It can tell it is there, but not what it is.
    The question is, would there be a secondary – rather intimate – screening in this case?

  22. Archie Cashion says:

    I have no intention of having my young daughter’s and wife’s bodies scanned by some pervert who wears a phony badge. This is ridiculous. I am resuming my flight training and will simple lease my own aircraft and avoid the continuing impositions by the now Socialist Federal government on my personal liberties. This is pathetic. How about creating a device that will detonate any explosive on a person and enclosing it in a secure room – if you’re carrying, you go boom. Problem solved. This is an gross violation of personal privacy and will do nothing to stop people like the shoe bomber or the moron who tried to bring down a jet in Detroit on Christmas. How about we execute a few terrorists instead of giving them “civil rights”. They have forfeited their rights to exist in my never-to-be humble opinion and I do not think that my wife and daughters should be violated for ther sakes. [Ed. note: a portion of this comment was deleted]

  23. Steve says:

    One thing I’ve noticed that hasn’t been addressed is how they seem to be moving this kind of scanning to primary rather than secondary. That makes the comparison to pat-down somewhat misleading (unless you’re traveling in countries like India where they are standard, if rather perfunctory).

    I’ve seen two things:
    -they seem to try and keep the machine “busy” in my home airport and are picking people to go through that whenever it’s available
    -in ABQ, they had two lines and the shorter one required everyone to go through this machine

    So the real question seems to me to be about whether increased safety is worth the additional invasion of privacy and the unknown risk of high frequency exposure to the radiation (despite assurances which were of course given in the past about high dose x-rays which are now restricted to urgent need)

  24. Rick Seaney says:

    Archie,

    As I noted in the post, you can opt for the pat-down instead of a scan. Or as you point out, you can fly your own plane.

    Rick

  25. Rick Seaney says:

    Scott,

    I’m not sure of the answer to this, though I suspect this is something the screeners have seen before. It’s a good question to submit to the TSA Blog, and here’s that link: http://www.tsa.gov/blog/

    Regards,
    Rick

  26. Rick Seaney says:

    Steve,

    See what the TSA has to say about that, here: http://www.tsa.gov/blog/2010/03/advanced-imaging-technology-yes-its.html

    Thanks for writing,
    Rick

  27. Laura Holmes Jost says:

    I agree with Kevin’s comments and I object to these strip search machines on privacy grounds. Widespread use of them will not make us safer, just less free. And we also may be sicker. I have read that there has been limited testing done on these machines and thus we do not know their long term impact on our health. One type (backscatter?) will increase our cumulative radiation and thus our cancer risk. I have read that the body scanner machines may alter your DNA. And for anyone who says I am wrong, the government says these machines are perfectly safe, that is the same thing the government said about Agent Orange, Thalidomide and asbestos. There is no reason to be a guinea pig for security theater – something designed to make you feel safer, not be safer.

  28. concerned says:

    The strange thing is that the body scan seems to be a distraction from the real problem. The “Underwear Bomber” would likely not have been caught by a full body scan. HOWEVER, the man should have been put on the list of people who should not be allowed to fly (which was the REAL screw up). My biggest concern is that body cavity searches are next. We really have gone TOO FAR!

  29. Ahmed Faraz says:

    The very important thing that must be discussed is the extremely dangerous effects of the rays used to take scanned images.

    Whether it is wave technology or some kind of X-ray, just think if it can pass through your whole body and produce an image, it can poise real health dangers.

    It can create mutations in the genetic structure and can also lead to cancerous cells. Who will be responsible for the mess if huge number of people report such things.

    Furthermore, this technology will at the end be challenged at the court of law and many people will sue the TSA or US Govt for the health losses. FDA takes years to clear a new drug and no body is concerned when health and life of every person is involved.

  30. Concerned says:

    I was wondering if people traveling with young children need to b scanned
    also what if someone is not aware they are pregnant and is scanned
    is it safe for the mother?

  31. Rick Seaney says:

    Concerned,

    Children do not have to be scanned. As for your other question, if there are any doubts, go with the pat-down – and I also suggest you put that question to the TSA blog, at this link: http://www.tsa.gov/blog/

    Thanks for writing.
    Rick

  32. Doc says:

    I’m surprised that so few people are concerned about unnecessary, non-medical exposure to any sort of penetrating radiation — ionizing or non-ionizing! Sure, the makers of the equipment can claim that it’s safe. The Government can say the same thing. The fact is, we simply DON’T KNOW the medical effects of low-level radiation. ALL radiation exposure can cause harm.

    The medical and radiation safety experts generally support a principle known as ALARA when it comes to ionizing radiation (e.g., x-rays). ALARA means “As Low As Reasonably Achievable.” This means that we should not expose ourselves to unnecessary ionizing radiation, and that we should weigh risks vs. benefits for each exposure. The guidelines generally condemn non-medical x-rays as unnecessary. ANY ionizing radiation exposure has the potential to cause cancer and genetic mutations — this is not in dispute.

    Now, what about RF (radio frequency) exposure? The long-accepted rule is that RF at athermal levels (not causing tissue heating) is harmless and that exposure is not cumulative. However, recent research is finding that RF at very low levels may indeed be dangerous — especially at the very low and very high frequency ranges (VLF and microwave).

    What’s my point: no matter what agency claims that these devices are safe, there’s simply no way to know that. Those of us who don’t wish to be exposed to non-medical radiation shouldn’t have to be. Even if you ignore the privacy/Constitutional issues here (unreasonably invasive search — anything to speed up those lines, right?), the problem of tracking medical effects from the scans remains. Let’s evaluate these devices for a a few years in a lab environment, under controlled circumstances. We’ve been doing OK with traditional scanners for the last few decades; we can wait a few more years. If I built an x-ray machine in my basement and sold it for unrestricted use as a non-medical device, you can bet I’d have several government agencies trying to shut me down!

    Please, if you don’t believe my points, do your own research. I have a degree in electronics engineering and nearly 20 years’ experience working with radio systems, from HF through microwaves. I am an expert in real life, not just on the internet…

  33. Schoolboy says:

    I have an upcoming debate on the matter and all your arguments have been extremely useful… so thank you!

  34. Rick Seaney says:

    Schoolboy,

    Glad to be of help.

    Best,
    Rick

  35. Derek says:

    Gordon Brown Was a traitor to his country.
    In Britain if you are asked to go through one of the scanners you must comply. If you refuse you will be barred from flying and your name will be kept on a list. Guilty before you fly. You are not given the opportunity to have a pat down. The terrorists have scarred the not properly elected Prime Minister (what a joke) in to forcing civilised human beings in to getting there naked bodies photo graphed and looked at in detail by anyone who is TRAINED. Have these perverts been vetted or are they on the sex offenders list. I bet all the Trained individuals are men. A Doctor is the only other man i would willingly let look at my wife’s naked body for medical reasons not some floor cleaner who applied for a job as pervert. Looking for bombs or staring at naked woman all day. What a job to have. Not having to pay for porn but also getting paid to look at it. I spoke to a friend at an airport and he told me that the images are kept for an hour before they are deleted. Just encase something happens on the plane they can then go back and have another look at the porn. So all this “the images aren’t stored in anyway and are deleted straight away” is complete rubbish! In order for myself and family to have a nice holiday in the sun I am expected to let my wife expose herself to a complete stranger. Do you think Winston Churchill would have aloud his loved ones to expose there genitals to strangers just so they could go on holiday. [Editor's note: this was edited for length and graphic language]

  36. Rick Seaney says:

    Derek,

    You don’t say how you feel about going through the scanner – is it okay for men, but not women?

    Cheers,
    Rick

  37. Derek. says:

    I would not go through a scanner on principle.
    A woman doesn’t look at naked man in the same way a man would look at a naked women. It should be women looking at woman and men looking at men ONLY!! You wouldn’t have a mixed sex changing room in a clothing store because of common decency so why just because the face is blurred should a man be backed by the government be aloud to photograph woman and children naked.
    As we are all well aware these scanners can send and print the pictures. If you Google, Images of the scanners you will see print off’s of the pictures also if you look at the screen the scanner sees you will see a GO ON LINE button. America has admitted that these machines store pictures. They have said they have 2000 images stored of TSA employees who have gone through the training process for the machines. That’s why one of them had his co workers taunt him over the size of his penis and he ended up in prison for assault.
    I could not willingly let another man see my wife’s naked body. I married a decent woman not some prostitute.

  38. Derek says:

    Inside info.
    At Manchester Airport the room were a person looks at the naked images of people going through these digital rape machines, there is a security camera, which as we all knows records everything.
    The best seat in the house to see naked people isn’t in the screening room but in the security room were they view the security camera footage. There they can see the face of the person who is about to go through the digital rape machine. They then sit and look at another screen and watch in full screen (because they can zoom in with the security camera) the full show of the woman or man they liked the look of being digitally raped. It’s like a little strip show as the video is of a moving naked person.
    Any video of a person you like is then recorded and you can take it home with you. All backed and enforced by the government.
    Labour started this raping of the British public,
    Let’s hope the Tories have more respect for the British public and make this a voluntary option and not a force strip search.

  39. daniel says:

    I recently was pushed through my first full body scan in Denver. I was not told what was going on simply ordered to stand here and hold up my arms. At first I thought it was one of the explosive sniffers I’ve been through before, but as they also pushed my 11 year old son…(So how does a child opt out?) through after me I realized what it was. I was very angry that these images and x-ray / microwave exposures were made with no consultation or options.

  40. Rick Seaney says:

    Daniel,

    I would have simply said, I understand children do not have to go through this procedure. Your experience surprises me. Have you contacted the TSA at your airport since then, to complain? Let me know how it turns out.

    Regards,
    Rick

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