FAQ: Airport Body Scanners

FAQ: Airport Body Scanners

by Fran Golden Subscribe to Fran Golden’s postsPosted Jan 6th 2010 06:05 PM

Transportation Security Administration

Since our initial interview with the Transportation Security Administration there has been growing opposition to full body scanners at airports including warnings from medical experts that the machines may be more dangerous to passengers’ health than initially thought.

A noted scientist, Dr. David Brenner, chief of the center for radiological research at New York’s Columbia University, has been quoted by a number of media outlets questioning whether the machines may pose a skin cancer risk, especially in children.

The European Commission issued a report in June saying scientific assessment of potential health risks is needed before the machines are deployed there, though individual countries are free to decide whether or not to use them. The report also said the machines “bring a serious risk of fragmenting fundamental rights of EU citizens.”

In Dubai, security officials said the machines would not be used because of concerns about personal privacy and because health risks are unknown.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has also raised questions about whether the machines can even detect explosives or other dangerous items people might hide. At the same time the International Air Transport Association, which represents 250 airlines around the world including most major U.S. carriers, has questioned how body scanners fit into a comprehensive security plan.

The machines are in place at 39 U.S. airports (as of July 16) and TSA has plans to install more. Given all these developments, AOL Travel went back to the TSA and spokesman Jon Allen for an update.


How does TSA respond to new concerns voiced Dr. Brenner, that radiation from scanners has been “underestimated” and could pose a risk of skin cancer in certain groups including children?

Advanced imaging technology screening is safe for all passengers, including pregnant women and children. Backscatter technology was evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). All results confirmed that the radiation doses for the individuals being screened, operators, and bystanders were well below the dose limits specified by the American National Standards Institute.

The International Air Transport Association says TSA lacks “a strategy and vision” on how body scanners fit into a comprehensive security plan and amount to “putting the cart before the horse.” How does TSA respond?

TSA first piloted advanced imaging technology in 2007, and Congress approved TSA’s current deployment plan in May 2009. Following the attempted attack on December 25, President Obama called for accelerated deployment of advanced imaging technology. Since then, TSA has worked closely with airports to identify candidates based on risk, airport readiness, and operational suitability. TSA works with each airport to determine the best location for each machine to process passengers efficiently and achieve its security goals.

Do these machines actually have the capability of detecting dangerous items concealed on the body? The GAO among others has raised questions in this area. Have body scanners been fully tested in this regard?

While there is no silver bullet technology, advanced imaging technology is very effective at detecting metallic and nonmetallic threats on passengers, including explosives. While evaluating imaging technology at airports security officers have identified concealed prohibited and illegal items on passengers attempting to pass through the security checkpoint. Further, this technology doesn’t stand alone: it’s one part of our multi-layered strategy to minimize risk, deter future attacks and protect the traveling public.

TSA began piloting imaging technology in early 2007. Through the pilot process, TSA gained operational information used to enhance training, improve the screening process and further bolster detection capabilities. Using this critical technology, TSA routinely detects artfully concealed metallic and nonmetallic prohibited items.

TSA completed comprehensive operational testing and evaluation of this technology and is confident that it will significantly increase our detection capability at the checkpoint. TSA’s Operational Testing and Evaluation of this technology strongly validates the benefits and efficacy of advanced imaging technology to address the threat we face. When it comes to the safety of the traveling public, the nation’s security matters most which is why we’re working to quickly deploy advanced imaging technology to keep our skies safe.

Would body scanning machines have stopped the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmatallab to blow up the Detroit-bound jet on Christmas?

Imaging technology can detect both metallic and non-metallic threat items which includes a wide range of substances to include powders. It is a proven technology and we are highly confident in its detection capabilities.


Below are updated answers to our earlier conversation with the TSA’s Jon Allen, who first helped us decode the mystery behind the machines.

Which airports are planning to get the devices?

In March 2010, TSA began deploying 450 advanced imaging technology units, and plans to deploy an additional 500 units in 2011. TSA will make airport announcements once they are finalized. Visit the TSA website for a list of locations.

Will everybody be scanned, or only certain individuals?

This screening option is completely voluntary to all passengers.

Can you decline a full body scan?

Yes, for now, but you must submit to a full body pat-down.

Do they save the scanned images?

There is no storage capability. No cameras, cellular telephones, or any device capable of capturing an image is permitted in the remotely-located resolution room. Use of such a device is a terminable offense.”

Are they harmful for any individuals?

Two types of scanners currently exist: the millimeter wave scanner and the backscatter scanner.

Millimeter wave technology bounces harmless electromagnetic waves off the human body to create a black and white image. The energy emitted by millimeter wave technology is thousands times less than what is permitted for a cell phone.

Backscatter technology projects an ionizing X-ray beam over the body surface at high speed. The reflection, or backscatter, of the beam is detected, digitized and displayed on a monitor. Each scan produces less than 10 microrem of emission, equivalent to the exposure each person receives in about two minutes on an airplane flight at altitude.

Who sees the images?

Passenger privacy is ensured through the anonymity of the image. The transportation security officer attending the passenger cannot view the image, and the remotely-located officer who views the image cannot physically see the passenger. Images are not stored, transmitted or printed and are deleted immediately once viewed by the remotely-located officer.

Just how much is revealed in the full body scan?

Advanced imaging technology detects both metallic and non-metallic threats which may be concealed under a passenger’s clothing. A privacy filter is applied to blur all images produced by the technology. A sample image of what officers see can be found at the TSA website.

How long do the scans take?

While the scan itself takes a matter of seconds, it takes approximately 20 seconds for a passenger to complete the screening process with advanced imaging technology if no anomalies are detected.

Will this solve the airport security problem?

Advanced imaging technology safely screens passengers for metallic and nonmetallic threats including weapons, explosives and other objects concealed under layers of clothing without physical contact. Threats to aviation continue to evolve. The use of new and innovative technologies helps us stay ahead of those intent on harming our nation.

What do you think? Do full body scanners make you feel safer, or do you feel like they are a violation of privacy? Write to us and let us know: Travelcomments

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