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15 November 2010 @ 09:18 pm
Air travel, scans and searches, and you  
I've been following the recent TSA policy changes with great interest and concern. It seems that in late October 2010, TSA changed its airport security policies to include a far more invasive "pat down" for travelers who opt out of the backscatter x-ray scan (or "nude-o-scan," as it's been called). Citizens have health and privacy concerns about TSA's Advanced Imaging Technology program and privacy and other civil rights concerns about the advanced frisks. Because these methods are basically ineffective terrorism countermeasures, it upsets me that people have to endure these risks to fly. Call your senators and representatives and let them know how you feel.

Health Concerns

Airports use two types of devices primarily to scan people: millimeter wave scanners and backscatter x-ray scanners. The backscatter x-rays consist of two walls. The traveler stands between them, puts his hands up over his head, and the machine bounces low energy x-rays (ionizing radiation [1]) all over him. The energy bounces off the skin and produces a picture that looks like you without your clothes, but it also highlights high density objects like guns and knives.

This is a very low dose of radiation (0.025 μSv [2]) compared to the amount of radiation you get while flying across the U.S. (20 μSv), getting a mammogram (700 μSv), or getting a CT-scan (10,000 μSv) [3].

Traditional x-ray machines and other natural ("cosmic") radiation has a much higher energy, and it passes through the body. You can't just compare low energy radiation to high energy radiation because it affects the body differently. All this backscatter x-ray radiation is going to end up smashing into your skin, and that means it is more dangerous than high energy radiation of the same dosage. How much more dangerous? No one really knows, though some Ph.D. and M.D. types are concerned [4] and would like the government to release some more information and do some more research.

The feeling is that even if the individual dosage is very small, certain people are at higher risk for cancer and don't need the extra radiation. Pilots and other frequent flyers, the elderly, children, people with autoimmune deficiencies, and perhaps pregnant women are at higher risk.[4] Statistically speaking, someone will get cancer because of these machines, even if the government is correct about the low risk.

Privacy Concerns

The machines produce a picture that resembles you naked.[5] Obviously, this concerns a lot of people. Who sees these pictures? What guarantee do we have that our privacy won't be taken for granted? What happens to the pictures after we're gone?

According to the TSA, the person reviewing the nude images is in a remote, private room, and the machines "cannot store, print, transmit or save the image." [6] However, there is already one report of machines in a Florida federal courthouse -- not an airport, mind you -- improperly saving 35,000 images on their scanner. [7] There are also personal anecdotes [8] of bad behavior, such as TSA employees profiling attractive women for scans [9]. Human behavior being as predictable as it is, I have little faith that there isn't some improper behavior occurring here.

Opting Out

Travelers have the right to opt out of the nude-o-scan. Before late October 2010, this would get you patted down in the usual way. After October, this subjects you to a much more invasive body search that many find objectionable.

The new searching procedures involve a fully clothed body check that includes the groin, rear end, and breasts. One traveler likened it to a prison inmate intake procedure [10] and another said it reminded her of her sexual assault [11]. Many accounts [8] back up the notion of gloved hands and fingers going into very private places, sometimes not gently, and on one account without consent or warning. The procedure usually takes place right there in line, in full view of the rest of the line. TSA employees often make a big deal about you opting out of the nude-o-scan, sometimes yelling at people. There's a general feeling among travelers and some news reports that the frisk is meant to punish the person opting out and serve as an example to cow everyone else considering it.[12][13]

Would you want your young son or daughter handled this way? Remember that these are TSA employees, who are not law enforcement officers. Recall the news story about the TSA employee who was mocked by another TSA employee about his "package size" and brutally beat the other guy down with his baton in a parking lot over it.[21] Are these the people you want to trust with your privacy?

Apparently you can ask to be frisked in a private room, though it seems many TSA personnel don't volunteer that option. Also, I suspect most people fear going into a private room with TSA people more than getting frisked in front of a crowd. We've all seen the movies, right?

Opting out may also subject your baggage to closer scrutiny and cause the TSA to enforce the rules about liquids and such more rigidly. And while the TSA website says the pat down takes a few minutes, anecdotes [8] claim more serious delays.

TSA claims that you do not have the right to opt out of both the backscatter x-ray and the pat down. Once you get in line, you have consented to a security search. Saying you didn't know is no defense. It's on the website, after all.[14] There's an old court ruling saying that you never have to submit to this kind of search just to fly on an airplane. There's a more recent 9th Circuit ruling saying you do have to submit to them once you're in line.[15][16]


A lot of the arguments in favor of the new screening techniques call for any measures necessary to protect our safety. That's all well and good, until we start giving up our rights as citizens for no good reason.

These security measures are not effective. There is no evidence that the new technology would have stopped the "underwear bomber," for example. A terrorist who gets a little more creative about how far into his body he's willing to hide something can smuggle a bomb or other item past the nude-o-scan (which only goes skin deep). Also, the backscatter machines can't detect certain low-density materials, like organic compounds and certain explosives.[17]

Furthermore, the U.S. needs to entirely rethink its airport security policy. Consider how many U.S. terrorist attacks on an airplane since 9/11 have been thwarted by passengers versus TSA security checkpoints. Consider how a country like Israel handles airport security under much more serious conditions.[18]

We're basically engaging in "security theater," as security expert Bruce Schneier calls it.[19] It's expensive for taxpayers and basically ineffective. So the "any measure necessary to protect our safety" argument is flawed. The measures don't protect our safety and they aren't necessary.

What People Are Doing

A lot of people aren't worried about the scans and just grin and bare it.

Some people are calling for a boycott of the scanners (and asking for pat downs). Others are boycotting flying altogether. If you're not passing through one of the airports using the new technology [20], you're at little risk -- unless the list is out of date [14].

One guy asked for a law enforcement officer to be present during his pat down, and that seems to have saved him some grief.[8]

The Senate is holding a TSA Oversight Commission on Wednesday, November 17, 2010. Concerned citizens should check the list of senators to see if their state sits on that committee. If so, make a phone call. Let the senator's office know how you feel about the new TSA rules.


I tried to supply references for most of what I said. If I missed something for which you really would like to see a citation, just ask me and I'll do my best to supply one.

[1] ionizing radiation
[2] radiation levels from FDA
[3] sample radiation exposure
[4] concerned doctors
[5] "nudity" of backscatter x-rays
[6] privacy according to TSA
[7] privacy breach
[8] personal anecdotes
[9] "got a cutie for you"
[10] inmate intake
[11] sexual assault
[12] punishment as deterrent
[13] punishment as deterrent
[14] cannot opt out of both
[15] court decisions
[16] U.S. v. Aukai
[17] low density vulnerability
[18] Israel airport security (GREAT ARTICLE)
[19] security theater
[20] airports with AIT
[21] "suspicious package"
joepub on November 17th, 2010 04:02 am (UTC)
Hey, this is really good information. Thanks for writing it.
Wonder Woman: Cain & Adama Prank Call 2crankygirlie on November 17th, 2010 07:06 am (UTC)
This is excellent. Thank you.

Also, I love:

A lot of people aren't worried about the scans and just grin and bare it.

I chortled.
Mistress Redpenelissa_carey on November 17th, 2010 02:28 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this. People really need to see what the hell is going on, if nothing else than to be fully informed if they want to simply put up with it. Hopefully, though, enough people will be upset that a serious reevaluation takes place that in turn incites a procedural change.