FAQ: Airport Body Scanners

Posted Jan 6th 2010 06:05 PMUpdated Nov 30th 2010 06:19 AM



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.

More than 200 machines are in place at 51 U.S. airports (as of Sept. 15) and TSA has plans to install more -- 1,000 in total by the end of 2011. 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 include 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 500 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@aol.com

Filed Under: Air Travel, News

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nanette brennan

I have a breast prosthesis. How is that handled at security checkpoints ? I don't like the idea of the pat-down, but is the scanner discriminating enough to rule a silicone prosthesis as innocent ?

March 07 2011 at 6:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have a plate inserted in my neck and it is fused with 4 screws. Is it safe for me to go through the full body scanner?


February 01 2011 at 12:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Airport body scanner security can be harmful to the human body. A recent survey shows that most travelers have a nice body scanner. Scanners are considered a central war on terror. I think the full body scans are invasive but necessary - if you want to travel on a plane that everyone thinks the bomb (its a natural and signs everywhere). I say the whole body scan or not to fly. This is invasive, but if it means I have not blown up 30 000 m scan away! At the end of the day are losing some ruined for everyone.

November 11 2010 at 7:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to kainen28's comment

I think your logic or the lack thereof is what is ruining are country. Maybe it is that you don't understand our bill of rights and our forefathers who fought so hard to attain those rights perhaps you don't care. You personally don't mind throwing away the fourth amendment if your safety is guaranteed because you are understandably fearful of evil forces. However what if the government becomes the evil force and uses your surrender against all of us citizens. This exact thing has occurred many times in the history of the world. To many to list but in the most recent centuries I would note Nazi Germany, communist Russia and China as examples of a government using its power to oppress people because they were scared into surrendering basic human rights. If you think you are any safer because of the body scans you are ignorant of the facts. The TSA was unable to stop the underwear bomber and the only reason that plane was not blown up was due to the incompetence of the bomber. When you go through the secured checkpoint it is against TSA rules to leave ones carry ons unattended and if they are unattended they will be confiscated and searched. Now if the TSA is so certain their invasive and unconstitutional measures do prevent would be terrorists why would it be policy to search unattended bags in the secured area? The only logical conclusion one can draw is that the TSA knows explosives can be brought into the "secured area" and therefore needs to pay attention to unattended bags. You have to ask yourself how many liberties you are willing to throw away because of your fear. Will you let the police conduct random screenings on your automobile while in transit? Because after all these terrorists need to get to the airport. How about random searches of your residence or random searches of ones meetings with mental health officials. If you know the truth about 9/11 you know it was our governments fault when they federally mandated firearms be removed from the cockpit. If there was a firearm in the cockpit it would have been impossible for the plane to be hijacked with boxcutters would it not? And furthermore our NORAD a billion dollar federal program was ordered to stand down and let the events run their course. Those are indisputable facts. And where has this gotten us? People in this once great and fearless country are so scared they may be attacked we now accept the policy that any American citizen can be arrested and held indefinitely without due process trial or attorney and tortured per the Patriot Act. Furthermore we accept the policy that any American citizen can be targeted for assassination by the CIA with no trial or charges. One victim of such assassination was a 16 year old child. Please hold dear the principles are founding fathers spilled blood for and if you are unaware of those principles read a book on the American revolution as well as our constitution.

March 19 2012 at 12:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Karr Linkous

After getting a pacemaker in 2007 I have had to have a pat-down. On my flight last week I had a full-body scan. I LOVE it. Much quicker--it took about 30 seconds whereas the pat-down process sometimes took 5 minutes or more at a busy airport as a result of having to wait for someone to pat me down--and much more pleasant--some patters are very gentle, others much less so.

November 03 2010 at 10:52 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Karr Linkous's comment

You wont like it so much if you get cancer from the radiation. Of course the government tells you its safe yet they also told the troops in Vietnam a herbicide called "Agent Orange" was safe and many a veteran will tell you this was simply not true. The facts are radiation is not safe and too much exposure can have significant health problems. I pray that you are not pregnant and if you are opt for a pat down before exposing a defenseless baby to harm.

March 19 2012 at 12:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I beleive that for True Security at Airports and for people flying from one destination to another, that "ALL" Passengers should have to Fly Naked. This will be the most secure form of Air Travel Security, because if someone is flying Naked, there will only be one place that they will be able to hide a weapon, and that will be up in their Butt. I also believe that "NO" CARRY ON BAGGAGE should be allowed, not even Medications. If someone has a Medical Problem and need their medication, then they should have to take it before the flight, in front of the Airport Medical Staff. YES Most Airports DO HAVE a Medical Staff, incase you are wondering.
****Just think of the Money that the Airlines will rake in because of the Security of ALL the passengers Flying naked. If a passenger does not want to Fly naked, and Check ALL Baggage, then they must find another means of Transportation. Hopefully, the Bus Companies, and the Railway Companies will adopt this Travel naked Security Policy.

October 28 2010 at 6:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

On a recent trip through the Detroit airport, my metal prosthetic hip set off the metal detector (as always), and I was asked to pass through a body scanner. I respectfully declined, and requested the option of the wanding and pat-down. The TSA officer responded with grumbling, eye-rolling, and a hard sell on the machine, which I was not interested in hearing, because I had already done reading about it and decided I did not want to use it. After a wait of several minutes, during which none of the TSA officers asked me if anyone was with me to watch my valuables (I was detained where I could not really see them), a female officer finally came over to take me for screening. NO METAL DETECTING WAND WAS USED (one was used in every other screening to which I have ever been subjected), and the officer pressed with the backs of her hands on the tops of my breasts and seemed to linger there more than I thought was necessary. In fact, I do not remember on any other occasion having my breasts (not large or otherwise suspicious-looking) patted down, except a check of bra underwires with the outer edge of a hand. After I left the screening, I realized that the pat-down I received must have been an attempt to make that option more obnoxious to the traveler than the scanner, in order to reduce future requests for pat-downs and make the screening process easier for the TSA officers. They certainly weren't concerned with locating the metal that triggered the metal detector, because a hand-held metal detector was never used.

September 17 2010 at 12:38 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ralph warren

What effect does the millimeter wave technology unit have on pacemakers, since any magnetic waves will affect the program. I know that I can't use a sonicare toothbrush because it affects my biventricular pacemaker.

September 16 2010 at 5:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Blowing up a plane is not a very effective terrorist attack. If someone really wanted to kill a bunch of people they'd blow up a crowded public place with no security. The only reason people are so scared of bombs on planes is 9/11. If that had never happened, people would never allow machines to radiate them and see them naked in the airport. Maybe we should stop and consider that no steel reinforced buildings have ever collapsed much less crumbled on themselves from planes crashing into them. There are thousands of architects and engineers that disagree with the official 9/11 story. This is only the tip of the unconstitutional iceberg. http://www.ae911truth.org/

August 26 2010 at 7:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Lynn Moore


August 19 2010 at 11:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I feel this is not only an invation of our rights of privosy but a danger to some of us. I have a implant in my body for medical purposes and can not have many types of x-rays as they can distroy working of this devise. If this x-ray is ever mandatory I will not be able to fly which is against my rights of choice. I am totally against this type of search.

August 15 2010 at 11:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to angel's comment

And for that you are a true American. God Bless you

March 19 2012 at 12:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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