TSA Full Body Scans: Dangerous or Necessary?

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about the new TSA security policies, especially the new full-body scanners.  Are they safe?  Do they protect your privacy?  Are they necessary for safety?

The full-body scanners use X-rays to see through passengers’ clothing to make sure they are not carrying weapons or other dangerous paraphenalia.  Passengers who would like to opt out are subject to a full-body pat down instead,including the genitals, using the front of the agent’s hands.  This is controversial in and of itself, because some people are claiming this is akin to sexual harrassment and goes way beyond what is necessary to keep the airlines safe.

Part of the objection to the scanners from the level of X-ray that people are exposed to.  Let’s look at that first.  Is the level of x-ray significant to cause harm?  Some doctors are saying that the amount of x-ray emitted by the scanners is no more than a few minutes in an airplane (yes, there’s radiation there, too), little more than one would encounter in normal daily life, and that one would have to get 1000 chest x-rays to equal the radiation in one full-body scan.

However, other scientists say that the machines haven’t been adequately tested, and that the radiation is concentrated in certain parts of the body, which may cause harm.  Most estimates that say the scanners are safe note that the levels used would be safe if they were spread over the whole body; however, in these scanners, the x-rays are concentrated in the skin.  There have been no safety tests on the machines as they actually work, just estimates based on prior data.  They are worried about machines which use x-ray being used so casually in a non-medical setting.  There will no way to tell if scanners are truly dangerous or causing lasting damage unless independent studies are complete, or, more likely (and unfortunately), if damage pops up in 5 or 10 years.  Some pilot associations are urging their members to opt out.

So, are they safe?  If you are going through one once a year, they are probably not going to cause you enough damage to worry.  But if you travel frequently, are extremely young or old, or have health problems, it is probably wiser to opt out, from a safety standpoint.

There’s also the issue of privacy.  These full body scanners capture anatomically correct images of the people who walk throug them.  They are not supposed to be stored, and they are supposed to be deleted immediately after use.  However, there have been cases where images have been stored and released.  A New York senator has introduced legislation to prevent these images from being misused, which means there is growing concern.  The TSA agents are, of course, human.  Which means that they may save or share images even if it is against policy.

Truthfully, if this all made us significantly safer, it might be worth it.  That is, assuming that the level of radiation from the scanners was found to be as neglible as some estimate.  But this is not the case.

Over the last few years, more and more safety procedures have been put in place at the airport, each in reaction to a single incident.  After one passenger set off a shoe bomb, we all started having to remove our shoes each and every time.  What are the chances someone else would try a shoe bomb?  After another passenger used some type of liquid bomb, the amount of liquid we could have in carry-ons became restricted (which does absolutely nothing, because airlines don’t really restrict the type of liquid or packaging anymore, and also don’t place restrictions on liquids in checked luggage, which could also be dangerous.  Now, a bomber brought stuff on a plane that was under his clothes but undetectable by a metal detector, and we have full-body scans.

One incident.  Yet, the regulations for everyone have changed.

Note that they’ve only changed for airlines, too.  What about buses, trains, subways?  Even cabs?  What about all the other forms of public transportation?  We haven’t changed the safety regulations there, yet there are no additional incidents.  Sure, we could say airlines are more at risk because of international travelers, but if that’s the case, why don’t we just put extra safety on international flights, not all of them?

It’s also true that on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the busiest travel day of the year, which was supposed to be National Opt-Out Day, the scanners were all turned off so that when the media arrived to report the story, there would be nothing happening.  If they are not necessary to keep us safe on the busiest travel day of the year, they are never necessary.

I believe that ordinary medal detectors (which do not emit radiation) are fine to protect us.  No matter what protocols are put in place, people who are determined to bring a bomb or other weapon on a plane will find a unique way to do it.  Unique, never before thought of.  All these new regulations do nothing but slow down and humiliate passengers.  Although this is probably going to be opposed, I think that some racial profiling and certainly a list of passengers who are convicted fellons or known terrorists needs to be distributed so that these people can be stopped individually.  It is true that certain people are in a higher risk category than others.  It’s unfortunate, but a Middle Eastern, 30-something man traveling alone is a far higher risk than a 60-year-old woman traveling with her entire family.  While we shouldn’t single people out just because they are different, we need some type of system to identify those who are true risks.

But the truth is, those who are real risks will probably still slip by from time to time.  But one incident every year or two, which will probably happen no matter what safety protocols are in place is probably worth it to protect our privacy.  We’ll be saying no to full body scanners, for ethical as well as health concerns.

What do you think of the full-body scanners?  Would you subject yourself or your family members to one?  Why or why not?





  1. Jennifer says

    The scanners were operating on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving at the Atlanta airport. I hardly fly, so they do not bother me, but if I flew daily, I would be bothered by them.

  2. Janice says

    There are also 2 types of full body scanners in use. One uses X-ray, the other uses a Millimeter Wave. In theory, the Millimeter Wave (which is what is at our local airport) would be a better choice since it outputs no radiation, but they would need to put testing in place to ensure the wave is the correct length. My OB/GYN actually advised me to opt out when we travelled over Thanksgiving since he isn't convinced the scanners are safe for pregnant women or fetuses.

    My husband and I had long discussions about what we would do if we were selected for the scans. We have a 2 year old and we do not want her being scanned or patted down so we were fully prepared not to make it to our destination. We might have felt differently if TSA had policies to prevent pedaphiles from being hired, but they don't right now. We also decided to drive instead of fly at Christmas to save the aggravation.

  3. says

    The whole thing just makes me mad. I believe it is an invasion of privacy that does little to nothing to actually preserve our safety. Just another way the government is desensitizing us to having our freedoms taken away.

    I am debating on what I will do next time I fly… (which isn't very often, thankfully)…

    And I hadn't heard about the concern regarding the radiation issue…. But it's a very good point.

  4. says

    We don't fly often (too expensive for our family of five) but if we were to, say, want to visit my sister on the east coast next summer…I'm not sure what we'd do. I object to the scanners on a medical basis (we don't KNOW what they're really doing to our bodies) and also on a constitutional basis (right to security of my person, no unreasonable searches). But subjecting myself and my children to a full contact pat down? No, I really don't want my kids to think that is ever ok. We're always said that ONLY doctors and parents get to touch them, and I think it could get very confusing very quickly to have TSA agents playing touching "games" (yes, this is actually happening). It makes me angry that we've lost our sense of liberty to this extent. Naked body scans just to get on an airplane? REALLY???

  5. says

    I agree with your very well written post. It is an invasion of privacy, a successful experiment in sociology (will we do stuff just because we're told, not because we know what's going on and believe it to be the best course of action), and a big step in the wrong direction for our "free" country.

    I also agree that some type of racial profiling should be in place, but I also agree with you that it's a sad state of affairs that we have to do it. As Christians, we are called to love everyone regardless of their skin color, etc. but the fact is that there are far more people of a certain nationality causing problems than others.

    This past summer my husband and I flew (before the body scanners were being so widely used) and AFTER we passed security, in the line to board the plane, two security personnel pulled me randomly out of line and patted me down!

    Obviously you don't know me, but I am 35, Caucasian, blue eyes, brown hair, 5'8", was carrying two coats over my arm and my purse/carry on and was with my Caucasian husband who is also in his mid 30's. Really? Are there many Caucasian couples out there sneaking through security checkpoints to bomb planes? Seriously, folks! Stop wasting your time trying not to offend anyone and start checking the folks that really look to be dangerous.

    We fly almost never, but recently my husband has had to fly for work, and will be flying again in the next couple weeks. We've been looking in to the health issues with the scans and have found some great info over on Dr. Mercola's website. He says that the radiation you get when you are on an airplane is so great compared to the scan radiation, that opting out for health reasons is virtually invalid, since you're getting on an airplane anyways.

    My husband will opt out anyways, and doesn't care about the pat down. What does concern me, though, is the hygienic issue. As far as I know, the security folks are not required to change gloves for each person. What about transferring scabies, bedbugs, etc. from person to person with contaminated gloves!? Yikes!

    I think, ultimately, instead of saying "which would we choose", we need to be saying "how will WE, THe PEOPLE" stop this?!

  6. Kelly says

    Great post! I just got back from a trip in which I would have preferred to fly (really don't like driving) but we drove anyway-decision made before these new practices were put into place. Your point about it not really helping is very valid, in my opinion. I also FULLY agree with you on profiling. ALL ATTACKS have been perpetrated by middle eastern males. If I were a middle eastern male I'd be upset with the terrorists making a bad name. However, I do wonder if that would just cause the terrorists to recruit the non typical profile to do their dirty work. I wonder if this will hurt airline's profits enough for them to say NO MORE SCANNING!

    Emily-I agree with your position. It would be very confusing for kids who have learned that touching of that type is wrong, but then have their own parents put them thru it. Not that the parents would choose that, but would seem to have no choice if they have to fly.

  7. Amy says

    Great sans the racial profiling. Yes there are a larger percentage, but I have a feeling that is going to change. Any way you cut it some is going on (how many "scary people" do you think are being chosen for scans/ additional screening… I'll take bets on about 100% are), but that does not make it okay for us to say for our benefit that others should have to be put through more rigorous testing/ inconvenience. It is still a small segment of that population making poor choices, if the shoe was on the other foot (say an extremist religious sect sprung from Christian Beliefs taking down planes, how would we all feel if suddenly we were all singled out.

    Besides they already recruit/ train westerners, and have been for a while. ( http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26564997 )

    I agree that most of the "security" is really anything but, and not really necessary either.

  8. says

    You addressed privacy and safety, but missed the biggest reason the scanners AND sexual assault groping should…and, I think will…be banned is a little thing called the US Constitution, specifically the 8th amendment that bans unreasonable search and seizure.

    The republic is sliding downhill folks. We woke up to vote November 2. Will we stay awake, or will we go back asleep, laying on the couch watching American Idol?

  9. says

    I am rather upset about all having to decide between the lesser of two evils whenever my family needs to fly. My husband's parents buy us tickets every year for Christmas, and I really wish that had not already bought them this year so that we could drive instead. The airport we are flying to (San Antonio) does have the scanners in place, so we may face the decision.

    After all that I have been reading about the scanners, I want to opt out, but I am so very against pat downs. I also have a 6 month old baby, and it angers me to think that she could be subjected to a patdown- a BABY! I don't want anyone I don't know touching my child like that.

    This really is a violation of the 8th amendment, since its based on a "guilt until proven innocent" premise. We will fly this holiday season, but only because we don't have much of a choice since our tickets are already bought and cannot be returned. But I will be driving or taking a train from now on, taking a stand for what is right.

    • says

      The TSA is not affiliated with CAIR and lkleiy does not appreciate their suggestions. This release by CAIR (an American Muslim advocacy group) is a suggestion to help Muslim women cope with the new technology. The group is pushing to have Muslim women (who wear the hijab) be exempt from the machines entirely; however, this is yet to materialized. So yes this release is real, but no it is not endorsed by the TSA.

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