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?