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From Pat-Downs to Full Body Scanners: The TSA Firestorm

Get the truth about the TSA's new airport security procedures.

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tsa pat down patdown airport securityEditor's Note: Since this story was published, the TSA announced that pilots and flight attendants in uniform will be exempt from going through the new full body scanners at the airport. They will still need to go through a metal detector and present two forms of photo ID. Pilots and flight attendants who are not in uniform or on official business will have to go through the same security procedures as all other travelers. These procedures are described below.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) certainly has a firestorm on its hands as the agency continues to roll out its full body scanning machines (which are now labeled with the bureaucratically neutral name Advanced Imaging Technology machines). The use of these scanners has precipitated extremely aggressive pat-downs for those travelers who choose not to go through the machines, whether for health or privacy reasons.

These past couple of weeks, it seems like it is almost every day that a traveler has another bruising encounter with the TSA. On November 6, John Tyner was kicked out of the San Diego airport for refusing both the full body scanner and a pat-down. Tyner's blog post and film of his experience have turned into a media sensation.

It's one thing when uber-privacy advocates, bloggers and even regular (if deservedly) recalcitrant travelers refuse to go through the scanners, filming their experience the whole way -- but it is another thing entirely when a growing number of professional pilots refuse to submit to the scans.
  • First, ExpressJet/Continental Express pilot Michael Roberts refused to go through a scanner; he quickly became the poster man for the issue, and garnered considerable support from other pilots.

  • Last week, Continental pilot Ann Poe refused to be subjected to the new pat-downs; Poe has an artificial hip that always trips the metal detectors, so she ould have to undergo a mandatory pat-down for every single flight she flies. With the pat-downs now much more invasive, she refused.

  • In somewhat less dramatic but no less disconcerting fashion, author/pilot Patrick Smith of Salon's Ask the Pilot also refused to enter the scanning machines this month, and wrote about it here, the punch line being that there were no actual body scanning machines at the airport -- the agents seemed just to be practicing on Smith.
As red flags go, the refusal of the very people flying the planes to submit to the new security procedure is a pretty big one. That the TSA has a problem with pilots edges into the absurd -- you have to think that if a person who is driving a plane wants to take it down, he or she is going to figure out a way to do so. And with more than all due respect to the countless very professional TSA and other government security agents doing their jobs well and correctly, nearly every casual traveler has encountered agents who are not so professional in one way or another -- whether in their demeanor, comments, abuse of power or even just wearing a bad mood on their sleeves. So it's not hard to imagine not wanting to subject yourself to the whole thing every day just to be able to go do your job.

On the other hand, the flying public is reasonable in feeling that what is good for the goose is good for the gander: if the current system is good enough for us mere tax-paying citizen travelers, it should be good enough for pilots, and airport workers, and everyone, really. If the system were in fact safe and respectful of folks, the pilots wouldn't have a beef.

For the record, I have no problem with scanning machines (and have gone on record saying as much), as long as they do not pose a health problem -- which is still under debate, as I will show below. On a privacy basis, I really don't care if some security guard sees me quasi-naked; people see each other in various states of disrobe all the time, not only in hospitals and doctors' offices 24 hours a day, but in non-medical situations at the local pool, the gym and public restrooms. Trust me, I am no exhibitionist; I just couldn't really care less if one more person happens to see me sort of in my birthday suit, especially if the person in question is in a separate booth and can't actually associate my face with the body on the screen.

Currently, TSA has 385 imaging technology machines at 68 airports and plans to deploy approximately 500 units this year. TSA plans to purchase and deploy an additional 500 units in 2011. Unless pilot and traveler complaints really gain traction, these machines are not going away, so in hopes of cutting through the media noise and rising anger on the subject, I have tried to address most of the major issues below, with comments and clarifications from Sarah Horowitz of the Transportation Security Administration.

The Machines
full body scanner advanced imaging technology AIT tsa airport security agentsThe TSA currently uses two different scanning machines; the first uses a millimeter wave technology, which Horowitz of the TSA writes "bounces harmless electromagnetic waves off of the human body to create an image resembling a fuzzy photo negative."

The other uses backscatter X-ray technology: "Backscatter technology projects an ionizing X-ray beam over the body surface to produce an image that resembles a chalk-etching."

Irrespective of your position on privacy issues, radiation risks are and should be of serious concern to everyone.

I asked the TSA about the risks, and received the following from Horowitz, which I reproduce here in full:
Imaging technology is safe for passengers, and the technology meets all national safety and health standards. 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. Each full body scan with backscatter produces less than 10 microREM of emission, the equivalent to the exposure each person receives in about 2 minutes of airplane flight at altitude. The energy emitted by millimeter wave technology is thousands of times less than what is permitted for a cell phone.

Before TSA purchases technology, the technology is validated by manufacturers to ensure it meets national safety standards. TSA also conducts site acceptance testing of [Advanced Imaging Technology] to ensure individual AIT units meet safety standards. Once installed, TSA ensures the required manufacturer's preventive maintenance is performed by qualified personnel. Certified Health Physicists with the U.S. Army Public Health Command (Provisional) are performing additional radiation safety surveys and area dosimetry studies to ensure continued compliance with radiation safety standards.
Having extensively reviewed both scientific statements and utter rants about this issue, I would say that the jury is still out to some extent. For a look at some of the facts and concerns, which lack of space and my own lack of expertise will not permit me to address at length here, I suggest starting with the Wikipedia articles about the technologies, which will point you to a number of resources (with the standard caveat that Wikipedia is an open source encyclopedia, and is not necessarily vetted by experts).
It does appear that the backscatter machines are more of a cause for concern, at least so far, so if you are really worried, you might ask what kind of machine is in use before you walk through. Note that some travelers have reported that TSA agents on site did not know which kind of machine was in use at their own security stations, so have been unable to answer the question.


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