Oh, airports. We love you and we hate you. You help us get where we need to go, but you certainly have your bad moments. You’re an obstacle course of slow, winding lines at security, greasy and overpriced food, uncomfortable, sparse seating, and sudden flight delays. Not ideal.
It’s hard not to notice the most recent addition to the airport obstacle course: body scanners. Some travelers aren’t too keen about TSA agents seeing them virtually naked. Others worry that the scanners may be exposing them to cancer-causing radiation.
Yes, body scanners are a great way to alert officials to potential security threats, but is there a price we have to pay for safety? We asked questions and got answers.
Q: Will my privacy be violated?
Originally, the TSA used two types of scanners. Both could quickly detect a wide range of threats, but they used different technologies:
X-ray backscatter: The backscatter machine looks like two large blue boxes positioned side by side. It uses X-rays that reflect away — or “scatter back” — from clothing and skin, but not metal.
Millimeter wave: “Stand with your hands up.” This machine looks like a large glass telephone booth. It uses beams of radio frequency energy, like those released by cell phones, to detect concealed metallic and nonmetallic items, including weapons and explosives.
The first concerns about the scanners were about the revealing images they produced, particularly those by the X-ray backscatter machine. Many people didn’t want security looking at pictures of their naked bodies. They complained that whole-body scanning was a breach of privacy.
In response, Congress ordered that scanners be equipped with privacy software. But the makers of the backscatter systems weren’t able to meet the new requirements, and by May 2013, all backscatter machines were removed from U.S. airports. For now, all of the more than 700 body scanners used at U.S. airports are millimeter wave machines with privacy filters.
Q: Is this body scanner going to give me cancer?
While the backscatter machine raised concerns about radiation, the millimeter wave machines have raised almost no health concerns. The overall consensus among scientists is that the risks associated with millimeter wave machines are extremely low, far less than that of a single cell phone call. Still, some scientists are concerned that that there isn’t enough research on the subject.
While there’s minimal risk in a body scan, if you’re concerned, simply request a pat-down by one of the TSA agents.