What the TSA’s new body-scanner rules mean for you

The Transportation Security Administration’s new rules for screening passengers with its controversial full-body scanners — which were quietly changed just before the busy holiday travel season — represent a significant policy reversal that could affect your next flight.

Getting checked by the TSA’s advanced-imaging technology used to be entirely optional, allowing those who refused a scan to be subjected to a pat-down. In fact, many observers thought the agency installed the 740 body scanners in 160 airports with an understanding that no one would be forced to use them, ever.

But on a Friday in late December, the TSA revised its rules, saying an “opt out” is no longer an option for certain passengers. (The full document can be found on the Department of Homeland Security’s website.) The decision drew mixed reaction from experts and raised concerns from passengers. The biggest: Will I get pushed through one of these scanners before I board my next flight?

“Most people will be able to opt out,” says Bruce Anderson, a TSA spokesman. “Some passengers will be required to undergo advanced-imaging screening if their boarding pass indicates that they have been selected for enhanced screening, in accordance with TSA regulations, prior to their arrival at the security checkpoint. This will occur in a very limited number of circumstances.”

To some, the change appeared to be timed to ensure a muted public response. It escaped the traveling public’s notice until almost a week later, which happened to be Christmas Eve. Anderson says the TSA wasn’t waiting for a slow news day. “The revision to this policy was designed to provide TSA with the flexibility necessary to address immediate security concerns,” he says. Either way, barring a major outcry, the new opt-out rules are likely to stick. But it’s still too early to tell how the TSA plans to implement its new protocol or how the vague guidelines could affect your spring break or summer flights. That, say TSA observers, is cause for concern.

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Passenger advocates object to the full-body scanners on many levels. The pricey machines, they say, were deployed without giving the public a chance to comment, a process required by federal law. They also say the devices violate the Fourth Amendment right to protection from unreasonable searches and seizures. Also, the scanners have not been adequately tested and may present health risks, some claim.

Critics say the technology is easily foiled and ultimately ineffective at identifying threats, citing an audit in which the TSA failed to catch weapons 67 of 70 times. To date, the scanners have not thwarted a single attempted terrorist attack, these agency-watchers correctly point out. What’s more, the agency has broken a promise it made to passengers and legislators when it began installing the scanners in 2009.

“The TSA is going back on its word,” says Fred Cate, a law professor at Indiana University and prominent TSA-watcher. “The scanners were sold to Congress and the public on the promise that they were optional, but for at least some people, that is no longer the case.”

Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which filed the original lawsuit to suspend deployment of the devices, says the new policy represents an important reversal. In previous court filings, the agency offered written assurance that the scanners were optional. Based on the agency’s statements, a federal appeals court affirmed the legality of using the full-body scanners as long as fliers were given a choice.

“The TSA lacks the legal authority to compel travelers to go through the body scanners,” Rotenberg says.

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Despite the concerns, the new scanning rules may improve security, says Stephen Lloyd, a former safety director for the Federal Aviation Administration who now runs an aerospace consulting firm in the Washington region. “This recent change was implemented, I’m sure, based on security threat assessments and the need to use scanners when security conditions dictate, to protect the public,” he says.

Anthony Roman, a counterterrorism expert in Lynbrook, N.Y., concurs. “I believe it is one of the best initiatives taken by TSA in recent memory,” Roman says. “Surprise is the key element of this initiative. It creates a randomness and unpredictability regarding who will be scanned and who will not be scanned.” That randomness, for fliers screened in the future, can prevent a terrorist attack, he adds.

Some fliers are skeptical and upset about the change. Karen Pliskin, an anthropologist from Oakland, Calif., opts out of the scanners and plans to continue doing so. She objects to the advanced-imaging technology for several reasons, chief among them her fear that they may emit harmful radiation.

“I had a small skin cancer removed, and I don’t do anything that could potentially exacerbate a recurrence,” she says. “No matter that the TSA says that their scanners are foolproof; only a fool would say that something is foolproof.”

Anderson says they are safe: “The radio-frequency emissions from these systems are well below the safety limits established by national health and safety standards for the general public.”

Stephen Costanzo, who runs an education company in St. Petersburg, Fla., says he’s not bothered by the new rules. He interprets the new guidelines to mean that only passengers with screening anomalies will have to use the scanner. “In other words, when a person, for whatever reason, has already failed multiple checks, a full-body scan can be required in order to identify with more accuracy whether that traveler poses a potential security threat,” he says.

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“Clearly, there is still room for abuse,” he adds. “But there always has been, and these new guidelines do not change that.”

For now, the TSA’s new rules mean you might not be able to say “no” to its full-body scanners on your next flight. If you do, you won’t be allowed into the boarding area. (Time is running out for the TSA; its scanners are expected to start reaching the end of their useful life in two years, and it’s unlikely they’ll be replaced.) Down the road, it’s unclear whether the TSA’s rules will change yet again, perhaps mandating that an opt out is no longer an option at all.

But we know when such a policy change is likely to be announced. Look for it on a Friday just before the next major travel holiday.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • My main issue with this new policy is that it removes the only protection travelers had against a group of people known for abusing their power. In my experience opting out for the past few years, TSA agents have repeatedly gone out of their way to make the process cumbersome and discouraging. The only respite you had was the ability to say it was a legal right, so even when agents became haughty (and they often did), you knew they really couldn’t deter you from traveling and couldn’t make you go through the scanner. They had to ensure your right to opt out. This removes that right. I’ve got Global Entry, but I’m always surprised how many places don’t have GE or TSA Pre.

  • Alice Morgan

    Absolutely agree. My last trip in December, when I opted out at LAX it took them 20 minutes to find an agent to do the pat down. The entire time, the other agent was trying to sell me on going through, how it was safe, I’d get more radiation on the plane, etc. Yes, that may be true – though that is questionable – but it is still more than I’d get if I skipped it. At both ends of the trip they weren’t pleased.

  • Bill___A

    Really, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

  • Mike

    Its attitudes just like this by the American people that have made the TSA the monster it is.

    Those who give up essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither.

    I will continue to opt out and do so loudly.

  • AJPeabody

    Let’s do a mind experiment. A suicide terrorist wants to kill people. There are a bunch of people waiting to go through security. Why try to get through security before killing people when there are a whole bunch waiting in snaked lines all around? You could do a heck of a lot of killing with a carry on filled with explosive without even actually having to buy a ticket.

  • MikeInPA

    So what are you proposing? No security checks?

  • cscasi

    Thanks. We all need to be reminded of that possible scenario. No matter what is done for safety and security, there will always be some who will complain. There are valid complaints and some not quite so valid; I understand. But, what is the real answer to all this? Much of our world, unfortunately, has changed for the worse over the past few years and it appears things will continue in that direction for the foreseeable future. I would say to those who want to fight this issue, it is your right. But, don’t complain if you spend an extraordinary amount of time being screened the way you want to be screened and as a result, might miss your flight. After all, it would be your choice.

  • Susan Richart

    No is proposing no security checks. Everyone should be screened to PreCheck standards without having the pay the extortion.

  • Susan Richart

    If you believe the TSA is making air travel safer, then I feel sorry for you because you’ve been bamboozled.

    Do you drive or ride in a car? Do you bathe/shower in a tub? There are far more dangers from these and other activities of daily living than there ever will be from terrorism.

  • MikeInPA

    This article seems to imply that the body scanners were used when “TSA failed to catch weapons 67 of 70 times.”

    Can anyone point us to a valid news article that supports this? I wasn’t able to find anything.

  • MikeInPA

    Try again, Google wizard.

    Your “first search result” does NOT state that they got the items through body scanners.

  • Bill___A

    I’m not American and I don’t think going through the scanner is a big deal. I don’t particularly like the TSA and if they were to be replaced with something else, I would be the first in line to advocate that, but I’ve been through these scanners in other jurisdictions (countries) too. There are a lot of things that will kill me before this does.

  • No. It doesn’t. But that’s where the figure comes from. If you want more info, go dig on the TSA’s site and see if you can find the report. That should note how many times the machines were used or not used.

  • MikeInPA

    Just because you say so doesn’t make it a fact.

    I was asking people who can verify it to post a link. Directing me to the TSA website to hunt down a rumor is not posting a link supporting this. You are asking me to continue to hunt down information about a statement made by others when I am the one asking for proof. One doesn’t back up a statement by asking others to search for the proof.

    If you wish to support your contention, then please do. Until then, I suspect that that kind of information is not readily available and that the statement is not supported.

    I also suspect that the majority of items that got past TSA was through the carry-on xray machines and body searches. But I won’t state that as fact … yet.

  • Tell you what, instead of asking other readers to find the information you’re interested in, either send the author an email or find it yourself and then post it in the comments to improve the article as a source of information. Have a good life.

  • MikeInPA

    Give me a break. I only asked if anyone had a link. That’s all.

    I figured with many people using the “67 out of 70” failure rate as fact, someone would know where to find the statistics.

    Then you decided to imply that Google was something I am unaware of … and then pointed me to an article that didn’t answer my inquiry. I didn’t ask to be sent on a wild goose chase by someone else who claims it’s a fact.

    And then you said that it’s true and that I should go to TSA and search for the proof.

    If someone makes a statement of fact then they should be willing to support it with evidence … not ask others to prove them wrong.

    I made a simple, polite request. The end.

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    Yes, this has already been posted. Unfortunately, as I pointed out, Corbett has steadily lost all his motions in the courts over the past five years.

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    New TSA Chief Vows to Improve 96% Failure Rate on Weapons Detection

    And this is only one story. There’ve been hundreds. This was also not the first pronounced failure-rate report done on the TSA — the GAO and DHS have done others. Check out TSA News Blog, which has covered these reports extensively.

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    “According to a report based on an internal investigation, “red teams” with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General were able to get banned items through the screening process in 67 out of 70 tests it conducted across the nation.”


  • Jadeveon Clowney

    No, more of our tax dollars will go to paying for more scanners, thus enriching the scanner manufacturers.

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    They were trying to punish you for opting out. This behavior has been reported by so many people so many times.

  • MikeInPA

    All the news articles mentioned the failure rate but none have mentioned body scanners. They have stated that TSA agents failed to detect … not that body scanners have failed to detect.

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    The scanners are part of the security process. The fact that the latest DHS report (only one of many, as I’ve pointed out) found a 96% failure rate implicates the scanners, unless you’re going to assume that no scanners were used at all in any of the cases that went into the compiling of the report.

  • MikeInPA

    If we are going to assume, then let’s assume that the failure rate for scanners was a lot less than the failure rate for the the metal detectors, body searches and carry-on xrays and that is why the TSA wants to use the body scanners more often.

    Maybe the three weapons/bombs that were found were in the body scanners and the 67 that got through weren’t. We just don’t know. And I don’t think it is going to be documented since that would give a heads up to the bad guys.

    Many are complaining about the use of body scanners when maybe they are a lot more dependable than the other security measures.

    That’s why I was asking if anyone can show where the failures occurred.

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    I’m sure “the bad guys” need us to tell them how to plan a successful attack. Massing people all together at the checkpoint, for example — no chance of mayhem there!

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    Tell it to MikeInPA.

  • just me

    What a horror story. Those “experts” you cite are not experts – they are functionaries and administrators. They have no clue about science either. Kindly do not give them another forum to spread their falsehoods.
    There is no proof, there is no reasonable argument to be made for those scanners. They are dangerous to your health until proven otherwise. Even now they admit that they are dangerous but only to few people. I do not want to find out if it is me – do you?
    When you go to the ballot box nest time – think hard who you vote for.

  • KarlaKatz

    I looked ’em straight in the eyes, and said “I have rotator cuff issues, and could not raise my arms. No problem: Ms. “Butch” gave me a personal whole-body mauling, and I was on my way… I still prefer the hands-on (if they “must”), rather than succumb to the scanner’s whatevers-we-don’t-know.

  • KarlaKatz

    Sadly, too true. Corbett is certainly an activist for us all, but consistently loses.

  • wilcoxon

    I still don’t understand why there isn’t a huge outcry over TSA period. The TSA does *NOTHING* to increase security – they are designed as security theater. There is no evidence that they have *EVER* stopped a terrorist or attack (just verified via articles from June 2015 found via Google).

  • wilcoxon

    How about any of the articles found from this Google search https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=tsa+efficacy

    The TSA is a flat-out joke (and not just the scanners).

  • wilcoxon

    None of the TSA security measures are dependable.

  • MikeInPA

    And once again, the answer is not there. What is the failure rate for scanners?

  • MikeInPA

    What is the failure rate for scanners?

  • MikeInPA

    No one can say what would have happened had they done nothing.

  • wilcoxon

    Do you work for TSA or something? You seem to intentionally be side-stepping every comment critical of the TSA.

    Show me one single positive thing the TSA has done. Oh, wait, you can’t because there is no evidence that they have accomplished anything (other than spending taxpayer money). EVERY SINGLE report on the TSA has said that they are a joke.

  • MikeInPA

    I do not work for the TSA. I do however work at an airport for a business. I also fly.

    And you also cannot prove that the TSA has not prevented attacks, as crappy as they might be.

  • wilcoxon

    Of course not. I suggest you learn some basic logic – you can’t prove a negative. And, yet again, you sidestep the criticism and provide absolutely no evidence for anything positive about the TSA. I’m done – it is completely pointless to try to debate anything with you.

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    According to Pro Publica, 54%:


    And according to former TSA worker Jason Harrington, he and his co-workers knew that the scanners were worthless. Further links at that article.

  • JimLoomis

    I make sure I am directed TO the new machines because I have had a knee replacement. The old metal detectors go off when I pass through and that inevitably results in a full-body pat-down which does take time. But, really folks, lighten up. Most of the TSA people are reasonable, friendly and efficient. It’s a reality of travel, so we should deal with it. By the way, I live in Hawaii and my practice is to fly to the West Coast and take an Amtrak sleeping car to wherever I’m going on the mainland. Try it. It’s the only civilized way to travel that’s left to us. And there’s no TSA!

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