Sorry, but the TSA still wants to scan you

Don’t look now, but the TSA’s full-body scanners are alive and well.

Late last week, news organizations breathlessly reported that the agency’s X-ray scanners were being removed from America’s airports , leaving many air travelers with the impression that the TSA had abandoned body scans as a primary screening method.

It hasn’t.

The agency ended a contract with Rapiscan, which manufactured the X-ray “backscatter” scanners, after it failed to meet a congressional-ordered deadline to install privacy software on the machines. But only 174 units will be affected by the move.

The TSA will continue to scan airline passengers. In fact, the government is doubling down on so-called “advanced” imaging technologies, investing in supposedly less harmful millimeter-wave scanners.

Worse, the TSA seems to have no intention of turning its back on X-ray scanning technology, either. It’s simply switching to a manufacturer that makes better privacy software.

Pulling a fast one?

The initial reaction from readers — and I’ll admit, from me — was relief.

“This is big news,” I emailed to my editor after seeing the first reports.

“Horray!” exclaimed one reader.

“The scanners are out!” another traveler wrote to me.

We were all wrong, and in a way that only benefited the TSA. The agency couldn’t have planned this one better if it had tried. Think about it: If people came away with the impression that the agency was pulling the plug on all of its scanners after hearing their health and privacy concerns, what a coup. Then, when we question the presence of the millimeter wave machines, it can just say those units are “safer” and that they “protect” your privacy.

Related story:   The five kinds of people you meet at an airport screening area

I’m not sure we’re that dumb — or that the TSA is that smart.

No, this just looks like the same TSA we’re used to, which throws a lot of untested technologies and screening methods at the figurative ceiling to see what sticks. The current X-ray scanners just peeled off. Time to try something else.

Unanswered questions

TSA’s actions means we may never know how safe, or unsafe, the Rapiscan machines were. The agency reportedly glossed over the scanners’ cancer risks, and critics claim they haven’t been adequately tested. But now that the Rapiscan units are gone, who cares?

“I believe that they are burying potential problems,” says Charles Leocha of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy group I co-founded. Leocha serves on a TSA advisory panel.

“If all of the other studies about safety they claim were done proving the scanners were safe are valid, why not just release those results? Sadly, I have reached the conclusion that TSA has been lying to us and putting Americans’ health in danger,” he adds.

Maybe when TSA agents begin to get sick in high numbers because they worked near an X-ray scanner, we’ll have some idea of how dangerous these decommissioned machines were. But by then it will probably be too late.

We also won’t know what Rapiscan’s X-ray scanners were truly capable of. Critics have likened the machines to a virtual strip-search. Former agents have confessed that they can see almost everything, right down to the stitches in a passenger’s bra, and they aren’t shy about sharing their views about your naked anatomy.

Related story:   Is there a better way to screen airline passengers?

Just last week I heard from a reader whose entire family was screened by the machines. She, her husband and son walked through the scanners without incident. But an agent asked her attractive teenage daughter to return for a second scan. The reason? The first image was a little “blurry” according to an agent. She suspected (and so do I) that the TSA employees just wanted another look at her nude body.

I’m told that the scanners have several settings, ranging from detailed to grainy. When reporters were shown the technology a few years ago, the TSA used the “G”-rated setting, a colleague told me. Truth is, he said, the machines see everything.

Rapiscan couldn’t develop software that sufficiently obscured our anatomy. That, in itself, should tell you something about what the machines could do. But it also suggests something about the other scanners. Maybe their manufacturers just write better code? Does that mean the privacy software on the remaining scanners is being used as intended? I wouldn’t bet on it.

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that pictures of your naked body are still being taken and possibly stored somewhere.

The TSA should do what everyone thought it did last week. It should scrap all of its scanners and return to the common-sense metal detectors already used as a primary screening method for pilots, flight attendants, elite-level frequent fliers, foreign diplomats, active duty military and airport workers.

The easily-foiled scanners are a waste of your taxpayer money, an invasion of your privacy and most likely, a danger to your health.

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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 Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Jennifer M.

    I was under the impression that the NIH (or whichever agency) was going to continue its study of the Rapiscan machines because in theory if they are able to fix the software issue, the machines could be put back in use.

  • Susan Richart

    The way people were reacting to the mistaken belief that these machines were
    going away in their totality, speaks to how despised they are.


    “TSA’s actions means we may never know how safe, or unsafe, the Rapiscan machines were….

    Maybe when TSA agents begin to get sick in high numbers because they worked near an X-ray scanner, we’ll have some idea of how dangerous these decommissioned machines were. But by then it will probably be too late.”

    There’s no “maybe” about it, Christopher. Screeners will begin to be diagnosed with and dying from cancers in the next several years. And yes, it will be too late because the TSA has already signed death warrants for many of its screeners.

    It’s noteworthy that the TSA first removed backscattter from BOS where a supposed cancer cluster had allegedly appeared among screeners working in the vicinity of x-ray machines.

  • Daisiemae

    TSA has a contract with another manufacturer (I think the name is American something) for more back scatter X-ray machines. Those are still the same old X-ray machines that have not been independently tested…the same old machines for which TSA has lied and covered up safety data. The only difference is that the new manufacturer is able to install privacy software on its X-ray machine.

    So,what about the radiation? Will TSA continue its previously much reported plan to have these machines independently tested for safety? I’m not holding my breath.

    And what’s to prevent Rapiscan from developing privacy software for their machines? If so, will Rapiscan regain its contract from TSA and begin again to supply radiation machines to nuke us all at the airports and other venues?

    TSA states its reason for removing the machines has absolutely nothing to do with safety. They say they are only removing the machines because Congress has mandated the privacy feature and Rapiscan cannot meet the deadline to install the privacy feature by the deadline.

    TSA is obviously planning to continue wasting our precious dwindling resources on these dangerous machines and continue to risk our health and lives by forcing us to be exposed to them.

  • Daisiemae, yes, American Science & Engineering. Info at link in Chris’s post.

  • Jack Duncan

    And, just how much more are the “new” scanners going to cost? Regardless of how you feel about the invasion of privacy, etc., I’m pissed that we are throwing even more taxpayer money down the rabbit hole. This country is BROKE in so many ways and, if you need the list, then you are part of the problem.

  • Jack Duncan

    And, our tax dollars will be on the hook covering the medical costs of the sick TSA agents. Then, the flying public will sue. It’s a vicious cycle that has no end in sight. All the while, how many terrorists will have been stopped? How many planes will have been kept in the sky?

  • Susan Richart

    It’s pretty obvious that the TSA is killing* and will kill more people than it will ever “save.”

    *Killing now by diverting travel to automobile.

  • Cybrsk8r

    The problem is that neither the TSA, or Rapiscan will allow the machines to be independently tested. The nuclear medicine departments of several universities asked to be loaned a machine to measure the radiation exposure of the machines. In every case that request was rejected. Why?

    I fully expect that, in a few years, it will come to light that the machines were far more dangerous than either the TSA or the company claimed.

  • James Orth

    TSA is just 1 reason I prefer a sleeper car and a roomette on Amtrak whenever possible. The train is just so much more FUN than flying.

  • Kairho

    All true. Unfortunately the cost is prohibitively higher than flying, especially for a single.

  • cjr001

    It’s been a terrible week for all news media. I’ve seen several entirely misleading headlines, and then there’s the planet-sized ball that was dropped with the Manti Te’o story.

    But that’s not a surprise: the goal is the bottom line, not reporting the news.

  • Daisiemae

    The trains don’t go everywhere. Plus, it’s astronomically expensive.

    I looked into taking the train from NJ to FL. It was going to take over 24 hours. The cost of a sleeper was insane. Plus, neither one of us is physically capable of getting into a top bunk. And neither one of us is physically capable of sitting up for over 24 hours jolting along upright.

    Neither one of us is physically capable of driving from NJ to FL either. We are, however, capable of taking a roughly 2hour flight to FL.

    But neither one of us will go through the scanner. My husband travels in a scooter and must wear an adult diaper when he travels. TSA will be all over us like a flock of vultures. TSA has denied us our right to travel to FL or anywhere else more than 500 miles away from NJ.

    We have been herded and confined to a pen like animals. I wonder how much longer it will be until the federal government reduces the size of our pen?

  • TestJeff Pierce

    DAISY MAE: I was going to say you should fly out of Trenton, NJ airport to Orlando, but I can’t help you with the scooter unless your husband can walk with a cane. That might let you through the metal detector without groping. Trenton has metal detector only, free parking, super convenient, and uses new airplanes with Frontier airlines. At Orlando, again, if you can use a cane, you can usually manuever to metal detectors – stay in MIDDLE of the security line, they had 2 scanners in far left and 1 in far right.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    1) The primary reason used by the TSA to justify illegal inch-by-inch
    searches of our bodies, with and without nude images, is to supposedly detect
    working non-metallic bombs carried by suicidal airline passengers.

    In the US, there have been no fatalities from this vulnerability for 50
    years. Let me repeat – 50 years.

    2) A Congressional Research Services report from Sept 20, 2012 showed the TSA does NOT plan to deploy scanners in 100% of security lines. Therefore, that defeats the purpose.

    No one can argue that had we not deployed metal detectors at 100% in the
    early 1970s, then that would have still been sufficient to stop the hijackings
    with guns.

    On that note, the scanners have NOT improved security by detecting any
    working non-explosive bombs as compared to before their use. Of course, a main reason is that there were 0 working non-metallic bombs on US flights for

    Even after our intelligence services had the failed underwear bomber issued
    a visa (over the State Dept objections), there was a 10 to 11 month period over
    which nothing happened before widespread use of scanners.

    3) In short, the risk of working non-metallic bombs carried by suicidal
    airline passengers is almost unmeasurable. Throwing away the 4th amendment by using suspicionless inch-by-inch searches of our bodies, as opposed to metal detectors which DO NOT specifically search your body and ACTUALLY detect something (metal), using scanners which don’t even look for explosives is an affront to our liberties.

    Even a 5% false positive rate applied to 40% of 675 million passengers,
    leads to 13.5 Million secondary searches a year….and this will humiliate those
    with medical issues…such as the Breast Cancer victims who are fondled on their breast areas. Way to go, America.

    If we allow primary screening by scanners, then we are allowing a dead,
    rotting corpse at the bottom of the ocean to WIN.

    working to return legal, effective, dignified security screenings.

  • CarrieCharney

    Besides cancer, I wonder whether these machines cause more sterility cases and defective births for TSA. We should know in about 20 years…

  • Helio

    OFF TOPIC: Regardless the setting I let in the “Discussion” option, it always starts as Best, even if I had choose “Newest” or “Oldest”. And I really don’t like the “Best” option – it doesn’t make sense when you are reading several comments at once, and as personal preference, I always prefer reading in a chronological order. It annoys me.

  • Helio, this seems to be a Disqus problem. It was happening to me, too, for the past several weeks. Then it magically changed. Now it starts at “Newest” when I load the page. Like you, that’s the setting I prefer. I don’t know what to suggest except perhaps try signing out of Disqus and then signing back in?

  • Helio

    Thanks Lisa, I’ll try it!

  • Joe Smith

    Hey you tax payers want to complain, you’ll be on the hook for hundreds of millions in new equipment. Thanks, the TSA

  • Joe Smith

    We should be able to sue the TSA for unhealthful doses of radiation.

  • milespert

    what did the first machine costs and what is the cost of the new ones i thin k we have all seen private parts whats the difference between going to the doctor and having TSA look I dont think they have time to do it form a sexual perspective Who is assuming the cost for the machines initial cost the de install and the bew machines and the reinstall and how much is it

  • milespert, the scanners cost $150,000 to $200,000 apiece. That’s just the scanners themselves, not the installation, and not the removal nor the storing in warehouses nor redeployment. Click the links in Chris’s post. The links provide supporting evidence. Here’s just one of them:

  • cahdot

    i still wonder what the scanners will be doing to the TSA workers with the exposure to some levels of radiation constantly while on duty? maybe they have a contract for cancer treatment or an insurance policy for cancer???? sure hope so r it will cost someone(prob the taxpayers alot)

  • TonyA_says

    Off Topic. Hey Chris, something happened to the Disqus display when I use the stock Android browser on a Samsung tablet. It hangs and does not display the comments. But when I use Firefox for Android there is no problem.

  • Daisiemae

    That actually is interesting info. Fortunately, my husband is not confined to the scooter. When we used to fly, he drove it up to the metal detector, got off and walked through. Then he let TSA deal with the scooter.

    When he first started using the scooter, we would ask them what they wanted us to do. They always told him to drive the metal scooter through the metal detector. (Further proof of TSA’s complete stupidity!). Then they went over him with a fine tooth comb.

    After a few instances of that, he didn’t ask any more. He just got up, walked through, and left TSA to figure out what to do with the scooter.

    So perhaps we would consider flying out of Trenton and then trying for the metal detector in Orlando. Maybe we could use the wheelchair service to skip TSA going over the scooter. There are lots of scooter rental companies in Orlando.

    Thanks for the advice. I’ll think about how we might use it.

  • I’m having the same problem when I use Safari. On Safari, the Disqus comments won’t load. On Firefox, they will. (I’m using a Mac.)

  • I don’t know what’s happening with Disqus. I’ll try to find out.

  • disqus_A6K3VBf8Zn

    If they stop, manual scans will still be performed. I would rather have a machine view me than hands grope me.

  • Mr. Kardoff, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. As hundreds of thousands of people can attest, just because you go through the scanner doesn’t mean you won’t also be hauled aside for a grope.

  • Daisiemae

    It’s not an either or situation. Neither strip search radiation scans nor unwanted physical assault is acceptable. Both so-called “options” are morally reprehensible. Both so-called “options” are useless in preventing terrorism. Both so-called “options” are a huge waste of our precious dwindling resources.

    The federal government does not have the right to determine who sees and/or touches our breasts, buttocks, and genitals. The federal government does not have the right to force us to be exposed to dangerous, untested, and improperly maintained X-ray equipment operated by unqualified personnel. The federal government does not have the right to search our bodies either digitally or manually without a warrant or without reasonable cause to believe we have committed or are about to commit a crime.

    Accepting scanners in the hope that they will ward off physical assault is not an option. Besides, going through the scanner does not guarantee you will not also be subjected to a grope down. Thousands of people have been subjected to an abusive and intrusive grope down after going through the scanner.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Another off-topic tech note… Over the past few weeks your site fairly often will fail to format the text normally when I click into the article. The text will be serif (as opposed to your normal sans serif font) and the article/comments will run the full width of the screen. It’s like the css styles aren’t properly applying. I never saw this from your site prior to recently, but now it’ll do it a couple of times a week.

  • Suzanne101

    This is about money.

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