Speak out now on the TSA’s full-body scanners

It’s been almost five years since the Transportation Security Administration quietly began installing its so-called Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) — better known as full-body scanners — at airports nationwide. And now the government wants to know what you think of the machines.

In 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered the TSA to engage in what’s known as notice-and-comment rulemaking on its use of the technology. You can share your opinion on the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking at the Federal Register Web site until June 24.

In other words, air travelers can finally give the government a piece of their mind about the controversial scanners and the way they’re used at airports. Depending on how the public responds, the TSA could either double down on its multibillion-dollar scanner program, or it could decommission the machines and impose alternate standards, including using metal detectors and explosive-trace detection screening.

The TSA hopes that passengers will approve of its current screening practices. “AIT is the best technology available to detect both metallic and non-metallic objects hidden on a passenger, and is an important part of TSA’s multi-layered security efforts,” says agency spokesman David Castelveter.

Still, the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems promises to listen and respond to the public comments. “TSA will review and analyze the public comments to develop a final rule related to the screening process using AIT,” says Castelveter.

But critics question both the agency’s claims and its sincerity.

“This technology raises significant privacy problems,” says Khaliah Barnes, an attorney for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). “When TSA deployed the body scanners, it initiated one of the most sweeping, most invasive and most unaccountable suspicion-less searches of American travelers in history.”

EPIC has repeatedly challenged the use of body scanners in court, arguing that the technology is ineffective and violates a passenger’s individual privacy rights. The court-ordered public comment period is a direct result of EPIC’s suit against the Department of Homeland Security.

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Other activists have raised concerns about the health effects of the machines, claiming that AIT technology hasn’t been adequately tested. TSA insists that the scanners are safe for all passengers and meet national health and safety standards.

But mostly, a coalition of privacy advocates is opposed to the way the scanners are used at the airport, with passengers forced to choose between walking through the machine or facing what’s called an “enhanced” pat-down. Many travelers complain that these manual exams by TSA agents are abusive and punitive. The TSA says that the “vast” majority of passengers do not receive pat-downs and that those who do have “important” rights that are respected by its screeners.

What are the options?

The rulemaking asks the public to comment on four possible changes in the way passengers are screened. First, TSA could turn the clock back to before 2008 and use metal detectors as the primary passenger screening technology. Any alarms would be resolved with a pat-down. This is an option already being offered without incident to a sizable group of passengers, including those who qualify for TSA’s expedited Pre-Check screening, airline crew members and military personnel on duty.

A second option would see the TSA return to using metal detectors as the primary screening method but supplement its screening by conducting a pat-down on a randomly selected portion of passengers.

Another possibility: going back to metal detectors as a primary screening technology and conducting explosive trace detection tests on random passengers. This is the option favored by most passenger-rights advocates, since it ends both the invasive scans and eliminates the problematic pat-downs.

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The final option is to leave the current system in place: using full-body scanners as a primary screening method and resolving alarms through a pat-down. This method is favored by the TSA, which says that it’s the most effective way to screen passengers and prevent another terrorist attack.

“The public has a unique opportunity to affect the TSA’s future actions,” says EPIC’s Barnes. “It is absolutely imperative that they comment on the TSA’s proposal.”

Air travelers favor reform

Some passengers believe that the current system works. The TSA says that roughly 99 percent of air travelers choose the full-body scanners instead of “opting out” and receiving a pat-down, and it cites a CBS poll that shows four out of five Americans support the use of Advanced Imaging Technology at airports nationwide.

“I choose body scans whenever available,” says Michael Menaker, a retired advertising executive from Louisville, Colo. “It’s much quicker and easier than the pat-down I always get. I have an artificial hip, and the scanners speed me through security with less hassle.”

Larry Edward, one of several hundred commenters on the rulemaking site, disagreed. “No more scanners,” he said in a brief statement. “I will do anything to avoid flying because of them and the invasive pat-downs that are occurring at the airports.”

A recent review of the comments suggested an overwhelming number in favor of abandoning AIT technology and stopping the TSA’s policy of giving a prison-style pat-down to passengers who set off an alarm or who voluntarily opt out.

Downplaying the rulemaking

The TSA is trying to keep these comments to a minimum, say observers. They point to the TSA’s own blog post on the subject, published almost two weeks after the release of the rulemaking but deleted within minutes of being posted. After receiving questions from many travelers, as well as this reporter, about the missing post, the TSA republished the notice a week later — minus the links to the site where readers could leave a comment.

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One reason the agency seems uncomfortable with a rulemaking is that it’s the first time the TSA has ever defined or offered an opportunity for passengers to comment on any aspect of the screening process, according to privacy activist Edward Hasbrouck.

“In this light, it’s likely that one reason the TSA has been so resistant to a public rulemaking process on AIT is the likelihood that it would open the door to renewed demands from consumer, privacy and civil liberties groups for a similar rulemaking on other aspects of the screening process,” he says.

The agency’s coyness, combined with what critics say is a lack of transparency, has left many doubting that the TSA will do anything meaningful in response to the public comments.

For some air travelers, no matter what happens, it will be too little, too late. They say that the agency has spent the better part of the past five years subjecting them to unconstitutional searches, violating their civil rights and assaulting their dignity when they fly.

Nancy Nally, a Web site publisher from Palm Coast, Fla., says that regardless of how the TSA responds, she’s most disappointed by its lateness. This rulemaking should have happened in 2006, not 2013, she says.

“Why close the barn door after the horse is gone?” she asks.

Which rulemaking option do you prefer?

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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 chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Guest

    Where is the option for Pre 9/11 screening method?

  • Seriously, with the person viewing the scans in a separate room, I don’t see an issue with privacy. We trade away rights for security on a regular basis. I realize that it’s not perfect security because human beings and machines are not perfect, but I find the scan to be quick and painless—-far better than a full body pat down which I’ve had and really disliked.

  • TonyA_says

    But why should you get a unsafe scan or a pat down? As you said, you are just one (baby) boomer and not a suspected terrorist. I suppose you pay your taxes, vote regularly and do not take trips to Chechnya, Pakistan, or any recognized hotbed of extremist activities. What is the probability you are terrorist? ZERO? Then what is the point of such an over the top screening? We need to spend money on good intelligence and police work, and not mass inspection.

  • Extra mail

    I want pre-911 screening. My husband has two metal knees and I don’t think he should have to choose between the unknown body scanners and an invasive pat down.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I see your point, but I often get the scans *and* the pat down, because of a false positive. It’s not an either/or.

  • Bob

    Because of artificial joints I always set the alarm off and am subjected to lengthy, embarrassing patdowns. The body scanner is quick and efficient so I prefer it. The TSA should have a registry for travelers with these state of the art ‘body parts’ that we seniors are getting in record numbers. Hello, TSA, are you listening?

  • BAB

    I have a defibrillator implant, which means I’m always patted down. I haven’t had any of the virtually criminal pat downs described in various columns on this site, but it is still a disquieting and creepy experience. The metal scanners and occasional residue check worked well for years. It seems to me this entire effort is constantly mushrooming expenditure of public funds which could be used in better ways.

  • Cybrsk8r

    See, that’s the whole point. Since there’s never been an independent test of the radiation exposure, how do we know it’s safe. I bet that the nuclear medicine department of just about any university you can name would jump at the chance to do independent tests on a machine. But every single request to do such a test has been denied by both the companies that make the scanners and by the TSA.

  • TonyA_says

    Lots of young people have titanium screws because of some sports injuries or the like. Plenty of folks have insulin pumps. We can go on and on. Yes these pat downs are embarrassing and not necessary for innocent Americans.

  • Travel Rob

    Everytime I opt out I have to wait a long time for the pat down.Meanwhile my wallet,passport and carryon is at the other end of the belt. So that’s why more people don’t opt out,they are scared of their passport or wallet getting stolen before a trip. You would think by now, the TSA would be a little more prepared if people choose to opt out of the scanner.

  • jwb1957

    Using TSA’s odds of getting cancer and the number of people scanned, approximately 16 cases of cancer can be attributed to the backscatter scanners

  • EdB

    And those “odds” are based on what scientific studies? Even with those odds, that is 16 cases too many.

  • I predict that these comments will end up in the same place as complaints submitted to the TSA about an abusive pat-down or stolen personal items – in the circular file.

  • “but I find the scan to be quick and painless—-far better than a full body pat down which I’ve had and really disliked.”

    That’s the point of people who object to the whole process, though. Your “choice” is to either go through the scanners, or be subjected to an aggressive, humiliating pat-down. I “choose” to go through the scanner, but only because I don’t want to be violated in public. That isn’t a choice so much as it is extortion.

  • EdB

    Don’t forget the choice a lot of people have chosen – not to fly and avoid the humiliating pat downs and radiation altogether.

  • Carchar

    Cancer is painless until it’s too late.

  • Lisa

    Ah, but Rob, you and I both know that the whole point of them making you wait and then being as invasive as possible is so that you WON’T opt out.

  • Charlie Funk

    I had shoulder replacement surgery six weeks ago and will fly on May 10. I have a titanium implant that looks like a weapon in the X-rays my orthopedic surgeon has taken in follow up visits. I am totally unable to raise one of my arms above horizontal to the ground in any orientation of my arm. I have no choice but to request a pat down when I fly and frankly have substantial anxiety about my first encounter with TSA on May 10. We shall see what we shall see.

  • bizzilizzit

    So, does filling out a form with my name, address and etc automatically put my on the TSA’s list if I want to get rid of the scanners?

  • OMG, no! If it did, I would be at the top of the no-fly list. I think it’s our duty to comment, one way or the other.

  • Daisiemae

    You do not have to give your personal information. You can post your comment anonymously. That is what I did. For personal reasons, I do not want my name and other info on the internet. So you can simply list yourself as anonymous and post your comment.

  • Ditto to what Daisiemae said. The way the form is set up, it’s a bit misleading, but if you look closely, only the “comment” section is a required field. I left all of the personal information out when I left my comment, and had no problems doing so.

  • frostysnowman

    You said it all right here, MeanMosh.

  • frostysnowman

    I filled mine out anonymously. You do not have to provide any of the information the site seems to suggest other than your comments.

  • Ian C

    I propose a return to Airport Security to the level that it was pre-2000. This would include:

    100% elimination of the full body scanners
    The X-Ray AIT Devices cause caner and are NOT safe
    The MM-Wave AIT Devices rip apart DNA and are NOT safe

    100% elimination of the enhanced pat down procedures

    100% elimination of the liquids ban

    100% elimination of taking off of the shoes

    Reduction in security force at airports

    Privatization of airport security – Let the airlines handle their own security

    Allowing people to walk with their friends/ family to the gate at airports prior to departure

    Allowing people to meet their friends/family at the gate upon arrival at commercial airports

    100% elimination of baggege inspection without the person being present.

    Not allowing CBP to confiscate person’s personal property at the border without legitimate cause. A laptop is not a cheap toy and also there are often confidential files on a person’s computer.

    I remember that it was like to travel in the 80s and 90s by air. Today if you have a flight from SVO – JFK America requires Russia to inspect a person’s baggage just like in the USA, but there is one major diffrence. They do it in the presence of the passenger. I think baggage inspection without the passenger being there is wong and should be illegal. That is someone’s personal property. How does it sound when I tell people “Don’t check anything you can’t live without or replace, like an iPad.” This is so wrong. I personally think that airport security should go back to the level it was as in the 80s or 90s when flying was enjoyable.

    I am a US Citizen, Certified Flight Instructor and Airline Transport Pilot. I have since reverse immigrated out of the USA. As long as these “Enhanced” security procedures remain in effect I can not return. I am a 911 Ground Zero First responder. We need to forget about 911 and return to normal sanity. The choice between radiation or molestation is no choice at all. Let’s have real security and not just the illusion of security.

  • Ian C

    I agree 100% I also want pre-200 security procedures

  • Ian C

    These procedures are only in effect in the USSA. I have since left my Native Country and can not return as long as this is going on.

  • PsyGuy

    Because there are stupid people who “forget” a firearm in their bag or luggage. I don’t want those people on my plane either.

  • Guest

    And those stupid people’s firearms would be found by the pre-911 system of carry on x-ray and metal detectors meaning there is still no need for the unsafe scan or pat down.

  • Joe Farrell

    If they make me safer, then why are they not being used 100% of the time? Its because they are pure BS.

    I have never set foot in one. I ALWAYS opt out. I am always pleasant and respectful but also firm. I also require that they allow me to maintain control of my carry on baggage which is part of their rules. When a TSA person refuses or ignores me I ask for a supervisor loudly and firmly – when they come over and ask me to shut up I tell they are violating policy by refusing to allow me to maintain control of my carry on luggage. I inform the supervisor that their failure to do so is grounds for evacuating the terminal and the press would be interested to know it was TSA violating their own policies which caused it.

    It has only happened in places lie NY [LGA/EWR] and LAX but I will not have anyone stealing any of my property. If they cannot timely obtain a male assist they need to reunite you with your bags in a sterile area.

    How much radiation is emitted by the scanners? No one knows. TSA refuses to release the information. And refuses to allow its people to wear radiation dosimeters and refuses to allow any third party to determine the amount of radiation emitted. They claim it is perfectly safe. They told pipefitters and boilermakers that asbestos was perfectly safe . . .

  • TSAisTerrorism

    And it should be pointed out that one can have several, and I mean SEVERAL issues with this “proposed” rule. Therefore I recommend everyone do what I do – act like a Chicagoan – comment early and comment often!

  • TSAisTerrorism

    “We haven’t received enough negative comments to justify discontinuation of current, effective screening protocols that are, you know, like effective, and stuff.” – TSA

  • TSAisTerrorism

    Actually, more of them, TBH. Even TSA fails at that, in spite of what Bob’s Glorious Police Blotter Blog would have you believe.

  • FishySounding

    Give it up, Hundreds of millions of people fly domestically every year, and maybe a couple of hundred even bother to take notice of the scanners. That doesn’t even make it statistically into the “crackpot” category.

    And filling out form anonymously? Those go right into the trash.

    Spend your time on something meaningful.

  • FishySounding

    Common sense. Why even fill out an anonymous comment? A total waste of time.

  • FishySounding

    No, more people don’t opt out because we don’t really care. Despite the name calling by people like Lisa S, its just another inconvenience. Making it worse is spitting in the ocean. No one cares.

  • FishySounding

    People like this are the reason no one takes protesters seriously.

  • PsyGuy

    I’ve met a lot of people, and I mean a lot of people that think the scanners are just a new type of metal detector.

  • PsyGuy

    That’s a good point.

  • TSAisTerrorism

    Which is ironic since they miss metal. Some people really are too stupid to breathe.

  • Dave Blevins

    I avoid flying if at all possible. Government is literally wasting millions of my tax dollars on these incompetent employees. I think we should profile others, and no, I don’t care if they whine. If we would actually prosecute people for crimes (enforce the existing laws), we wouldn’t be in this situation. I say eliminate TSA, and go private. I say arm all flight crews and give them good firearms/close combat training. More federal air marshals also. We could justify that by the dollar savings from eliminating TSA.

  • Susan Richart

    Yep, they don’t have a clue as to what’s happening to them.

  • Susan Richart

    You don’t have to put any of your personal information on the form and if you do, it’s not going to get you on any list.

  • Susan Richart

    More people care than you would believe.

  • Susan Richart

    Even if the TSA ignores our wishes and continues on their path, which I am certain they will, at least they will no longer be able to say that they don’t get many negative comments about NBS and gropes.

  • Susan Richart

    ed for metal detector and ETD screening. However, I would demand that the TSA improve its ETD process, so that the detectors don’t pick up on hand lotion and grass fertilizers.

    Then I would demand that if someone alarms on an improved detection machine, the person be turned over to LE for probable cause. No private room searches.

    Administrative searches are to be done in public view not in a private room where they can’t be filmed or recorded. Once a search out of the public view, it is no longer an administrative search.

  • @susanrichart:disqus “I would demand that the TSA improve its ETD process, so that the detectors don’t pick up on hand lotion and grass fertilizers.” While this would be a great goal, here’s the problem. Some lotions and most fertilizers contain the same chemical that Tim McVeigh used in OKC and a common blasting agent, Ammonium Nitrate. The machine is looking for the chemical because it has to. There really isn’t a way to engineer around that.

  • I agree we need to get rid of tsa give it back to the states and people and use Where is the option for Pre 9/11 screening method

  • jimp

    The TSA and Homeland Security are this decades Department of Energy. Anybody remember why we have a DOE? If the Airlines ran their business like the TSA does theirs, there wouldn’t be a single commercial airliner in the sky.
    We have, as usual, over reacted to a screening failure(9/11) by giving up our dignity, destroying the enjoyment and freedom of convenient travel(show up 3 hrs early to be groped please) and creating a money wasting joke of non security. Not to mention turning Flight attendants and airline pilots into law enforcement officers.
    You can’t clear a corkscrew but you can have 12 inch metal knitting needles.
    3.5 ounces is the magic number for what?
    No, you can’t take that toothpaste. Or a bottle of water.
    What shape will it be and how many millions will TSA waste on the next silver bullet screening device?
    Exactly how many 10 or 70 year old terrorists have they caught? Or of ANY age? Think about this: There have been more TSA agents arrested for stealing than “terrorists” have been caught.
    But they sure are looking good in those nifty blue uniforms with shiny badges, rank tabs, name badges and matching jackets. (Maternity styles now available!!)
    The TSA is proof that we let the terrorists win. Millions and millions of dollars wasted(billions?), and more millions of people AROUND the world harassed and belittled just trying to fly somewhere.
    In response to a previous threat (hijackings) a few simple fixes, some air marshals and a treaty or two, problem solved. Now? the mob scene of blue and black clad “agents”, mounds of gray plastic dish pans, the sight of shoeless, beltless, travelers, letting strangers paw their clothing, their groins, their children and long lines of taxpayers putting up with the whole mess.
    And you can’t even imagine what the airlines go through EVERY day “security screening” airplanes for hidden who knows what!
    When will we say enough and stop this insanity?

  • Guest

    “over reacted to a screening failure(9/11)”

    As has been discussed here several times, 9/11 was not the result of a screening failure. No prohibited items were missed by screening. It was an intelligence failure that led to 9/11 happening.

  • jimp

    good point Hal, and surely we are doing that better right??

  • Guest

    If you believe the stats about prohibited items found or passed undetected during inspection, I would say we have gone backwards since putting the smurfs in charge.

  • RonBonner

    Over a year has gone by since the public comment period closed on TSA’s Rule Making Proposal and all we get from TSA is silence.

    Anyone who read through the public comments know that overall they opposed TSA’s Whole Body Imaging machines.

    When will TSA submit the final rule?

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