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TSA Body Scanners

A device that creates an image of a person's nude body through their clothing.

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Sexual assault and child porn: how we're now 'securing' airports.

  • Nov 19, 2010
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If the pornographic image I've added to this subject in Lunch offends you (and it should since this is supposed to be a safe-for-work site!), then surely the fact that these images are being collected from US Citizens who have committed no crime should OUTRAGE you. At the risk of ending up on the no-fly list for speaking out about this gross abuse of our Constitutional rights, let's just take a moment to consider what on earth is going on here and why this is such as unbelievable step.

If it wasn't enough that we have to unpack laptops, remove shoes, jackets belts, and everything else each time we dare to travel on a plane (and since they charge for checked luggage now that generally means leaving toiletries at home), we now have the wonderful choice of two highly invasive screening options:
  1. Going through a virtual strip search with a machine that produces a detailed 3D model of your nakedness.
  2. Getting an "extended patdown", which is so-far the most delicious euphemism for being sexually assaulted.

Taking these in reverse order, the E.P. is significantly more intrusive than the regular groping you can expect to receive. We're talking about using fingers to probe into your private areas and lifting breasts and it's enough to make anyone wonder if they've just been touched-up rather than searched. Simply unacceptable, and God help me if anyone tries to justify this.


Check around the 1-minute marker of this video to see a 3-year old freaking out about being accosted - listen to her to yelling "Stop touching me!" and let me know if you don't think this is really sick. Have we lost our freaking minds or what?

As for the body scanners...


To be clear, TSA has a horrible history of mistreating passenger information: remember the easy-to-hack website that allowed no-fly-list contesters to have their identities stolen? And this is from a supposedly sophisticated agency that understands technology but doesn't have an SSL certificate. 

Add this lack of information security to the two major lies they're broadcasting:
  1. Image resolution is poor (see here to prove otherwise).
  2. Images are not stored (see here for EPIC's lawsuit on this subject).
Much like some of the horrific car crash accident pictures that end up on the Internet thanks to the cell phones of medical crews, it won't be long before naked celebrities wind up in the slush pile from $7/hour operators who don't care. And then they'll be inquiries and all the usual nonsense, when it's perfectly clear than these machines not only store pictures but animated 3D models too.

While I might be mildly embarrassed to find my naked self on Google Images, the more insidious problem here is scanning children. As I'm sure anyone would agree, we have extensive child pornography laws that are in place to not just prevent the distribution of child porn but to actively target the creation of it in the first place. With these scanners, TSA agents stand to become the largest creators and observers of child porn in history, making it the world's greatest job for pedophiles.


I would argue that these scanners are the best example of illegal search to date. Although illegal search laws have been trampled over and over in the pursuit of safety, there's a distinct difference between walking through a metal detector and getting groped or visually strip searched when you haven't done anything illegal.

If this is ok, then why not just allow the police to raid people's homes at will? Or allow the government to monitor all our phone calls and mail? The protections we have against the invasion of government in our private lives are melting away to the premise of "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear". And there's a reason why the Constitution has something to say about that.


This is perhaps the biggest lie of all. It's simply not possible to secure an aircraft from all the dangers that are external to the passengers themselves. Given the hundreds of airport workers, ground crew, flight crew, police and everyone else who could potentially cause harm, it's a nonsense to assume that prodding passengers genitals could possibly prevent malicious intent - there are just too many ways to cause damage. And then we've got nut-bags sending packages intended to blow-up midair and they're not even travelling!

Funny true story: I was travelling back from Hong Kong after 9/11 and my American boss commented to an agent that he was surprised their passenger scan was so cursory and light (keep shoes on, etc.) The security officer responded to him: "Nobody screws with China." And there you have it.

I do find hope in the fact that the best security on board aircraft these days are the passengers themselves. Remember the shoe bomber? When he was dragged off the plane, it looked like 50 grown men had beaten the ever-loving shit out of him. My suspicion is that your fellow passenger provides much better protection than all the child porn and groping that TSA can possibly engage in.

Talking of safety, good ol' Ben Franklin - remember him? - said: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." And I can't think of a better way of putting it.


As an aside, it's scary to think how this technology will end up being deployed anywhere there's currently a metal detector. Apparently, they are already working on portable versions of the same thing to give to police forces, so we should all start getting used to strangers seeing us naked for no apparent reason.

Additionally, seeing as we're a nation of entrepreneurs who never seem to be able to roll back the excesses of government, how about using theme park technology and charging for copies of your scans? I actually might pay $10 for a picture to motivate myself to get down the gym!

------------ UPDATE! ------------

As usual, nothing expresses the issue as succinctly as a Korean TV animated news piece:


According to this article, a loaded gun clip found on a plane sparked a security alert - it was apparently dropped by a police officer. "Licensed law enforcement officers can carry their weapon on board as long as they declare it." So Grampa gets a cavity search while Chief Wiggum leaves his bullets on the plane. Nice. 

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February 15, 2012
Many of these issues must be tested in the United States District, Appellate and the Supreme Court. There will be people on both sides of these issues. The Freedom of Information Act should be affirmed so that people can get good data on how this information is used or misused. Meanwhile, people can use alternate transportation means to avoid these searches . i.e. auto, rail, cruises etc. That will pressure airlines to lobby for a repeal of some of the most intrusive stuff.
January 09, 2011
Some of the videos were hilarious, but man the actual info and the 3 year video are crazy, great write up.
November 23, 2010
Wow, great review, James. That video with the three year old is truly disturbing. I really hope that they find some sort of new, much less invasive procedure to screen people. I am not looking forward to my holiday flights now! :x
November 23, 2010
Thanks - yes it's truly alarming. The guy with the colostomy bag that burst mid-groping must be really pissed. I heard one news outlet call it Gate Rape, which made me smile (for the first time this week!).
November 23, 2010
Gate Rape -- that should be the official name of this scandal!
November 22, 2010
It seems to me that there is a way to protest this, for anyone interested. The basic idea is: 1) Do not waive your Constitutional rights 2) Ask lots of questions 3) Ensure that they have record that you don't waive your rights and that you intend to contact the ACLU and EPIC following the encounter. 4) Preserve as good of a legal position to challenge the search later as possible. I think it's important to keep civil and understand that the agents are just doing their jobs. Fight the system, not the messenger. My thinking is this. When they explain the pat-down, the response is, "That's more than a little intrusive, isn't it?" When they explain that it's required, ask "why?" Give them a chance to answer. Then say, "How is this a reasonable search under the 4th Amendment?" Once they answer, ask "What if I refuse? Are there fines for not going through the search at this point?" With luck you may have the agent plus the supervisor tied up during these questions. Chances are they will say it's an administrative search and that it's clearly reasonable and Constitutional. In that case, I expect to say, "In that case, I understand that my person is being seized for the purpose of that search. I won't resist, and I'll submit to the search, but although I know you are just doing your job, I don't consent to this sort of search." At that point I expect to give them a written statement (kept with my travel papers) that says that I understand I am being detained for purpose of the search and that I am not free to refuse to submit to the search, but that for the record this is not consensual. I'll then say, "I just want you to understand my viewpoint. As a patriot, I feel that I have to fight for the Constitutional rights of all Americans. All this paper does is it ensures that if the ACLU or EPIC are willing to take my case and challenge the scope of this search, that you will have to defend it as an administrative search, and that you can't say I consented. Would you be willing to sign here, saying that you have received a copy of this?" I'm also planning to wear a "I don't consent to searches" T-shirt from the Flex Your Rights foundation. (The shirt has the 4th Amendment printed on the back.)
November 22, 2010
It's a noble idea, but be careful since there are some people who've dared to ask questions to TSA agents and been detained (like this one). Otherwise, I'm 100% behind you.
November 22, 2010
I'd expect to give myself extra time when I fly so that I can deal with being detained. Moreover from this perspective detention is good because: 1) It provides more to challenge in court, and 2) it requires them to allocate resources to your protest.
November 22, 2010
You know, another effective protest method for the patdown is simply not to shower for a couple of days before. Make the TSA officers wish they'd become meter maids instead.
November 23, 2010
Great comment, Chris! You should post a review yourself. Heck, you could just copy and paste this comment :P
November 21, 2010
My last trip was horrible. First, I had to step into the invasive naked scanner. My body is far from one that would excite anyone. But it is still embarrassing. I forgot to remove a comb from my back pocket. Guess what that meant...I STILL had to undergo an illegal pat down search. Since when was a comb an illegal object creating enough reasonable suspicion under the Fourth Amendment for a search? I have had enough. We need to fire the morons at TSA and do this thing right. We can start by targeting terrorists instead of US citizens.
November 21, 2010
It's crazy - there's an interesting story about heavy-armed soldiers having nail clippers removed. Why we're even scanning soldiers when they risk their lives for the country is beyond me, but letting them take (unloaded) weapons on a plane yet removing their nail clippers is the very definition of stupidity. Fourth amendment all the way buddy!
November 21, 2010
I will not submit to a body scan. It has not been proven safe for my health and does not respect my privacy. If I went through the metal detector and set it off I would say then I could choose between scanning and a pat down but this scanning of everyone is wrong. The fact that anyone is willing to submit to this is frightening. Scanning everyone will not prevent some nutjob from putting something in a place that can not be scanned. Also this is reactionary, so what's next? If a suicide bomber blows himself up in a movie theater will we then have to be scanned to go to the movies? This could permeate to every public place. If a terrorist wants to do something to harm people these scanners will not stop him, it will just make him be more creative. The truth is that by allowing ourselves to be scanned and or groped we are allowing terrorists to win. If you have been led to believe that you need to give up your own privacy to be protected from terrorists then they have won without having to do a thing.
November 21, 2010
I couldn't agree more. This new invasive screening does nothing to improve safety: terrorists are now sending explosive packages in the mail that evade the screening process, and as coldsteel7 said in his excellent review, even the underwear bomber would not have been caught by this new approach (and he boarded a plane outside the US).

More broadly, I simply don't condone the abandonment of personal privacy chasing the ethereal perfection of security: it's not possible, it's not practical, and history shows repeatedly it tends to be an excuse for government to expand its reach into our lives rather than solve any discrete problem.

As an aside, I grew up in London with the IRA sporadically bombing shopping malls and trains, killing indiscriminately, and thankfully the technology didn't exist to harass the regular citizens like this (or maybe the attitudes were more realistic). Once you change your life to accommodate terrorism, they have effectively won.
November 21, 2010
I saw the details of this in the news and I was just dumb-founded as to why the TSA would stoop to such lengths that invade privacy. Just in time for the holidays too! I know Terrorists may have be more sneaky and stuff, but I dunno, it feels wrong, I don't travel often, we'll see once I do so again.
November 21, 2010
It's strange how this has come out of nowhere - terrorists are now sending packages with hidden explosives in planes and skipped the screening process altogether. The TSA's efforts, even if well-intentioned, are always several steps behind.

Scary case in point: Print-at-home boarding passes make it possible for anyone with Photoshop to get air-side without an actual flight, since they never check the passenger log electronically at screening, and there's no standard appearance of boarding pass. Really dumb.
November 20, 2010
I've been reading a lot about this lately. Aside from it being obviously a violation of basic privacy and rights, you didn't mention anything about radiation. Scientists have been warning that the amount of radiation emitted from the machines is very much underestimated and can increase skin cancer risk. You should look into that as well, would be a good addition to the review. Of course they will say in their defense that the dose is nothing, but we all know how 'trustworthy' our government agencies are! ;) I'm glad I don't fly, but if I would have to - I'm not sure what's worse - to get nuked or groped...
November 20, 2010
Actually that's a great point, and I'd be interested to know more about the health side effects. It seems logical that anything that bombards your entire body with high-frequency radio waves must have some negative health side-effects. TSA of course skipped this entire issue.
November 20, 2010
Just Google 'body scanner radiation' and you'll get plenty to read! :)
November 21, 2010
EcoMama, I was thinking about this too. I doubt that they have done much testing to find out the effects of these scanners. I would be inclined to refuse the scanner for a variety of reasons...this being one of the main ones
November 23, 2010
Yes Becky, whenever the government says something is 'safe' (like GMOs) it instantly raises a red flag for me! :P
January 04, 2011

There are two types of these machines.  The backscatter machines have raised widespread health concerns in academic circles because the radiation though low in absolute dosage, is readily absorbed by the skin and underlying tissue, meaning the relative dose in terms of bioactivity is relatively high.  There are also serious concerns about the effects on TSA workers who are likely to have FAR higher exposure rates from standing near these machines for extensive times.  It's likely that at least a portion of the are receiving dangerous levels of radiation even when measured by absolute doses.

The other ones are the mm wave imagers.  The academic consensus on these machines is that we don't have a clue whether they are safe or not.  The best we can say there is that there is no solid reason for stating that they are clearly unsafe, unlike the backscatter machines.

So your airport may be exposing you to unsafe radiation or may be using you as a safety guinea pig :-)
January 05, 2011
Good info - thanks for providing the detail!
January 05, 2011
Thanks for the info Chris!
November 20, 2010
If you think that the image you added to this topic is pornographic, then let me be the first to tell you that you're the one with problem!
November 20, 2010
True, but I'd rather the government didn't collect pictures of me that are similar to this, and I'm also setting the bar low for people who are viewing from the workplace or have kids. It's sad to think that in the new glory days of the Internet, it's not porn unless you wish you hadn't seen it!
November 20, 2010
Well, I fly a LOT and the government can have all the pictures of me like this that they want if it will save me from sitting beside a bomber in the airplane.
November 20, 2010
Two problems:

1. By all accounts, it doesn't demonstrably stop anything other than handguns and drugs. Hand-guns get caught by metal detectors.

2. By that logic, can I also raid your house at will, strip-search you in the street whenever needed, and have access to all your personal records to help prevent crime?
November 21, 2010
1. I don't know whose accounts you're referring to, but if it does demonstrably stop handguns and drugs then it still gets my vote. 2. Your 2nd point is flawed logic. You can't raid my house but if I set up a scanner at my door and make it a rule that you have to be scanned before you come in, then you can choose to come in or not. It's entirely up to you. What law said that air flight was a human right?
November 21, 2010
Seeing as terrorists can hide explosives in anally-inserted condoms, I presume you would also approve of every passenger having a fully cavity search to make your flight safer? These aren't picked up by body scanners, metal detectors or any other current search method. Nobody said flights were a human right but being treated respectfully by screening agents is actually part of their charter. Illegal search is unconstitutional, and if being scanned naked and groped when you haven't committed a crime isn't illegal search then I don't know what is.
November 21, 2010
cpw I respectfully disagree. You are giving up your right to privacy for the impression that it is making you safer. Someone who is willing to kill themselves to blow up a plane will have no problem putting their supplies in an area that can not be scanned. The other thing you are forgetting is that we are already going through a metal detector which will pick up a gun. As far as drugs. I do not think that drug smuggling presents a danger to me, so it is not worth giving up my privacy for that either.
November 19, 2010
Right on! You seem to have covered all the major points here. Government is out of control and needs to be knocked down a peg or two or three. The images you present here are frightening! I am glad that I rarely ever have to fly.
November 20, 2010
Totally agree drifter51 - hopefully this story keeps building momentum and the TSA has to step down on this abusive policy.
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More Airport Security Body Scanners reviews
review by . November 22, 2010
posted in UP UP & Away!
Boycott is the only way out!
I believe I went through one of these the last time I left the U.S.. Damn, my sexy figure is now on file?! Yuck!!!            So, other than being treated like potential terrorist, visitors or Americans themselves are subjected to the high-tech body search in the most gross way possible, if I read some of the reviews here right. I suppose I can't complain since those Constitutional rights don't apply to foreigners, do they? Since I'm not Americans, …
review by . November 30, 2010
I am an IT consultant, not a lawyer.  If you wish to follow my protest ideas, you may wish to seek legal advice first.  This is not legal advice.      These scanners are unbelievably bad ideas.  They make very little sense unless you believe the manufacturer hype and expect security to be packaged in a big box, which those of us in related fields know is never the case, and that our Constitutional rights are waived when we travel, which the Supreme Court has repeatedly …
Quick Tip by . December 07, 2010
posted in Politics Your Way
This was a bad idea, costing a lot of money and doesn't really make me feel any safer when flying. It probably causes health risks to frequent travelers or those who work in the airport shops. I myself don't mind submitting to them but I am probably in the minority.
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James Beswick ()
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The full-body scanner is a device that creates an image of a person's nude body through their clothing to look for hidden objects without physically removing their clothes or making physical contact. They are increasingly being deployed at airports and train stations in many countries.

One technology used under the name "full-body scanner" is the millimeter wave scanner, in which extremely high frequency radio waves are reflected off the body to make an image on which one can see some types of objects hidden under the clothes. Another technology in use is the backscatter X-ray.

Two advantages of full-body scanners over a physical strip search are that it is quicker (takes only 15 seconds) and that people do not have to be touched in a manner that some might consider offensive. A disadvantage is that the scanners are being used to perform routine, virtual strip searches without probable cause which opponents claim are illegal and violate basic human rights. Furthermore, the true long term health effects of these technologies are unknown.
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