What the TSA isn't saying about Full Body Scanners and Your Right to Opt Out - Say "I Opt Out." Every Time.

Get the facts about Advanced Imaging Technology

Since January 2010 the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been rolling out what they term Advanced Imaging Technology, or Whole Body Imaging, at airports around the United States. These devices are used to perform a virtual strip search of passengers, looking beneath the clothes to display a picture of the skin. The TSA originally said that these machines would be used only for secondary screening, for those passengers that set off an alarm at the walk-through metal detector or Explosives Trace Detection (ETD) machine. They are now being used as primary screening at 45 airports, to take nude images of passengers who have done nothing more suspicious than present a boarding pass.

Remember to say "I opt out."

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John Wild/johnwild.info


Photo by John Wild / johnwild.info

Advanced Imaging Technology is a strip search.

Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) is also known as Whole Body Imaging (WBI). This technology uses radiation to penetrate a person's clothes and create a nude image of the person. This technology is used to determine whether or not a person has hidden items under clothing. The TSA considers the images produced by AIT to be "family friendly". The image above is from an AIT scan of a man named John Wild using backscatter X-ray. This image is a low-resolution copy of the original, so it does not show as much detail as the original. Do you consider this image family friendly?

These images are generated using radiation, either from a backscatter X-ray or millimeter wave device. Scientists and researches are already questioning the safety of irradiating thousands of people per day at every airport in the country. Several University of California, San Francisco faculty members delivered a letter of concern to the TSA noting that the comparison of backscatter X-ray machine dosage to "cosmic ray exposure inherent to airplane travel or that of a chest X-ray" is "very misleading" and have noted that "real independent safety data do not exist".

Risks and Benefits

Health Risks

Backscatter X-ray uses ionizing radation, a known cumulative health hazard, to produce images of passengers bodies. Children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with defective DNA repair mechanisms are considered to be especially susceptible to the type of DNA damage caused by ionizing radiation. Also at high risk are those who have had, or currently have, skin cancer. Ionizing radiation's effects are cumulative, meaning that each time you are exposed you are adding to your risk of developing cancer. Since the dosage of radiation from the backscatter X-ray machines is absorbed almost entirely by the skin and tissue directly under the skin, averaging the dose over the whole body gives an inaccurate picture of the actual harm. In their letter of concern, the UCSF faculty members noted that "the dose to the skin could be dangerously high". The eyes are particularly susceptible to the effect of radiation, and as one study found allowing the eyes to be exposed to radiation can lead to an increased incidence of cataracts.

Another type of device uses millimeter wave technology, which if improperly calibrated can cause burns. Less is known about the potential health risks of the millimeter wave devices than those of backscatter X-ray, and as with the backscatter devices, no independent testing has been conducted.

Privacy Risks

Aside from the health risks of these devices, the fact remains that they allow strip searches to be conducted on a wide-scale level. That they are automated and mechanical in no way changes the fact that when a government agent looks beneath your clothing you are being strip searched. These strip searches are being performed without any probable cause or reasonable suspicion, as primary screening. A recent article in the San Diego Entertainer on August 31, 2010 stated that "the scans are detailed enough to identify a person's gender... to identify a passenger's surgery scars, or to discern whether a woman is on her menstrual cycle or not." Although the TSA purports to be staffed by highly trained professionals who respect the privacy and dignity of travelers, TSA Screener Rolando Negrin was ridiculed by other TSA screeners for having a small penis after being imaged by an AIT device.

Property Risks

There are also property risks. During the time that a person is inside the full body imaging machine, it is impossible to maintain a line of sight to his or her belongings. Remember that because you cannot have anything in your pockets during the scan, this will include all your identification, money, and all personal items. Numerous thefts have been reported at security checkpoints, including incidents that led to the firing of four TSA employees at JFK as ABC News reported.

Benefits

The benefits of the virtual strip searches are that these machines can confirm only that the imaged areas look normal, but not that items have not been hidden in body cavities or under folds of skin. Unlike existing metal detectors and Explosives Trace Detection (ETD) machines, these devices cannot determine whether the person being imaged is carrying metal or explosives.

Opting Out

Say "I Opt Out."

Should you decide to opt out, you must be aware that the TSA will perform a pat down instead of subjecting you to the WBI/AIT. The TSA may try to pressure you into submitting to the WBI/AIT. You are not required by law to submit to imaging, however, many TSA employees may attempt to intimidate, coerce or insist that it is required. You will need to be firm, and sometimes will not be allowed to opt out unless you state in exactly these words "I opt out." While you should be able to opt out using your own terms, such as requesting a pat down instead, or stating that you will not be photographed nude, remember that not all screeners will be respectful of your decision. They may continue to insist until you say "I opt out." In these cases it is up to the individual traveler to determine whether to stand firm or to use the TSA's preferred wording.

WARNING: Enhanced Pat Down

Be aware that the TSA is using what they call an "enhanced pat down" in many instances. These pat downs are much more rigorous and often include the TSA using their palms to touch your genitals in a manner that could feel like sexual assault. If you feel that you or your child were inappropriately touched during the enhanced pat down, call for a law enforcement officer.