Michael Nagle/Getty Images
Transportation Security Administration officers give a demonstration of the first Advanced Imaging Technology unit at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. The new backscatter X-ray full-body scanners, which are optional, can see through clothing and will screen passengers for metallic and nonmetallic threats including explosives.
Transportation Security Administration officers give a demonstration of the first Advanced Imaging Technology unit at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. The new backscatter X-ray full-body scanners, which are optional, can see through clothing and will screen passengers for metallic and nonmetallic threats including explosives. Michael Nagle/Getty Images
It's called "full-body imaging," and it's the latest indignity for air travelers.
There is now one in every U.S. airport — a machine that gives security officials a look underneath your clothes.
For passengers who say no, there is an aggressive new "pat-down" policy. Transportation Security Administration screeners can touch you in places they could not before.
Courtesy of Transportation Security Administration
The TSA uses two types of technology for full-body scans at airport security checkpoints. Millimeter wave technology bounces electromagnetic waves off the body to produce a black-and-white, three-dimensional image.
The TSA uses two types of technology for full-body scans at airport security checkpoints. Millimeter wave technology bounces electromagnetic waves off the body to produce a black-and-white, three-dimensional image. Courtesy of Transportation Security Administration
The government says that in an era where a terrorist can hide a bomb in his underwear, these new measures are necessary. But they are not always welcome.
Courtesy of Transportation Security Administration
Backscatter technology projects low-level X-ray beams over the body to produce a reflection resembling a chalk etching.
Backscatter technology projects low-level X-ray beams over the body to produce a reflection resembling a chalk etching. Courtesy of Transportation Security Administration
Choices At Security Checkpoints
Standing near the security checkpoint for US Airways at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, there's no sense that the screening is any different from before. But here and there passengers are being picked out to go through the new full-body scanner.
It produces an image similar to a photo negative and outlines your entire anatomy — all the folds and contours of your body.
As Renee Maxwell walks toward the checkpoint, she says she refuses to pose.
"I just don't believe in that," she says. "It shows everything. I mean from hygiene products to everything."
The TSA will not say exactly what the machines can and cannot see, but it says the scanners do reveal all metallic and nonmetallic objects concealed between your clothing and skin. It does not detect items hidden in body cavities. TSA personnel view the image in a remote site.
Those who refuse to go through the full-body scanner get the enhanced pat-down.
Given the choice between the aggressive hands-on search and the scanners, most travelers interviewed by NPR say they prefer to be seen than touched.
"I played football for 10 years. Anyone wants to take a look, that's fine," says Ron Jolly.
Louise Geier, 71, says although the scanner is invasive, it's "a little different than somebody's hands going all over you."
A Concern Over Radiation
Flight crew members have a different concern.
Capt. James Ray, an active pilot and spokesman for the U.S. Airline Pilots Association, a union of US Airways pilots, says the X-rays from the body-imaging machine are more radiation exposure that pilots do not need. "A crew member is going to go through these machines perhaps thousands of times," says Ray. "You add that to an already heightened degree of exposure to radiation, and that's our cause for concern."
Ray says the union has recommended pilots refuse the scanners and go through the pat-down. But he says, "A number of our pilots found it to be very intrusive, and in the case of at least one of our pilots, likened it to molestation. He felt it was way too aggressive."
The New Pat-Down
In the past, pat-downs were done with the back of the hand. Now, TSA personnel are turning their hands around. They can use open hands and fingers, and touch anywhere —from the front of the crotch to all the way around to the back.
And the new pat-downs are not only for passengers who refuse the full-body scanners.
TSA spokesman Greg Soule says the new procedure will be performed whenever a traveler sets off traditional metal detectors, wears bulky clothing, or chooses not to remove headwear. Some passengers will also be selected randomly.
The new procedure drew national attention last week when one traveler, John Tyner, refused to submit to the scanner and the new pat-down. He was thrown out of San Diego International Airport and says he was then threatened by TSA personnel with a civil lawsuit and $10,000 fine for leaving.
Tyner recorded the confrontation on his cell phone, and in the process coined a new catch phrase: "If you touch my junk, I'm going to have you arrested."
The Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security to suspend the new body-imaging program.
"Not only do we think it's an unconstitutional invasion of privacy because the search is unreasonable; we also believe the federal agency exceeded its legal authorities," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC. Rotenberg says the scanners violate five federal laws, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Fourth Amendment.
DHS is beginning to look into some checkpoint alternatives for crew members. As for other air travelers at security checkpoints, it will be a choice between a revealing, full-body image or the risk having their "junk" touched.