Invasion of the Body Scanners - coming to an airport near you - Amazing Journeys
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Invasion of the Body Scanners – coming to an airport near you

Aug 25, 2010

There has been growing opposition to full body scanners at airports including warnings from medical experts that the machines may be more dangerous to passengers’ health than initially thought. A scientist from the center for radiological research at New York’s Columbia University, has been quoted by a number of media outlets questioning whether the machines may pose a skin cancer risk, especially in children.

The European Commission issued a report in June saying scientific assessment of potential health risks is needed before the machines are deployed there, though individual countries are free to decide whether or not to use them. The report also said the machines “bring a serious risk of fragmenting fundamental rights of EU citizens.”  In Dubai, security officials said the machines would not be used because of concerns about personal privacy and because health risks are unknown.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has also raised questions about whether the machines can even detect explosives or other dangerous people might hide. At the same time the International Air Transport Association, which represents 250 airlines around the world including most major U.S. carriers, has questioned how body scanners fit into a comprehensive security plan. The machines are in place at 133 U.S. airports and TSA has plans to install more.

Below are answers to some questions with a TSA spokesperson:

Which airports have the full body scanners? There are 133 airports where millimeter wave machines have been deployed. Visit the TSA website to learn more.

Which airports are planning to get the devices? While the exact times and locations where the scanners will be received have not been disclosed at the current time, the U.S. government is working to equip airports around the country with the machines.

Will everybody be scanned, or only certain individuals? This screening option is completely voluntary to all passengers.

Can you decline a full body scan? Yes, for now, but you must submit to a full body pat-down.

Do they save the scanned images? There is no storage capability. No cameras, cellular telephones, or any device capable of capturing an image is permitted in the remotely-located resolution room. Use of such a device is a terminable offense.

Are they harmful for any individuals? Two types of scanners currently exist: the millimeter wave scanner and the backscatter scanner. “Millimeter wave technology” bounces harmless electromagnetic waves off the human body to create a black and white image. The energy emitted by millimeter wave technology is 10,000 times less than what is permitted for a cell phone.  “Backscatter technology” projects an ionizing X-ray beam over the body surface at high speed. The reflection, or backscatter, of the beam is detected, digitized and displayed on a monitor. Each scan produces less than 10 microrem of emission, equivalent to the exposure each person receives in about two minutes on an airplane flight at altitude.

Who sees the images? Passenger privacy is ensured through the anonymity of the image. The transportation security officer attending the passenger cannot view the image, and the remotely-located officer who views the image cannot physically see the passenger. Images are not stored, transmitted or printed and are deleted immediately once viewed by the remotely-located officer.

Just how much is revealed in the full body scan?  A privacy algorithm blurs facial features.

How long do the scans take? Screening takes approximately 15 seconds, while the scanning time is just a few seconds. The remotely located security officer who interprets the image takes approximately 12 seconds to do so. It takes a passenger with a joint replacement about 15 seconds to go through advanced imaging technology, versus a 2-4 minute pat down.

Will this solve the airport security problem? Advanced imaging technology safely screens passengers for metallic and nonmetallic threats including weapons, explosives and other objects concealed under layers of clothing without physical contact. Threats to aviation continue to evolve. The use of new and innovative technologies helps us stay ahead of those intent on harming our nation.

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