Feeling Exposed? Checking in with the TSA Full-Body Scanners

I recently returned from a business trip and went through one of the new full-body scanners at the airport. I was a bit hesitant to go through it with the all the recent news about privacy and health concerns. I was certainly wondering where the image of my body goes after it is captured by TSA agents. I was also unsure of what type of effect the scanners would have on me considering they do emit small levels of radiation. No matter the level of radiation, I would imagine that most of us would like to avoid it at all costs. I also tend to be a little late for just about every flight I take, so I figured the anticipated additional time it takes to go through the body scanners would not be good for me.

Much of the concern that arose around the Thanksgiving holiday last year was due to privacy concerns.  The full-body scan shows an image that is the equivalent of seeing the person through his or her clothes.  They are not naked pictures, but rather naked images, allowing the screener to see any objects on the person.  The images do, however, show body types and some level of anatomy.  Most people would likely be uncomfortable being identified by their body scan and would like the information kept private.

Congress has stepped in to prevent any improper release of body scan images.  In fact, a release of the images is no longer just improper, but also illegal.  In February 2011, in response to the release of more than 35,000 body scan images at a Florida Courthouse (100 ended up online), the Senate unanimously passed a bill that makes it a federal crime to disseminate body scan images. Such offenses will be met with up to a year in prison and up to a $100,000 fine. Hopefully this move by our lawmakers will easy concerns about privacy.

Travelers were also concerned about the levels of radiation associated with the scanners.  Most early reports indicated that the level of radiation would be insignificant, but anyone who is pregnant or has children is likely to disagree.  Further, the extent of the exposure to frequent travelers has yet to be addressed in any substantial study. Like cell phones, it will probably be quite a while before we learn of any long-term effects to the people who go through security for a living.  TSA has found, however, that the levels of radiations are 10 times higher in some machines than originally anticipated, prompting them to retest over 247 scanners.

So, what happens if you refuse a body scan?  Well, travelers have described the alternative as a simple pat down.  Others have been sent to the traditional metal detectors, which is probably the best case scenario. But some people have been whisked off to a private room for what they describe as “intrusive” and “inappropriate” full-body searches.  I was hoping to avoid the same fate.

As it turns out, my body scan seemed fairly harmless, even if it did add a little extra time to my jaunt through security.  But I cannot say I was exactly comfortable with the entire scenario. The idea that someone is looking at a naked image of me is a little disconcerting, but I guess it is better than that same person giving me a full body search.

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