Are Digital Strip Searches Coming Soon To Every Airport Near You?

By Brett Israel | December 29, 2009 5:54 pm

tsa-release-images-400-webThe Christmas Day airplane bombing attempt has renewed the debate over full body scanners at airports. The Transportation Security Administration in recent years has tried out a series of “whole-body imagers” to look for threats that typical metal detectors can’t find. These systems are the only way that smuggled explosives, like the one officials say was brought on the Christmas flight, can be reliably found [].

Privacy advocates are calling the full body scanners a “digital strip search” (take a look at this TSA image of a full body scan and you’ll get the idea). But some security advocates say that either patting down every passenger or taking full body scans are the only options to ensure certain dangerous items are kept off airplanes.

Right now there are 40 full body scanners in 19 different U.S. airports. Only 6 airports use them for primary screening, the rest are used for follow-up searches. These scanners use millimeter-wave sensors that emit radio frequencies. By measuring the differences in the radiated energy, the scanner produces detailed 3-D images that resembles photo negatives. TSA has also ordered 150 similar scanners, at about $170,000 each, that use backscatter X-ray technology, after the completion of a successful pilot project.

TSA says privacy concerns are unwarranted since facial features (and other body parts?) are blurred out before the screening officer, who is in a separate room, sees the images. A senior U.S. air security source acknowledged the ongoing controversy over using the high-resolution body scanners that can show breast enhancements, body piercings and genitals. Full-body scanners currently in use in the U.S. have been set on a “politically correct” lower resolution that prevented screeners from seeing the outlines of genitals, the source said [New York Daily News]. Supposedly, the images will be permanently deleted immediately after screening.

Last June, the House of Representative voted 310 to 118 to oppose the use of full body scanners as a primary means of screening passengers. This doesn’t mean the issue is dead however, as President Obama has ordered a system-wide review on all screening procedures.

Related Content:
80beats: Editing Goof Puts TSA Airport Screening Secrets on the Web
80beats: Computer Glitch Delays Airline Flights Around the Country
DISCOVER: A Wing and a Prayer: The U.S.’s Crumbling Air-Travel Infrastructure
80beats: Researcher Discovers Effective Profiling; Says It’s More Trouble Than It’s Worth

Image: TSA

  • Angela

    While I can’t say that I relish the thought of some security person seeing my love handles digitally, I don’t see it as being particularly different than a pat down. And personally, I’d rather walk through the digital screening machine than be patted down in public or, even worse, be blown up mid-air. I get naked at the gym and my doctor’s office, so I suppose being digitally naked at the airport isn’t all that much worse.

  • Nick

    See, poor Angela has been suckered right into this story, same as poor ol’ Discovery networks.

    Exactly how would more screening IN THE US prevent a man who got on a plane in *Amsterdam* from bringing explosives on said plane? HOW?

    And what’s to stop terrorists from using breast-implant bombs or something similarly disguised as a normal body implant? I mean, they’re suicide bombers after all, what do they care?

  • Nick O.

    I have to disagree with you Nick (despite your excellent name). You’re correct that more screening in the US would not prevent a man from boarding a plane in Amsterdam with explosives, but that’s besides the point. The fact of the matter is that this recent incident demonstrates again that the security systems we have in place are inadequate to prevent certain kinds of attacks.

    This attack did not occur on a flight originating in the US, but hypothetically the next attempt could. Adding these systems would try to block that possibility, and while they will obviously not be foolproof (the unfortunate ingenuity of the terrorists will see to that), they do appear to be a step in the right direction. Rather than sitting on our hands and saying “oh well, I guess there’s nothing we can do,” why not try to close off SOME of the options available to the terrorists? Do you propose the US maintains the lowest common level of security of any nation that sends planes to the US?

    It certainly seems foolhardy to ignore more advanced systems we do have that can stop terrorist methods that we KNOW can evade the systems we currently use.

    Additionally, we have a fair bit of influence around the world (waning, waxing, or however you see it, it still exists), and setting a precedent for stronger and more wide-spread security measures that we know are more effective would put pressure on other places (like *Amsterdam*) to follow suit.

  • Zachary

    Agree with Nick volume II. You can’t make the best the enemy of the better.

  • Robin

    Of course we should use this equipment. It will make our security checks faster and our travels safer. It will set an example. I don’t understand why this is even controversial.

  • Bill White

    If they want to look in my drawers that’s OK with me. Unfortunately, I have very little to hide!

  • Rob B

    Nick O: “Do you propose the US maintains the lowest common level of security of any nation that sends planes to the US?”

    Why not? We do with health care.

  • lo9an

    You are all Scaredy-Cats. The fact is, since 2001, there have been 6 hijackings within US Airspace, 4 of which killed thousands of course. The simple math would show that hijackings occur in a small, tiny, percentage of Flights. 6 out of over 19 million flights is a itty bitty percentage! Of course, many will simply say that even 1 hijacking is enough to allow security to overtake all aspects of our lives. And if less than 1% scares you enough to be drained of all Civil Liberties and Rights than I guess the Terrorists have already won!

    After all that is their goal, to alter our lives and cause great inconvenience and constant bickering. Not to mention, drain our country of vastly needed resources and finances. It appears the Terrorists are winning on those fronts!

  • gines

    I think many more than I alone don’t want to live in a world where many people wastes so much richness spent on security, while many other people are very hungry. If we are unable to invest the money on the basis of the real problem and solve it once and for all, in my opinion it’s better for us to extinguished!.

  • Woody Tanaka

    @lo9an: “And if less than 1% scares you enough to be drained of all Civil Liberties and Rights than I guess the Terrorists have already won!”

    So going through a scanner as a condition of boarding a plane is being “drained of all Civil Liberties and Rights”?? So if we put in these scanners, we won’t have the right to vote or free speach anymore? Is that what you’re saying?? Wee bit over the top, doncha think?

  • Carter


    The TSA gets to set specifications for screenings of planes that are bound for the US, though they of course do not get to carry out such screenings (because the US does not hold sovereignty over most other nations until it invades).

    I suppose it’s a very personal question of opinion whether you find digital scanning an invasion of privacy. While many things similar to this issue would worry me greatly, this one for some reason does not. I simply do not mind the prospect of a TSA employee seeing an X-ray of me. My doctor sees plenty more, like what Angela said in the first posting. Should measures be put into place so that the computers used to view these images and scan for illegal items are locked down so pictures cannot be removed except in the event of a legal action necessitating such, then it seems perfectly ok. My main concern would be about the radiation dosing of these machines, but I hardly worry about that anyway. We’re constantly penetrated by much higher-strength EM waves, and the machines use low-wavelength signals. If it was X-ray, that would be bad.

  • Bryan

    If Jesus can do it so can we ~~ WHIP IT OUT@@@!!!! let it hang in front of all to see.. Then we all can go to mr. skin and find our naked pics on the internet!!!!

  • Jane

    Have these digital scanners been tested for safety? In other words, can the waves or energy emitted cause any harm to the human body being scanned? Particularly to frequent fliers.

  • Zack

    I don’t see this as a major civil liberty issue. Privacy, perhaps, but ultimately you’re only “naked” anonymously, to a total stranger who won’t be able to keep the picture or ever identify you. I think the safety question (due to radiation exposure, particularly for frequent travelers) is the bigger one.

  • Richard

    The use of millimeter (extremely short) waves ensures that the energy (waves) does not pass through the body. As a matter of fact, it does not penetrate very far if at all through the skin. It is not like you are getting x-rayed or anyhing and the power levels are very low for these machines. The only thing one may need to be concerned about is long term effects depending on the poser levels and I expect the answer will be no long term effects.

  • Jobas

    Actually, Richard, the other thing we have to worry about is subcutaneous weapons systems that these scanners will be unable to detect; then we will need to bring in the invasive and deadly x-rays. Then of course there will be a new threat which will be met with mandatory sleep injections to all passengers.

  • Susie

    It is better to get laughed at anonymously than to be patted down, and then get laughed at for unusual or large body shapes.
    It isn’t a civil liberties issue because flying is not a right unless you are a bird.
    I would like the pictures kept until the flight lands successfully.
    and Nick gave terrorists ideas when he thought of them smuggling fluids in breast implants–way to go Nick, like they don’t stay up nights thinking of tricks themselves.

  • anonymous

    What about X-ray radiation, especially for people who travel often? What about pregnant women? And one day in future a suicide bomber will swallow a bomb, so this scanner won’t detect it either.

  • Christina Viering

    Maybe scanning the pregnant woman will terminate a future suicide bomber.

  • Dave E.

    We have the technology, but what we really need is well trained people! People who can with a little, brief interrogation, spot and stop terrorists. The human tool is the most versatile.

  • Angie

    I´d hate to know that the whole airport has the opportunity to look at my breasts! I never wanted to be a porn star! This is MUCH to private! I have my dignity and I don´t like the thought of somebody taking it away from me! That´s humiliating not only to me but to all women and men, who just like me never wanted to be exhibited naked in public – like an item!

  • Jennifer Angela

    I think privacy matters more than a bit of a security show – as screening is not evidently secure. I think you would still find out much more the oldfashioned way.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar