Lentis/Air Travel Security

On Christmas Day 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was able to conceal an explosive device in his underwear and board a flight from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Detroit, Michigan. Although the device ultimately failed to properly detonate, the fact that he made it onto the plane forced the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to evaluate and improve their security procedures. As part of this effort, the TSA has sought to incorporate Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) into security checkpoints. The AIT scanners use modern technology to reveal objects hidden beneath a person's clothing. According to the TSA, the AIT scanners "can detect a wide range of threats to transportation security in a matter of seconds."[1] At the same time, the scanners have met criticism from grassroots organizations, civil rights activists, and airline employees over privacy and health concerns. This chapter explores the perspectives of various social groups concerned with the new TSA air travel security measures by outlining how the technology works, possible health risks, and the delicate balance between security and privacy.

Technology and UseEdit

An image from a millimeter wave body scanner. Taken from Wikipedia article on body scanners.

There are two types of advanced imaging technology: millimeter wave and backscatter x-ray. Each of these devices serve the same purpose and are common at airports today.

When travelers enter security, they are asked to place their hands over their head and stand still for approximately 5-7 seconds. During this time, a detailed image of their person is generated that shows the passengers as they would look under their clothes. These images can be critical to finding potentially dangerous material and according to the Rapiscan website for the Secure Single Pose 1000, the device can detect “concealed liquids, ceramics, weapons, plastic explosives, narcotics, metals, contraband, currency etc.”[2] The x-ray like images of the passengers are blurred in particular areas but the TSA claims that potentially harmful materials can still be detected in these areas.[3] TSA officials view the generated images of passengers in a screening room away from the scanning area where passengers are either cleared or referred to further screening, such as a pat-down. TSA employees are restricted from bringing any electronics into the screening room to prevent images from leaving the screening room. Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, confirms that once a TSA official clears a passenger, the image of that passenger is “not retained nor transmitted” to protect the traveler’s privacy.[4] Additionally, the TSA acknowledges that the radiation a traveler experiences from being subjected to a backscatter scanner is less than the amount of radiation in a 2 minute flight [5]. While the scanners can detect concealed items under clothes, the machines cannot detect harmful devices planted inside the body.[3] The TSA will have to rely on other technologies to detect such objects.

An ABC News segment on the Rapiscan scanners emphasizes that the technology still requires human interpretation. The scanners cannot automatically announce potentially dangerous objects but rather only show their presence through an image. The technology is dependent upon TSA officials to spot them in the images and request that a passenger receives further inspection. As the scanners were implemented via a randomized process at the time of the 2009 Christmas Day attack, officials do not know whether Abdulmutallab was not selected to go through the scanners or if he went through them undetected.[3] The Rapiscan machines are replacing the traditional metal detectors and becoming more common in airports to ensure that all passengers pass through the scanners.

Health ConcernsEdit

Since backscatter machines use X-ray technology to generate images, people are concerned about potential health issues surrounding exposure to these machines. The product's manufacturer, Rapiscan Systems, maintains that the devices are safe. They insist that going through a scanner once is equivalent to eating half of a banana, and an individual would need to go through a scanner 1000 times to get the same exposure to radiation as an x-ray at the dentist's office.[6] In addition, the TSA claims that the scanners are safe for all passengers, including children and pregnant women.[5]

Not all experts agree that the Rapiscan scanners are completely safe. Some scientists insist that the TSA's reports do not accurately report the risk of harm to passengers going through the scanners because they claim that the current methodology assumes that the entire body absorbs the radiation as opposed to the radiation focusing on the skin.[7]

In response to these differences in opinion regarding the safety of the scanners, different social perspectives emerge. For pilots, who must go through the scanners almost on a daily basis, their perception of going through these scanners will be very different from a typical traveler. Captain Mike Cleary, President of the US Airline Pilots Association (USAPA), discouraged pilots from going through the scanner. In a recent statement, he said "Pilots should NOT submit to AIT screening. The TSA has offered no credible specifications for the radiation emitted by these machines...Based on currently available medical information, USAPA has determined that frequent exposure to TSA-operated scanner devices may subject pilots to significant health risks." [8] In a recent letter to fellow pilots, Captain Mike Cleary also outlined a serious case of a pilot vomiting and unable to report to work because of how poorly he had been treated by the TSA officers.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano says, "AIT machines are safe, efficient, and protect passenger privacy. They have been independently evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, who have all affirmed their safety."[8] The TSA asserts that this technology is not only safe for people and children of all ages, but also that it is vital to promoting and guaranteeing the safety of passengers.[9]

Privacy ConcernsEdit

An image of Susan Hallowell, Director of the Transportation Security Administration's research lab taken with backscatter x-ray system. This scan does not utilize the blurring algorithm present on the airport machines. Picture taken from Wikipedia article on body scanners.

The most frequent criticism of the new body scanners is that they intrude on a fundamental right to privacy. Although the TSA claims the scanners are constitutional because passengers give informed consent by choosing to fly, critics claim that they are too invasive as a primary screening method[10]. If passengers opt out of the full body scan, they are subject to a full pat-down with revised, more intrusive procedures released November 1st, 2010[11].

Two groups that have a particularly strong interest in privacy are those with special medical conditions or disabilities. Tom Sawyer, a bladder cancer survivor, is one example of a traveler who objects to the TSA’s new technology and procedures. Sawyer must wear a urostomy bag to collect urine from an opening in his stomach. After the body scanner detected his medical equipment, he was directed to a follow-up pat down. The security agents ignored his instructions and disconnected his equipment, causing urine to spill down his pants.[12] Other examples of travelers who might wish to conceal their medical condition are women with breast reconstruction or those with prostheses. For children, some have concerns that the images violate child pornography laws. In the UK, various groups petitioned against the implementation of scanners in January 2010 due to child pornography concerns. In response, the UK temporarily exempted minors from the scanners until the issue could be resolved, illustrating how social concerns can impair the effectiveness of technology.[13]

Various existing organizations have taken it upon themselves to pursue political or legal action to have the scanners (and alternative pat-downs) removed from airports. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has a form on their website to send a personalized complaint to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano. The ACLU questions the effectiveness of the body scanners and claims that terrorists will always find a way around technology.[14] The ACLU argument is interesting in that it not only argues against the existing scanners, but emphasizes the role of social, rather than technical, security solutions. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a lawsuit to suspend the deployment of scanners on July 2nd, 2010. EPIC argued that the scanners were in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act, the Privacy Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Fourth Amendment. According to EPIC, Federal Courts have held that airport searches do not violate the 4th amendment if they are "minimally intrusive, well-tailored to protect personal privacy, and neither more extensive nor more intensive than necessary under the circumstances to rule out the presence of weapons or explosives." In their brief submitted to the DC Court of Appeals, EPIC argues that the new TSA procedures do not adhere to these guidelines.[15] Ron Paul, a Congressman from Texas, has introduced the American Traveler Dignity Act of 2010 before Congress in an attempt to remove any immunity TSA agents might have from punitive action for rights violations.[16]

Other groups have formed to organize American travelers in social protest over the body scanners. WeWontFly.com encourages travelers to opt out of the scanners, avoid flying altogether, and "raise holy hell." The site includes instructions on "How to Raise Hell," refers to the TSA agents as "gropers," and coins the term "porno-scanners" for the AIT machines. Clearly, WeWontFly.com has focused their efforts on mass protests to bring attention to the security procedures. The terms "porno-scanners" and "gropers" draws attention away from potential security benefits and towards the privacy concerns. WeWontFly.com advocates decentralizing airport security by leaving it up to the airlines to find the balance between privacy, health, and security, suggesting a wider disapproval of TSA than just the body scanners and pat-downs. WeWontFly.com, along with another website supported a National Opt Out Day on November 24, 2010. The goal of the event was to raise awareness about the scanners and pat-downs by encouraging fliers to choose the pat-down and slow down the security lines. Although a New York Times reporter observed that "the protesters were often outnumbered by journalists" and that security lines moved slowly,[17] the organizer of the event claims that it was a success by drawing media attention to the scanners and pat-down procedures.[18] In support of the National Opt Out Day website's assertion, a Google News search with "Opt Out Day" and "TSA" as keywords retrieved 2,580 results from newspapers across the country.


Air travel security is not merely a technological struggle. Rather, it is a complex system of laws, policies, and social norms that influence the public reaction. In a Gallup poll from January 2010, 78% of travelers agreed that full-body scanners should screen passengers at security checkpoints. [19] Nevertheless, many strong opinions have been expressed about both privacy and public health concerns.

The major challenge confronting the TSA and other government agencies responsible for air travel security is the conflict between increased security and decreased privacy. Most people agree that security is necessary in airports; however, America is also renown for protecting the liberty of its citizens. Reconciling these two perspectives is an ongoing challenge, and the conversation about the appropriate balance of security and liberty is essential. Future Wiki writers and analysis would hopefully evaluate alternatives to improving the screening technology like using behavioral or social methods. Another interesting angle to consider would be the screening of international travelers into the United States and how the United States government works with other governments to uniformly implement air travel security standards.

Related ChaptersEdit

International Drug Trafficking and Law Enforcement


  1. Advanced imaging technology (AIT). (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2010, from Transportation Security Administration website: http://www.tsa.gov/approach/tech/ait/index.shtm
  2. Secure 1000 Single Pose. (2010). Retrieved November 30, 2010, from Rapiscan Systems website: http://www.rapiscansystems.com/rapiscan-secure-1000-single-pose.html
  3. a b c Airport Security: Privacy vs. Safety [Television broadcast]. (2009, December 28). ABC News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/video/playerIndex?id=9432511
  4. Video of man refusing TSA pat-down [Television broadcast]. (2010, November 15). The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/video/2010/11/15/VI2010111507918.html?sid=ST2010111806038
  5. a b Safety. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2010, from Transportation Security Administration website: http://www.tsa.gov/approach/tech/ait/safety.shtm
  6. Maker defends airport full-body image scanners [Website]. (2010, November 22). Retrieved from: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/nov/22/business/la-fi-1123-scanner-maker-20101123
  7. Are body scanners dangerous to your health? [Website]. (2010, November 28) Retrieved from: http://www2.dailyprogress.com/news/cdp-news/2010/nov/28/are-body-scanners-dangerous-your-health-ar-682686/
  8. a b Airport body scanners and pat-downs causing some passengers and crew discomfort [Website]. (2010, November 15). Retrieved from: http://cincinnati.com/blogs/opinionati/2010/11/15/airport-body-scanners-and-pat-downs-causing-some-passengers-and-crew-discomfort/
  9. Safety Advanced Imaging Technology [Website]. Retrieved from: http://www.tsa.gov/approach/tech/ait/safety.shtm
  10. http://wewontfly.com/, Accessed December 1, 2010
  11. http://blog.tsa.gov/2010/11/new-tsa-pat-down-procedures.html, Accessed December 1, 2010
  12. Baskas, Harriet. TSA pat-down leaves traveler covered in urine (Nov. 22, 2010). MSNBC website. Retrieved December 1st, 2010 from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/40291856/ns/travel-news.
  13. Allen, Travis. New Scanners Break Child Porn Laws (January 4,2010). Guardian News and Media website. Retrieved December 1, 2010 from http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/jan/04/new-scanners-child-porn-laws
  14. ACLU Backgrounder on Body Scanners and “Virtual Strip Searches” (January 8, 2010). ACLU website. Retrieved December 1, 2010 from http://www.aclu.org/technology-and-liberty/aclu-backgrounder-body-scanners-and-virtual-strip-searches
  15. EPIC v. DHS (Suspension of Body Scanner Program). Retrieved December 1, 2010 from http://epic.org/privacy/body_scanners/epic_v_dhs_suspension_of_body.html
  16. American Traveler Dignity Act of 2010. RonPaul.com. Retrieved December 2, 2010 from http://www.ronpaul.com/legislation/american-traveler-dignity-act-of-2010/
  17. Robertson, Campbell. Passengers Unmoved by Protests Against Scan (November 24,2010). New York Times online. Retrieved December 2, 2010 from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/25/us/25travel.html
  18. THANK YOU for making National Opt Out Day a success!. Retrieved December 2, 2010 from http://www.optoutday.com/
  19. Frank, T. (2010, January 11). Most OK with TSA full-body scanners, USA Today. Retrieved from: http://www.usatoday.com/travel/flights/2010-01-11-security-poll_N.htm

External linksEdit