Image: U.K. airport security
Jon Super  /  AP
Airport security staff demonstrate a new full-body security scanner at Manchester Airport in Manchester, England.
By Travel writer contributor
updated 1/14/2010 12:34:55 PM ET 2010-01-14T17:34:55

A lot of travelers and privacy rights groups have their shorts in a bunch about airport body scanners that can look right through your clothing.

Last week, in response to the botched Christmas Day airline bombing attempt, President Barack Obama ordered reforms in how the intelligence community gathers and shares information. At the same time, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced plans for the Transportation Security Administration to step up the purchase, installation, and general use of full-body scanners at the nation’s airports.

The TSA already has 40 scanners in operation at 19 U.S. airports. (You can see the locations here). Six machines are being used for primary screening at six airports, and 34 other machines at 13 airports, are used for secondary screening and as an alternative to pat downs. An additional 300 units, which can cost up to $170,000 a piece, are scheduled to be rolled out in U.S. airports by the end of this year.

These machines use a variety of technologies to scan for prohibited and dangerous items that may be concealed on a body. In doing so, the scanners peer through a person’s clothing and can reveal not just weapons and plastic or chemical explosives, but very clear and somewhat graphic images of the size and shape of body parts.

It’s the graphic images created by these scanners, and worries about the unauthorized and inappropriate places the scanned images might end up, that has groups such as the ACLU worried. “These technologies are way too invasive,” says Chris Calabrese, on the ACLU’s Legislative Council. “For some people it’s a religious issue. For most people, it’s an issue of modesty. They don’t want some TSA employee ogling them, and they don’t feel it should be a cost of air travel.”

For its part, the TSA is telling travelers there’s really no need to be concerned. According to TSA spokesperson Greg Soule, on it Web site, in videos, and in official documents such as the Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) for TSA Whole Body Imaging, the agency explains that the body scanner machines will have no ability to “save, transmit, or print” images, and that the scanner technology is part of a “multi-layered security strategy to stay ahead of evolving threats.”  But the ACLU ‘s Calabrese says, “There are a large number of both legal and policy reasons why the government would feel it would have to save images; no matter what they’re saying now.”

Other groups, such as the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), join the ACLU in sounding an alarm. “They say, ‘don’t worry,’ but they completely don’t talk about the fact that the scanners are essentially digital cameras designed to peer through clothes,” says EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg. 

Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, EPIC obtained the TSA’s technical specifications and vendor contracts for the body scanners being purchased by the TSA. Two-hundred and fifty pages of the documents are now posted on the EPIC web site. Rotenberg says these documents prove that — despite what the TSA is saying about privacy and security controls — vendors are being asked to deliver machines that can, among other things, save, record, and transfer images. “The specifications talk about saving images for training and for legal evidence. It just doesn’t make sense. EPIC feels that further deployment of the scanner devices should be suspended until the privacy and security problems brought up by these documents have been resolved.”

For now, travelers can just say “No” to scanners
Unless EPIC and other organizations convince legislators to suspend or delay use of the scanners during upcoming Homeland Security and related hearings, there’s a fair chance that someday soon a TSO (Transportation Security Officer) at an airport will ask you to step into one of these body scanners.

Right now, you don’t have to. Especially if you’re like Wanderlust and Lipstick founder Beth Whitman and are “fundamentally opposed to the naked factor.” The TSA’s Greg Soule says, “At this point, the technology is 100 percent optional. However, if a passenger chooses not to go through, they will get a commensurate level of screening to include a full body pat down.”

But don’t assume everyone will say no to body scanners. “Pat downs seem slower, more invasive, and less guaranteed to detect objects than body scanners do,” says Jeremy Hoffman, a software engineer in Palo Alto, Calif. He thinks “privacy concerns are overblown” and agrees with the 78 percent of respondents in a recent poll on body scanners who said they thought the machines “would enhance security”, and the 88 percent who said they were more comfortable with a full-body scan than with a full-body pat down.

“If it means I don’t have to wait 10 or 15 minutes for a female TSO to be available for an invasive pat down; sign me up,” says Ellen Bentley, a diagnostic plant pathologist who must always wear loose clothing to the airport so she can show security personnel the scar from her knee replacement.

And then there’s the American Association for Nude Recreation. AANR Executive Director Erich Schuttauf says there’s nothing wrong with full-body scanners at the airports if they can help insure that passengers only bring aboard “what nature gave them.” In fact, says Schuttauf, if travelers just think of the screening process “as a virtual skinny dip,” then “everyone wins in the name of better air travel security.”

Harriet Baskas is a frequent contributor to, authors the “Stuck at the Airport” blog and is a columnist for You can follow her on Twitter.

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Video: Live demonstration of a body scanner

  1. Closed captioning of: Live demonstration of a body scanner

    >> newsroom. andrea, thanks.

    >>> let's back up to pete williams ' final point about airline security and technology . we want to spend a bit of time on this topic tonight because the president today talked about bomb detection, trying to find out if a human is carrying explosives that are not meant to be discovered. the president talked about imagery. that means these new electronic machines that can see through clothes, they can see through just about everything. for some people who are worried about privacy, their dignity, perhaps religious beliefs, these machines show way too much. while this may be a bit graphic, tonight we want to show you what these machines show. so our own tom costello is at a company that makes them in suburban virginia, outside washington. correct, we are going to see what a tsa technician would see if you walk tlud one of the many machines at work in airports.

    >> reporter: this is as close as we can get to show you. we are at smith's detection facility here in virginia. behind me mark is going to walk through in just a moment. first we need to explain. there are two types of full-body imaging technology . the first one is called back scanner. it uses minute amounts of radiation to essentially peer underneath the clothing, looking for any type of a weapon. the second type of technology is called millimeter wave technology . it bounces radio waves off individuals. right now, the tsa has about 40 of those in use around the country. this behind me is the latest generation, the next generation of radio wave , millimeter wave technology , and the tsa is testing it right now. mark is going to walk through the portal. he will stand in front of the echo screen and start doing a 360. as he does, and we'll tell new advance, he does have weapons or some replicas underneath his clothing. as he does, a screener in another room would be watching this image. let's see what the screener would see on his or her screen. stop there you can see you cannot tell what mark's face looks like because the technology blurs the face, but you can tell that this is a man. let's go ahead and continue scanning around the side. immediately, what we are going to notice is in the small of mark's back right there, it appears he has a gun. we know it's a replica, but it clearly sticks out. let's back up a little bit. did we miss something? on the right hip there is something. what mark is wearing on his right hip is a replica of plastic explosives . this machine picked it up. we'll look at something on his left hip right there. this machine picked up a plastic butter knife. scan further. stop right there you're going to see a box cutter in his left pocket. now keep scanning because what we are concerned about is what is right above his groin there. this black area would clearly be a concern. what he has right there is a plastic baggy full of flour. what's impossible to know is whether this technology would have picked up that plastic baggy full of explosives, petn in amsterdam. what we do know is this technology here picked up this white plastic baggy full of flour. back to you.

    >> tom, we tried to be jidicious because families are watching. these machines do show everything. when you walk through one of these at an airport, where are the tsa techs looking at your picture?

    >> reporter: the tsa, either male or female would be in another room. the face is obscured, but he or she would be able to peer underneath your clothing to see if you have anything at all.

    >> a lot of folks say the truly best way to sniff out explosives, especially in this new era when terrorists are trying to conceal them using all kinds of creative ways are trained sniffer dogs . others say leave it to electronics. many countries are fans of the hand patdown. are we looking at an era not far from now where you have lane choice of the method you are going to be screened en route to your flight gig?

    >> reporter: that is very possible. you may have a male lane and a female lane. a lane that allows you to go through a screen like this or a patdown and swabbing technic, swabbing hand-held luggage for any trace of explosives. you may have a lane with the option of dogs. all of that may be, as we go forward, options presented to the tsa and what they called this layered approach to security.

    >> tom costello, our thanks to the folks there and our volunteer. it's all about what the president said today, technology staying ahead of the terrorists.

    >>> we'll take a break. when


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