Travel Advisory: Backscatter and Millimeter Wave Scans

Hopefully all of you have heard about the new TSA restrictions. The basic gist is that you have two options to board a plane now, receive a backscatter X-ray scan through a machine or receive an intense physical pat-down. If you have received a pat-down in the last few years, please note these new techniques are much more thorough. Here are some details you should know:


Cancer risks?

The backscatter device takes photographs with an X-ray device that has ionized radiation scanning the body. The FDA has published a safety guide to these new machines, claiming a person must take over 1000 flights for the radiation to be considered a risk. A printable PDF of the guide can be found here. On the other hand, biochemists, biophysicists, a molecular biologist and a cancer specialist from University of California San Francisco all wrote a letter to the President’s science advisor, John Holdren. A printable PDF can be found here. These scientists worry the backscatter’s manufacturer used improper techniques to calculate the actual radiation exposure. If you have current genetic mutations that put you at risk for increased radiation exposure, like the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 mutations associated with breast and ovarian cancer, you may want to opt-out. Other people at risk can be those who work regularly with radiation, those who have had frequent past exposure to radiation (like cancer survivors), pregnant women, and children.

Where can I find the scanners?

There is also a millimeter wave scan option that has risks being discussed as well. You may not be able to determine which scanner your airport has. For help determining if your airport uses a scanner, check this list. TSA claims over 99% of people do opt for the scanning option. You can see how the procedure works here.

the millimeter wave option

Image as-seen by TSA for the millimeter wave option, courtesy TSA

What are the machine procedures?

To use the machine, you cannot be wearing shoes and everything, including paper, must be removed from your pocket. You must also be able to raise your hands to the full shoulder-height level so if you have any mobility restrictions you will be asked to have a pat-down. The backscatter cannot view human orifices so items like tampons will not need to be removed. The scan may have issues with your pocket lining and this can lead to false positives, meaning you would be required to have the scan AND the pat-down.

the backscatter option

Image as-seen by TSA for the backscatter option, courtesy TSA

Why are people talking about privacy risks?

In addition, another controversy is over whether the machines can store images. Gizmodo recently leaked scans they acquired from a Freedom of Information Act request of an early-model X-ray scanner. The images they obtained were only obtained because the images were able to be saved. TSA denies that their machines are capable of saving or transmitting any images; however, the machine specifications as requested by TSA include that the machines must be able to “store, record and capture” images. In addition, TSA itself states “A remotely located officer views the image and does not see the passenger, and the officer assisting the passenger cannot view the image” showing that a local transmission of the image is indeed possible.

Stay tuned for follow-up posts on the pat-down procedures, how to make a statement to TSA, and how to handle Thanksgiving travel with procedures and protests in place.

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I'm Julie, I love to travel, I'm very hyper and I like to "hype" things and from that, TravelHyper was born. I'm a Missouri native and I cover St. Louis travel ideas as well as my own travels. I also like to focus on places I want to visit and budget travel ideas by creating trip plans. There's so much world out there and I hope you'll find that it's worth seeing and that vacation doesn't have to be out of reach to you.

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