When I flew home for Christmas break on Dec. 19, I wasn’t aware of the controversial body scanners TSA was beginning to employ. But after the failed attempt by the now notorious “Christmas bomber,” I realized my digital figure, minus boots, sweater and pants, had already been viewed by TSA agents.
Tulsa International Airport is among the 19 U.S. airports TSA has selected to use the full-body scanners. The scanners, like Superman’s x-ray vision, produce digital images of a person’s naked figure. While the renderings aren’t exactly pornographic, privacy advocates and civil rights groups have raised strong objection to the scanners.
Originally, TSA claimed the machines would only be used on persons requiring extra screening. Instead of a full-body pat down, passengers in question would be subjected to a 2-and-a-half second scan. However, as was the case at Tulsa, airports are instead using the machines for all passengers boarding. Unlike London’s Heathrow airport, passengers in the United States can opt for a full-body pat down.
There are two different types of the body scanners being used. The backscatter uses x-rays to scan and produce a realistic 2 dimensional image. The somewhat less-revealing millimeter scanner I was subjected to at Tulsa, uses terahertz waves to produce a 3D image. The latter appears to be the more widely used.
However, there are serious health concerns over the use of the millimeter scanner and terahertz waves. Terahertz waves lie on the electromagnetic spectrum between infrared and microwaves. An article in Technology Review says radiation from these waves could cause DNA strands to tear apart and “interfere with processes such as gene expression and DNA replication.”
Privacy and health concerns have caused European Union President Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba to resist U.S. pressure to implement the scanners. He said a commission will first conduct studies to make sure the machines “are effective, do not harm health, and do not violate privacy.”
Hopefully, the United States will take note and similar precaution.