TSA Claims Naked Scanners Are Safe, But Exaggerated How They Make Sure That's True

from the keeping-you-safe? dept

I’ve said in the past that of all the complaints with the TSA’s naked scanners, the one that initially concerned me the least was the “safety” claims about the x-rays used in the scanners. However, the more I hear, the more questionable it is to believe the TSA’s claims that the machines are safe. As a bunch of you sent in over the past few weeks (but which I just had a chance to read through completely), the TSA is being exceptionally misleading when it claims that the machines are harmless, because it includes a little caveat that most people miss which potentially changes everything.

That is, it claims that the machines are perfectly safe “when they’re working properly.” But as AOL’s senior public health reporter discovered, “the TSA offers no proof that anyone is checking to see if the machines are ‘working properly.'” Well, it pretends to offer proof, in saying that a variety of groups, including the FDA, the US Army, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab and something called the Health Physics Society all work with the TSA to make sure the devices are safe. But, Schreiber contacted all the groups listed and found that it’s not what you’d think. Those groups do not make sure that the machines are properly maintained and calibrated. Basically, it sounds like most of these groups tested or examined one or a small number of these machines — often not the ones actually installed at the airport, to see if, conceptually, the machines are safe. But none of them have anything to do with making sure the machines are maintained and calibrated safely, such that passenger safety is not put at risk. In fact, one of the groups listed — the Health Physics Society — noted that the TSA actually refused to provide data that the TSA collects on radiation exposure from the scanners.

So despite the fact that scientists are quite concerned that ill-maintained scanners or mis-calibrated scanners can cause serious health problems for people, it does not appear that the TSA has any serious specific program to guard against this. So, the machines are safe, if they’re working properly, but no one’s making sure that they’re really working properly — other than the TSA, who doesn’t give much details into what’s actually being done to make sure that the machines are, in fact, calibrated and maintained properly.

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Comments on “TSA Claims Naked Scanners Are Safe, But Exaggerated How They Make Sure That's True”

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Anonymous Coward says:

An hour's worth of background radiation in 15 seconds

“The amount of radiation generated by a properly calibrated full-body device in the typical 15-second-long scan is equal to about an hour of normal background radiation, such as the amount absorbed while walking through a park, the TSA says.”

Let’s draw a parallel to a form of radiation I’m more familiar with – Infrared. How high would the temperature need to be for me to experience an hour’s worth of 70 degree IR radiation in 15 seconds?

Berenerd (profile) says:

Go back to bed america...

“So there, we have figured it out, go back to bed America, your government has figured out how it all transpired. Go back to bed America, your government is in control again. Here, here’s American Gladiators. Watch this, shut up. Go back to bed America, here’s American Gladiators. Here’s 56 channels of it. Watch these pituitary retards bang their fuckin skulls together and congratulate you on living in the land of freedom. Here you go America, you are free… to do as we tell you. You are free, to do as we tell you.”

Bill Hicks

Spaceman Spiff (profile) says:

Cumulative exposure

It isn’t so much the single scan dosage that is the problem (though it can be if the machine is miscalibrated), but the accumlative effects that start to impact on frequent fliers. See how many of TSA’s top brass would accept going through one of these 2-4x per day for a year, which is what a flight attendent or pilot would do. I’ll just bet you’d get a lot of interesting excuses why they can’t/won’t do that… 🙁

Lance says:

Message from our sponsors

The TSA is reminding me of a song by Jello Biafra with Keith Lablanc about over reaching government. It’s funny when you listen to it and think “that will never happen” but with the way security theater is being pushed it really isn’t all that far of a stretch I think. Which makes it kind of scary to ponder where America will be as a nation in 10 to 20 years.

Youtube link for your enjoyment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPhLDYVyK5Y

someone (profile) says:

Medical radiation failures

“Therac 25 is a good example of why the “working properly” line is devious.”

I completely agree with you on that.

Take this a step further, do you trust the skills of the TSA agent to be able to identify when the scanner is malfunctioning?

Just the other day they could not find an elusive elder woman. Leaves little faith they can tell when their complex potentially lethal machine is malfunctioning.

Anonymous Coward says:

What is the Risk for TSA Agents?

Something I never seen said, what is the risk for those that work next to the machines?

Yes some passenders might pass those these machine multiple times per week but the guy standing next to it gets hunderds a day. In any medical imaging (yes those have higher levels) the tech’s leave the room to reduce their exposer. But they probably only do a fraction of the imaging that a TSA agent gets exposed to.

someone (profile) says:

Cumulative exposure

Great idea!

Each TSA agent should be required to go through the scanner once per hour.

We can justify this by claiming that TSA agents might be terrorists so they too need scanned!

If their junk does not fall off after a few years of employment, maybe then I might believe the scanners are safe.

But I will still believe they violate the Constitution.
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons …against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated”

someone (profile) says:


“to be honest, no one’s really interested in looking at your genitals.”

I think you may be right, I doubt most TSA agents like looking and touching the junk of the same sex.

“if you want to fly, you have to do what they say, get over it.”
If I want to fly I must abide by the laws of the land.
Currently the supreme law of the land Prohibits the TSA from searching us without probable cause that can be supported by oath or affirmation.

Wanting to fly on an airplane does not make one a terrorist.
Randomly selecting people for “additional screening” is not probable cause either.

Follow the 4th amendment or repeal it, but do not bend it and twist it in the name of “security”

Wimpie (user link) says:

Not for Me!

So now the airlines are a tiny bit safer, but the determined terrorists will move on to “softer” targets, like Times Square, Xmas tree lighting ceremonies and cargo bombs.

Next attack – shopping centers, schools, cruise ships, sports events, subways, tunnels, buses, airport security lines to name but a few.

We cannot possibly catch every attempt by screening, but we can humiliate millions of people and help bankrupt already hurting commercial aviation companies.

Fire 25,000 TSA clerks, dump the scanners and pat-downs, bring in dogs, and give the saved money to the FBI & CIA, who can actually catch terrorists (maybe).

I, for one, won’t fly until this travesty is lifted.

Click on my name for important info!

Anonymous Coward says:

x-ray, millimeter wave or both?

I’m pretty sure the FDA governs licenses, and certifies X-Ray use in the US. FCC governs, licenses, and certifies EHF (millimeter) frequencies in the US.

It would be nice to see what research and tests both these governing authorities have performed on human tissue to ensure they are safe for general use outside of a laboratory setting. Right now, there’s only analogies and very few studies, none of which appear to have FCC, FDA charter. Or peer review, for that matter.

Rekrul says:


I think you may be right, I doubt most TSA agents like looking and touching the junk of the same sex.

I’ve always wondered;

The idea of having same sex pat-downs comes from the idea that it won’t be seen as sexual. However, if the person is gay, being felt up by a person of the same sex could be considered sexual contact. Does this mean that gay travelers can request a pat-down/groping from the opposite sex?

Deggs says:


This is exactly the idiotic attitude that is allowing our government to tromp all over our constitutional rights.

Everything from the ill named Patriot Act to this illegal search method is turning the western world into the same type of police state nation we’re supposedly trying to protect ourselves against.

So many choose to turn their heads and say “Go ahead, search me. I have nothing to hide.”regardless of the unreasonable nature of the search. Those of you so willing to relenquish the rights and freedoms so many have fought and died for don’t deserve to have them.

Anonymous Coward says:

x-ray, millimeter wave or both?

I’m sure they are regulated and I’m sure there are the same issues with calibration and traceability. And there are the same privacy issues. I was not specific but I meant safety issues. As far as I can tell, the effects of long term exposure to low levels of millimeter wave radiation are not well understood. Its not clear exactly what frequency range they use as EHF covers a large range. The TSA claims the power level is way less than that of the cell phone. I have not heard of anyone getting burned (think microwave oven) in a millimeter wave scanner. Any one know the safety implications of millimeter wave scanners?

spiderwebby (profile) says:

An hour's worth of background radiation in 15 seconds

I challenge you to apply the same logic to your mobile phone. or your microwave. or the roll of sticky tape in your desk draw: http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/multimedia/2008/10/gallery_xray_tape?slide=1&slideView=7

you do realise that you can make one of these by tweaking standard satellite dish LMBs:

bring out the tinfoil hats!!!

Ormond Otvos (profile) says:

Wusses and idiots.

Our innumerate population, many of whom infest this thread, cheerfully fly on large, lightweight aluminum tubes, some of which have thousands of fatiguing and unrecorded hours on them, powered by giant red-hot turbine blades spinning madly, burning kerosene at hundreds of gallons an hour, and exposing all the passengers to blasts of cosmic radiation, and then bitch about a little terahertz blip.


hvchronic (profile) says:

Scanners are dangerous

The backscatter scanners — foisted on the TSA by Rapiscan lobbyist/former DHS secretary Michael Chertoff — are dangerous. The video posted below from After the Press (afterthepress.com) has broken through the major media hyperbole barrier to answer the real questions about what?s wrong with these machines. Neither of the interviewees, two of the most reputable scientists in the field of radiation physics and technology, will step into one. So whether or not you?re offended by the prospect of becoming the subject of a live peepshow for blue-gloved agents, or care about your rights being abrogated, you?ll still want to be cognizant of the danger in subjecting your or your children’s bodies to backscatter radiation.


Cipher-0 says:


the way i see it you don’t _need_ to fly so why should you complain about having to jump through a few hoops when you want to?

In .us there’s this bugfuck annoying thing called the Constitution.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

How does the desire to travel by airplane get contrived to mean a search method that has been reserved for people being arrested is reasonable?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Not flying

I’m simply not flying, which is a bit of a shame because I love to fly as much as I loathe being in airports or prostrating myself before the TSA. In terms of total door-to-door travel time, it’s not actually much faster to fly domestically than to drive/take the train/take the bus anyway, plus flying is often the more expensive option.

My next trip is to CES, and I’ll be driving.

Nastybutler77 (profile) says:

Not flying

I’m simply not flying,… it’s not actually much faster to fly domestically than to drive/take the train/take the bus anyway…

Wish I had that option, but I live in Alaska and have to travel to the “lower 48” for business a few times a year. Driving is not an option as it takes about 4 hours to fly to Seattle, and about 2 days to drive there.

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