TSA Touching your T&A

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Unless you’ve been hanging out in a cave, I’m guessing you’ve heard about the TSA’s new x-ray machine or “enhanced” pat-down policy.  Before blogger John Tyner shared his experience (and thus, started the “don’t touch my junk” meme), I hadn’t done much research on these new policies.

I’d like to take a few moments and share what I have read and my opinions on airline security.  For each topic, I’ll label some background information, what others are saying and my opinion.  I will post as many links as possible.  Most of my research was done through the Gawker media group, including Gizmodo (the group that leaked the iPhone 4).  You’ll find their source work attributes reliable sources such as “New Scientist”. 

“Backscatter” OR millimeter wave scanner machines – not the same thing
Background: These machines allow TSA professionals to essentially look through your clothes and see the image of a naked person to check for weapons, explosives, etc; like an x-ray machine (backscatter machines actually are x-ray machines).   Travelers are chosen at random* while others simply use the traditional metal detector.  According to the TSA, the individuals viewing the images are in a different location and there are no ways to save images.  TSA states that the x-ray exposure is completely safe as it is a minimal amount of radiation exposure.

*random according to the TSA.  A better term might be selective as individuals are deciding who needs to walk through the backscatter, and who just walks through the metal detector.  To my knowledge, there is not a publicized list of conditions that would make a traveler a backscatter/millimeter wave candidate. 

Research: There have been reports of abuse of the imaging capability, read here and here and while those examples are internal employee issues – the potential for abuse obviously exists.  Recently, Gizmodo leaked images of 100 travelers and their backscatter image.  Rather interesting, as the TSA still maintains that the images can only be saved during training, and that feature is turned off the rest of the time.  According to New Scientist, the TSA hasn’t provided how difficult it is to reactivate the feature, nor how they stop employees from using camera phones to capture images.  In a statement to Gizmodo, the TSA claims that it is impossible to save the images, and they made this claim AFTER 100 images were leaked. 

The UCSF oncology department thinks they pose a serious health risk, especially to children or anyone at risk for breast cancer.  When reading an article about these machines, the part that alarmed me was the following paragraph:

“Are there health concerns surrounding millimetre-wave scanners?
In theory, these ought to be safer than X-rays because millimetre photons do not have enough energy to break chemical bonds. Last year, however, researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico suggested that these low energy photons could damage DNA in an entirely novel way. They say that while these photons cannot break DNA, they can shake it. This shaking may be so strong that it unzips the two strands in DNA, interfering with the genetic machinery that keeps cells working and healthy.

The team at Los Alamos did their calculations for submillimetre or terahertz waves, whose photons are slightly more energetic than those of millimetre waves. Their results are probabilistic rather than deterministic, they say. This explains why some experiments show that terahertz waves can damage DNA while other, practically identical studies show nothing.

While terahertz full body scanners are not yet widely used, the work does show that the effects of electromagnetic waves on DNA are not fully understood.”

My opinion: My first (an only, so far) experience with the backscatter or millimeter machine (not sure which it was, the TSA uses signs for both interchangeably) was in Atlanta on October 23rd as I prepared to fly home.  I went through the machines not understanding the risk nor did I understand my rights.  Here are my concerns and opinions, starting with my highest priority concern: 
·         Oh.  In theory.  Like how in theory, lead paint is safe.  Or in theory, letting kids play with mercury in science class is safe.  Or, in theory, asbestos insulation is a great product for your home, school or office.  These are three of the countless examples of things that were approved for use, exposing toxic chemicals to millions of people until the government admitted it wasn’t safe.  Maybe if you travel once or twice a year, a small dose of radiation doesn’t scare you.  Multiply that by hundreds of trips, DNA damage could be a real concern.  I don’t want my life to be cut short because the TSA exposed me to radiation.  
·         I’m sure I’m not alone here – I don’t want people looking at dark, grainy pictures of me naked.  Heck, I don’t want to look at those pictures either. 
·         The “random” nature is ineffective. 
·         The leaked images creep me out and if my image was leaked out, I would feel violated, at the very least.

Enhanced Pat-down:
Background: Any passenger (regardless of age) selected for additional screening in a backscatter or millimeter-wave machine who declines is subjected to an “enhanced” pat-down.  This is beyond checking the outside of your pockets for concealed weapons, but also includes contact with the passenger’s genitals.  This screening takes place in public by a same-sex TSA employee, unless a private screening is requested. 

Research: The TSA’s statement about the policy doesn’t describe the policy, it merely defends their reasoning.  After searching the TSA website, I could not find a complete description of the procedure.  I did read an ExpressJet pilot’s account of how shaken the pat-down (essentially, a groping) left him shaken – he was so upset by it, he was unable to fly.  There are plenty of horrible stories about the pat-down procedure, read a few here, here or here.  TSA employees have stated that the enhanced pat-down is as uncomfortable for them as it is for you.  (It’s not like this SNL sketch)

My Opinion:  The thought unwanted physical contact (male or female) leaves me extremely uncomfortable.  My concerns are elevated with a stranger touching my chest, inner thigh or groin - it makes my stomach turn.  I’m not sure that my reaction would be as profound as the pilot, I can certainly empathize.  I’ve read a few accounts of rape survivors suffering anxiety attacks during and after the enhanced pat-down, further compounding the trauma of their attacks.  I find little to no comfort that passengers will be assigned a screener of the same sex – if I don’t know you and your touching my butt, I have a problem with this.  I am also very concerned with the thought of children being touched by screeners.  What emotional damage is at risk by allowing an adult to touch your child’s buttocks or genitals?  What assurance is there that the screeners are not pedophiles?

That’s it.  Those are your two options if you are selected for additional screening. In response to the growing criticism, TSA administrator John Pistole issued a video statement about the TSA policy.  As a warning to travelers - if you refuse the scanner and the enhanced pat-down, you could be threatened with a $10,000 fine.  Here is one guy’s story of how he peacefully and effectively refused the scanner and submitted to the pat-down. 

More information:
·         Ms. Deidre Walker, former Assistant Chief of Police in Montgomery County, Maryland shared her concerns based on her 24 years of security and police experience on the risks of the TSA’s inconsistent procedures.  If there is only one link you click in this post, please let it be this one. 
·         Orlando’s Sanford Airport is kicking the TSA out and hiring a private company

Overall Opinion:
     Lack of consistency: In the last two years, I have arrived home and realized that my carry-on (screened by TSA) contained
·         A 4oz bottle of contact solution (the rules state that it should be under 3oz and in a ziplock bag)
·         A 1lb tub of Aquaphilic lotion
·         An epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) in case of an allergic reaction.  This device includes a needle and liquid that is not in a sealed container, nor have I been asked to see a prescription.  Couldn’t this pose a risk?
Which will I choose? I’ve thought long and hard about this.  While I feel that the screeners should at least buy me dinner and drink before they cop a feel (joking), I think I have an obligation to my physical well being.  There are too many unknown risks to this new technology, and I’m not willing to play Russian Roulette with radiation. 

As long as there are people trying to blow up, crash or hijack a plane, or try to sneak a dozen monkeys in their pants; security will always be something air travelers have to deal with. 

I’ve heard that “you give up certain rights when you buy a plane ticket” and while I don’t agree with it, I’m not going to fight it.  As a frequent traveler, whatever your thoughts and opinions on the TSA’s policies, I beg of you - don’t do anything that would jeopardize your fellow passengers’ ability to travel – don’t make a scene, don’t start a fight, don’t joke around.  No one will be impressed with you if they miss spending the holidays with their friends and family.

Update - it appears that the TSA was not using the Backscatter or Millimeter machines the day before Thanksgiving.


  1. Dont worry about the DNA effects that paper was picked up but not interperted correctly by the media (again). The effects are very limited to a particluar wavelengh of light. The scanners do not operate in this region allthough the popular media like to use the term "teraherz" all encompasing. It referes to 10 power 12 cycles of frequency (HZ). Not a single scanner that is available operates in this regime. mm wave scanners are not even Terahertz. Its a frequency of operation not a radiation type. Light waves from a light bulb are 2000 Thz. The only scanners that work in this region are used for non destructive testing or things like aircraft parts. These emit terahertz but the power is less than emitted by a person. Yes you emit about 1 watt of radiation in this region as you are warm and terahertz is a form of infrared radiation. The true Thz scanners emit 1000 times less than a body.

  2. Thank you to the anonymous commenter - care to share your identity or cite your research? I'd love to read more!



Please make sure your comment does not contain information on my employer. Thanks!

Latest Instagrams

© Has Passport, Will Travel. Design by Fearne.