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Full-Body Scanners: How TSA Made a Mess of the Message
Jeff Chesen, Research Attorney

Full-body scanners became weapons in the continuing war against terrorism after an attempted airline bombing on Christmas Day in 2009.1 The scanners are designed to detect metallic and non-metallic materials2 that may be hidden under clothing including the explosive powder PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate) that is being used by terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda.3 Despite the terrorist concerns the introduction of the scanners and more intensive pat-downs by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) led to massive traveler opposition leading up to the busy Thanksgiving travel period. This was largely due to TSA's failure to communicate with travelers about the biometric technology's safety and benefits.

There were 483 full-body scanners installed in 78 United States airports by the end of 2010,4 and the TSA plans to have nearly 1,000 installed by the end of 2011.5 The scanners transmit an image with the passenger's blurred face to a TSA agent in a separate room.6 The adjoining agent never sees the passenger associated with the scanned image and the scanners cannot save any images.7 TSA also allows a passenger to opt-out of the scanning in favor of a full-body pat-down. The scanners can detect objects concealed under a traveler's clothes including explosives such as PETN.

The TSA's introduction of full-body scanners was a direct reaction to the discovery of PETN explosives on flights in the past decade. PETN was molded into Richard Reid's high-top sneaker sole when he boarded an American Airlines flight bound for Miami in Dec. 2001.8 Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's underwear was lined with PETN when he boarded a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.9 And PETN was found packed inside computer cartridges destined for Chicago in Oct. 2010.10 TSA Administrator John Pistole said that the scanners would have detected Abdulmutallab's bomb.11 But the TSA would not comment when a study by University of California at San Francisco medical imaging researchers Joseph Carlson and Leon Kaufman was released.12 The research showed that the scanners would not detect substantial amounts of explosive material shaped into thin layers. Similarly, the TSA said it would not comment on specifics about what its own scanner tests revealed.

While opponents cited to the scanner's radiation risks, TSA released statements that the radiation was not a concern. Stuart Mendenhall, a doctor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Cardiovascular Institute, claimed the backscatter scanner might pose risks to people vulnerable to radiation exposure.13 Department of Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano wrote in USA Today that the scanners were safe and that they were independently evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.14 However, she did not directly address the radiation concerns and scanner opponents seized on the panic.15

Scientists asserted that the TSA was correct and the scanners emitted low radiation doses. One scan is equal to about 2 to 4 minutes of flying at 30,000 feet, according to Mahadevappa Mahesh, an associate professor of radiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.16 Pistole cited this statistic in an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper and it was deemed correct by the St. Petersburg Times.17 An American College of Radiology spokesman also said a traveler would need more than 1,000 airport scans to reach a dose of radiation equal to a standard chest X-ray.18 But travelers did not receive repeated scientific assurance that radiation exposure should not be a concern and as a result exposure misconceptions proliferated. When not claiming potential health risks scanner opponents cited privacy issues.

The scanners could not save or transmit images, something Napolitano mentioned in USA Today19 and Pistole repeated.20 Yet this message was lost when print and video media sources revealed that U.S. Marshals saved 35,000 security scanner images from the Orlando federal courthouse.21 Passenger distrust in the TSA's scanner privacy assurances was fueled by the viral images from the courthouse.22 The TSA did little to allay the fears prompting an effort to create a logjam at airports on the day before Thanksgiving.

As a protest against the full-body scanners, self-described "ordinary citizen" Brian Sodegren scheduled National Opt-Out Day on Nov. 24, 2010.23 Traditionally one of the busiest airline travel days of the year, the day before Thanksgiving was publicized as a potential travel nightmare. National Opt-Out Day sought to create a traveler backlog caused by the more time-intensive pat-downs required if passengers chose not to be scanned. Despite the grass roots effort National Opt-Out Day fizzled and there were few protesters or delays.24

Full-body scanners, when used in connection with astute behavioral observation and metal detectors, could ensure greater safety for airline passengers. However, the TSA allowed misinformation to permeate as the scanners were installed. This led to a planned mass protest that potentially could have disrupted air travel on one of the busiest travel days of the year. Additional TSA assurances could have established the scanners as a trusted security tool. Instead it became reviled as a governmental invasion into passengers' privacy and continues to be thought of as a health hazard.

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1  Scott Powers, TSA Critics Promote Profiling, SO. FLA. SUN-SENTINEL, Dec. 26, 2010, at 1A.
2  Liset Marquez, TSA Debuts Full-Body Scanners at ONT, INLAND VALLEY (CAL.) DAILY BULL., Dec. 15, 2010.
3  Brian Bennett, On the Hunt for Elusive, Perilous White Powder, CHICAGO TRIBUNE, Nov. 24, 2010, at 16.
4  Brian Bennett, U.S. Takes a Hard Look at 'Soft' Terror Targets, NEWARK (N.J.) STAR-LEDGER, Dec. 31, 2010, at 3.
5  See Bennett, n. 3, supra.
6  Editorial Board, Friendly Skies, APPLETON (WIS.) POST-CRESCENT, Nov. 23, 2010, at A7.
7  Id.
8  See Bennett, n. 3, supra.
9  Id.
10  Id.
11  Study: Body Scanners Fail to Spot Some Weapons, Explosives, (N.J.) DAILY RECORD, Dec. 27, 2010.
12  Id.
13  Libby Copeland, Full-Body Scanners: Exposing Issues of Privacy and Body Image, WASH. POST, Dec. 22, 2010.
14  Janet Napolitano, Scanners Are Safe, Pat-Downs Discreet, USA TODAY, Nov. 14, 2010.
15  Columbia Univ. scientist David Brenner said the scanners introduced to a person's scalp "20 times the average dose that is typically quoted by the TSA and throughout the industry." 248 DEFENSE DAILY, Dec. 6, 2010. The TSA claimed the scanners were safe "when they're working properly" and claimed that a variety of groups, including the FDA, the United States Army, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab and the Health Physics Society all work with the TSA to make sure the scanners are safe. But AOL revealed that those groups do not make sure that the scanners are properly maintained and calibrated. Andrew Schneider, AOL Investigation: No Proof TSA Scanners Are Safe, Dec. 22, 2010. The TSA also refused the Health Physics Society's requests for the data the TSA collected on radiation exposure in and around the full-body scanners. Id. Physics professors and scientists from universities in California and Arizona claimed that the radiation from scanners is 10 times greater than what the TSA estimates and will increase the risk of cancer to children and other vulnerable populations. Linda Burke-Galloway, Radiation from TSA Body Scanners 10X Greater, BASIL & SPICE, Nov. 30, 2010.
16  Beth Whitehouse, Scanner or Pat-Down for Children? ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS, Nov. 24, 2010.
17  Aaron Sharockman, Radiation of Airport Scans Is Less Than Dose in Flight, ST. PETERSBURG TIMES, Nov. 23, 2010, at 8A.
18  See Whitehouse, n. 16, supra.
19  See Napolitano, n. 14, supra.
20  Editorial Board, Scanner Whiners Need Perspective, BRADENTON (FLA.) HERALD, Nov. 26, 2010.
21  Faith Merino, New TSA Security: Necessary or Ludicrous? VATOR NEWS, Nov. 23, 2010.
22  Jeff Weiner, Web Abuzz Over 'Naked' Scans from Orlando Courthouse, ORLANDO SENTINEL, Nov. 20, 2010, at A3.
23  Michelle Minton, November 24: National Opt-Out Day, OpenMarket.org (found at http://www.openmarket.org/2010/11/12/november-24-national-opt-out-day, last checked on Jan. 4, 2011).).
24  News reports indicated few, if any, protesters at many airports including San Diego's Lindbergh Field, O'Hare International Airport, La Guardia International Airport, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Huntsville International Airport, Salt Lake City International Airport, Richmond International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport.