Airport Body Scanner Disrupts Personal Security

An essay by Latanya Sweeney

The following essay describes my first encounters with body scanners. It does not reflect my expertise with privacy technology nor does it harbor scholarship or research on the topic. Instead this essay is merely a first-hand account of my immediate reactions to encountering a body scanner as a frequent flyer.

5/27/2010 Logan Airport, Boston, Massachusetts

I travel so often by plane I can recite the stewardess' safety monologue from memory and I can get my shoes, jacket, bag, and electronic components on the belt for metal detector scanning in 24 seconds. I am familiar with equipment at the security checkpoint too. The belt fed detector checks objects and the door frame detector checks people. TSA officials use handheld detectors to scan people who cause a beep when passing through the frame; and, when objects cause a beep, TSA officials wipe a wand over the object and then insert the wand's head into a machine to test for trace amounts of dangerous substances. I understand these TSA procedures, how they are used and why they are done. I can scarcely recall a time without them. The consistency of my recurring TSA experiences gives me personal security, a kind of freedom from anxiety of otherwise not knowing what to expect. But then one day, body scanners disrupted it all.

A couple of months ago at Reagan National Airport in DC, I saw something new -a full body scanner at the security checkpoint. It was different and peaked my curiosity. A posted image exemplified what TSA officials view --a full sculpture of a naked man blurred by a coating of thick silver paint with extra blurring of his private area. You couldn't see tattoos or skin details, but body contours remained. Were the images saved? Do they know the person's identity? Luckily it didn't matter because it's use was optional, so through the detector frame I advanced.

On a subsequent trip to DC, I noticed that using the body scanner seemed mandatory. As I took a long pause before entering the line, a security woman saw my reaction and whispered that you only go through the body scanner if you fail the metal detector screening. I thanked her and then proceeded to the line furthest away from the body scanner as added protection. From that point forward, I always elected the line furthest from the body scanner as part of my routine.

Eventually my comfort was disrupted again. Today, as I dashed into Boston's Logan Airport on my way to DC, I confronted a body scanner once more --a backscatter device in which a human holds his hands above his head while standing between two semi-circle columns. It seemed everyone was proceeding through it, and as a result, the line moved very slowly. The screen showing the captured image seemed in view by all in the front of the line and as I got closer, I turned my head --it was a person's naked body after all. Soon the queue got sufficiently long, so TSA officials opened another line further away from the body scanner. My path was clear. I dashed to the line furthest from the body scanner and efficiently proceeded to take off my shoes and jacket and glasses and pull out my laptop and iPad so they could be scanned separately on the belt and then barefoot with bare arms and confident stride I approached the detector frame.

One after another my fellow passengers proceeded through the detector frame, moving orderly and quickly. When it was my turn, a TSA official blocks my entry and points me to the body scanner. When I said I did not want to use the body scanner, he and his supervisor, who was standing nearby, politely explained that once I was selected to use the body scanner, my choices were to use the body scanner or receive a physical pat down. I still liked the option of not using the body scanner best.

My verbal reflex questioned what appeared to be arbitrariness of selection. "Why me?" They said it was random selection based on efficiency. Apparently, their goal is to get as many people as possible to go through the scanner, but because it moves slowly, they have to revert to the metal detector for speed. While we conversed, the TSA officials and I blocked entrance to the body scanner, so all other passengers quickly scurried through the detector frame --at least I was sparing other passengers from having to confront the body scanner.

My polite objection surprised the TSA officials and I could see them scrambling to recall procedure. The supervisor, a black woman of similar age and presence as myself, talked to me in a military tone reciting what had obviously been prepared responses. I interrupted her recital by asking "when did this procedure begin?" She said as soon as the machine arrived and it had been here for months. I advised her that I was here last week and this was not the procedure. Notwithstanding my claim, she insisted that this current procedure has been the practice and then proceeded to correct herself by saying it started a few days ago. I didn't understand how she could be confused about whether she had been taking pseudo-nude pictures of body shapes for months or days. I then reflected to myself that a day in her job may seem like a month. I also wondered if she has been doing this for months but not necessarily at this security point. Regardless of the reason for her confusion, I had to make a decision.

I opted for the full body pat down, a decision that completely baffled TSA officials. Echoes about a pat down of a female resonated throughout the area. After some scrambling, a woman and man pair appeared, where the woman was to do the pat down and the man was the witness (I guessed). Then to my amazement, they asked me to proceed through the detector frame. I then speculated to myself that no pat down would happen because I would proceed through the metal detector frame without a problem as I had done countless times before. So, I walked through the detector frame and the metal detector remained silent but when I arrived on the other side my pat-down pair was still ready to begin.

"What can a metal detector combined with a pat down reveal?" I followed the pair to an open area where I could see my belongings while being patted down. The woman, slightly shorter than me explained that she would pass her hands across my arms and proceed down my torso moving to the back of her hand when moving across sensitive areas. She offered me the opportunity to move to a private area but I preferred to stay where I was standing in public view. I felt no shame only intense curiosity about the purpose of the combined metal detector and pat down in comparison to a body scan.

The female official began. Her hands, adorned with blue gloves, ran across my arms. As she progressed to my back she spoke aloud as a doctor does when verbalizing recording notes during an examination. In this case, all available TSA officials were observing and she was verbalizing to them the procedure as she progressed. I was part of their on-the-job training.

She passed her hands very lightly across me rarely causing any pressure sensation. This was not what I ever imagined having seen police pat downs on television. The whole "pat down" option now seemed a farce aimed at intimidating people into getting body scans, but just as my disgust mounted, another purpose revealed itself. She finished but told me to wait, as she placed her hands outward and the male member of the pair ran a wand across her gloves and then placed the wand's head in a machine. They were checking for trace amounts of a dangerous material on my clothes by way of her gloves. But was such information useful for security? I dunno. Was this actually the purpose? If so, how does that match to what's learned from a body scanned image? The machine found no problem with the traces picked off my clothes, so off I dashed to my plane with my mind buzzing with questions about utility, procedures, motivation, stored images, and what decision I will make on my next flight.

My next flight from that airport was the very next day and to my disappointment, the machine was powered off.

August 2010.

Related Links

  • Images

  • TSA's site on body scanners

  • EPIC's site on body scanners

  • Formae Mentis 1/5/2010 "Airports have implemented full-body scanners in the aftermath of the Christmas day 2009 incident involving Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is accused of attempting to blow up a Northwest airlines jet from Amsterdam to Denver, Colorado." (more)

  • See Through Body Scanners. ACLU "Passengers expect privacy underneath their clothing and should not be required to display highly personal details of their bodies such as evidence of mastectomies, colostomy appliances, penile implants, catheter tubes and the size of their breasts or genitals as a pre-requisite to boarding a plane." (more)

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