March 7,2015

March 7,2015
Can the TSA See You Naked?


Welcome to another day in my life. Today is Saturday and I hope your weekend is off to a beary safe and great start. Dab the AIDS Bear and I are still recovering from our recent illness so we had to cancel our appearance out of state.

Speaking at events around the world, we end up flying most of the time. The downside of being a public speaker is having to deal with the TSA at every airport. I know a lot of people are concerned with what they can see when being scanned. So I thought I would blog about that today.

I was in a security line at LAX Airport, preparing myself for the old song-and-dance of removing shoes, cardigan, laptop, basically anything I was wearing or holding that wasn't attached to my body at birth. In front of me, a pair of fabulous silver-haired ladies was discussing the various indignities of airport security. The first was of the opinion that no one should see her nude. The second cracked, "I don't mind if they want to see me naked, but I hope they took a drink first." That amusing comment got me thinking about the backscatter debacle and where we stand now.

A bit of background: Between 2009 and 2013, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) used scanning machines that produced very detailed images of passengers' bodies. A company called Rapiscan manufactured the machines, commonly referred to as backscatter scanners. The machines used X-rays, a form of ionizing radiation that reflects off of organic material and forms an image, thereby producing an essentially nude photograph of the passenger standing in the scanner. It doesn't leave much to the imagination.

After much media attention and public outcry, the TSA claimed that employees would not be able to identify passengers based on the near-naked photos. But privacy activists (and Congress) were nonplused. In 2013, bowing to legislative pressure to protect flyers' rights, the agency pulled the Rapiscan backscatter machines. Since Rapiscan was unable to substitute the nude images with generic images, and because of questions regarding the safety of X-rays, the backscatter machines were replaced.

So what kind of X-ray are you walking through now? Most likely, not an X-ray at all. These days, U.S. airports screen passengers using a machine called a millimeter wave unit. These devices bounce electromagnetic waves off flyers standing inside the scanner with hands raised overhead. If threatening items (weapons, chemicals, liquids, and so on) are detected on an individual, the machine pinpoints them on a generic, cartoon-like outline of a human body that appears onscreen. If none are detected, the screen says simply "OK" and the flyer is waved through. In September 2014, the TSA reported that there are about 750 millimeter wave scanners in use at 160 U.S. airports. So chances are, that's the kind of machine you will experience. They are purported to be safer than backscatter machines, and the images they produce are obviously not as violating.

So hopefully that will take care of your fears the next time to have to fly and get scanned.

Until we meet again; here's wishing you health, hope, happiness and just enough.



big bear hug,





Daddy Dab