Advanced Imaging Technology: Is the elevated safety worth the risks?

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The heavy travel season began this past week with the beginning of the holidays, and airports were packed with people leaving town and coming back home. Everyone wants to feel as though they will get to and from safely, reaching their holiday destination without seeing any accidents on the road, and returning to their regular life and work without hearing any horror stories on the news. One way that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is working towards securing this feeling of safety when travelling on a plane is the relatively new addition of Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) in about 70 major airports nationwide.

Between 9/11 and the would-be Christmas Day bomber of 2009, America is feeling less than safe on airplanes these days. These new Whole Body Imaging scanners are meant to help to protect travellers from these kinds of catastrophes. So how do they work?

According to the TSA’s website, “Advanced imaging technology safely screens passengers for metallic and nonmetallic threats including weapons, explosives and other objects concealed under layers of clothing without physical contact to help TSA keep the traveling public safe.

“Millimeter wave technology bounces harmless electromagnetic waves off the body to create a black and white three-dimensional image. Backscatter technology projects low level X-ray beams over the body to create a reflection of the body displayed on the monitor,” reads the TSA website.

Basically, it’s a big human scanner that detects masses concealed under the clothes. It is meant to catch passengers boarding with hidden weaponry, like knives, guns, and/or explosives. Unfortunately, tests have shown that this may not be the cut and dry savior that the American traveller has been waiting for. These machines detect solid, hard mass and edges well, but chemical smooth mass? Not so much.

One photo on a CNN news report showed that a circle of chemical explosives, the kind currently favored by terrorists, sized roughly large than two hands and strapped correctly to the chest may not be picked up by these machines. This worries travellers, as these highly dangerous explosives could waltz straight through the scanner and into the seat next to them on the plane.

This alone would not cause the public outcry against these machines, as they are incredibly accurate and do promote safety in the airports, which everyone wants. However, there have been serious questions of both safety and privacy when it comes to the AIT machines.

The backscatter technology that x-rays the person in the machine emits radiation, as does the millimeter waves. Now, the TSA argues that the radiation let off by the millimeter waves is less than what is expelled during a cell phone transmission. They go on to say that the backscatter technology produces as much radiation as roughly two minutes of airplane travel. The opposing argument is that that amount of radiation for one scan is too much and is dangerous.

According to University of California at San Francisco doctors, the elderly (>65 years old), children, people with HIV or AIDS, and pregnant women could possibly be at risk from this level of radiation. It is also worried that mutagenesis radiation could cause breast cancer for a fraction of the female population that is highly sensitive to it, and men could be at risk for sperm mutagenesis because the testicles are so close to the skin. It seems that the risks have not fully been determined, and Americans are not happy about it.

The other major cause for distrust of these new machines is that of privacy. When these AITs scan the person in them, they are basically taking a picture of the person sans clothing. While the TSA claims that the facial features are adequately blurred out as well as the private areas, pictures that have surfaced on the web seem to prove otherwise. Many citizens feel as though when they go through the scanner they are raising their arms up and getting a hands free strip search.

The TSA stresses that these pictures are seen by one security personnel who is locked in a booth without any cameras or cell phones allowed, and that they cannot be saved. However, after photos surfaced on the internet, it came out that when in test mode these machines can save pictures. If that security personnel can switch into test mode at any time, people feel like they have the opportunity to be violated.

Granted, each passenger boarding their plane does have the open opportunity to “opt-out” of the scan. However, it has been said that it seems the security guards are taking a rather rough and thorough approach to the pat down process that is the alternative to the scans. Videos have gone viral on the web of a little boy whose dad took his shirt off so that the pat down process would go quicker and to prove his son didn’t have anything. People surrounding the boy and watching said things like, “It’s ridiculous,” “Unbelievable,” and “Are they harassing a kid?”

There are also reports of a breast cancer survivor having to remove her prosthetic, and a bladder cancer survivor having their urostamy bag pressed open, which spilled urine onto his leg. This kind of embarrassment and disregard for people’s health issues and privacy has the general public in an uproar. Add that to the health questions, the security questions, and the fact that these $150-200 thousand dollar machines are coming out of the tax payers’ money, and the pros and cons of AITs have become a serious topic of debate.

TSA Administrator John Pistole does not claim that they think they have found perfection, just that they want to keep everyone safe. “We are constantly evaluating and adapting our security measures, and as we have said from the beginning, we are seeking to strike the right balance between privacy and security,” stated Pistole.

Michael Kaspar, who took a flight out of Philadelphia International to Chicago on Friday the 26th, experienced first-hand what it was like to go through one of these scanners. “The whole experience was relatively painless. You have to hold your hands up kind of like in a freeze, and there are little yellow footprints on the ground to show which way to face. Then thing spins around your body in one turn. No sounds, no vibrations, it’s completely silent,” Kaspar said.

He also stated that children and their accompanying parents were not being asked to go through the AIT machines, and instead were just going through metal detectors. “Perhaps,” he said, “people’s issues are being heard.”

As for the actual photos being taken in the scanner, Kaspar said, “I definitely couldn’t see them anywhere and couldn’t see the person viewing them.” He laughed then. “I kind of wanted to; I felt the need to inform them that ‘Objects in scanner are larger than they may appear.” Despite this bit of humor, he was serious in stating that he, at least, didn’t feel violated by the whole situation.

The debate is certainly on when it comes to Advanced Imaging Technology. Travellers all over the country are weighing in on whether the advance in security is worth the health risks and the invasion of privacy. In a statement about the new technology and the debate surrounding it, Pistole said this: “We welcome feedback and comments on the screening procedures from the traveling public, and we will work to make them as minimally invasive as possible while still providing the security that the American people want and deserve.”

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