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Until last week, air travelers could opt out of a full-body scan at Transportation Security Administration (TSA) airport screening areas, instead choosing an enhanced pat-down.
But on Dec. 18, the agency changed its rules, allowing screeners to refuse passengers the option of opting out.
Specifically, TSA said it was “updating” its Privacy Impact Assessment to reflect a change to the operating protocol regarding the ability of individuals to opt out of the scans. “While passengers may generally decline AIT screening in favor of physical screening, TSA may direct mandatory AIT screening for some passengers,” it said.
When TSA was formed, passengers were screened with magnetometers. Considering them insufficient, TSA decided to use Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) scanners, which at first were based on backscatter X-ray technology. Eventually, the public and Congressional outrage about the insurmountable privacy and health issues of the X-ray-based scanners caused them to be removed from U.S. airports by the summer of 2013.
In their place, TSA installed Millimeter Wave (MMW)-based full-body scanners, in airports across the U.S. They utilize non-ionizing, terahertz radiation, a technology thought to be safer than the backscatter machines.
Soon after their installation, it was uncovered that the new scanners had privacy issues similar to those of the old X-ray scanners. In addition, despite using non-ionizing radiation, there were serious questions about the MMW scanner’s safety.
The TSA worked to address the privacy issues by requiring major changes in the scanners’ software. Along with the implementation of MMW scanner changes to address passenger privacy concerns, the agency instituted a “Privacy Impact Assessment” for TSA’s AIT scanners.
On Dec. 18, they released their report. In its seven pages, they detail three key assessments made in the evaluation of the updated system.
1. Scanner images of passengers reviewed by TSA screeners no longer show any personal body attributes of passengers. Each passenger’s image in the scanner monitor is generic and genderless.
2. AIT scanners don’t generate underlying images of passengers scanned.
3. AIT scanners no longer have the ability to store images for later review.
With the privacy issues solved, DHS clearly believes there are no more objectionable issues with the MMW-based full-body scanners, so they should be free to require that all passengers be scanned in them, at their absolute discretion.
They are incorrect.
There are potential serious health and safety concerns with full-body scanners using terahertz radiation. In fact, these concerns are the reason I’ve been opting out of these scanners and getting an enhanced pat-down before my flights.
There is some evidence that terahertz radiation can be unsafe, but current test results are mixed. Boian Alexandrov, with the help of his colleagues at the Center for Nonlinear Studies at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, studied the effects of terahertz radiation and reported significant genetic damage was possible. Elsewhere, some scientists have reported no damage.
The MIT Technology Review reports that Alexandrov created a model to investigate how terahertz radiation interacts with DNA. Alexandrov and colleagues reported that while the forces involved are tiny, their effects allow terahertz waves to “unzip double-stranded DNA, creating bubbles in the double strand that could significantly interfere with processes such as gene expression and DNA replication.”
While terahertz waves are part of our environment, TSA barrages air travelers with these waves in closed booths with their full-body scanners. That TSA is utilizing these machines, despite a chance they can damage human DNA, is disturbing.
The problem with Dr. Alexandrov’s study of terahertz radiation and safety is we don’t know if its implications are fully applicable to air traveler security scanning, as to date there have been no long-term, third party safety tests of the scanners or their terahertz radiation by physicians and scientists. I’m unaware of any clinical trials of the effects of multiple exposures to terahertz waves, accumulated over a long period of time.
Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration, from what I can determine, has never granted approval for any full body scanner to be employed by TSA, even though they clearly qualify as medical devices, despite being purposed for non-medical use.
It’s clear to me, the new protocol adopted by the government, which permits TSA to refuse to allow air travelers to opt out of MMW full body scans, is a mistake which may be putting U.S. air travelers at serious risk.