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Get over your fear of advanced airport scanners

The debate over the images created by the new security scanners making their way to the nation's airports is heating up again. The Department of Homeland Security has consistently said that the pictures of passengers created by the machines at airports would be discarded immediately. But CNET reports that one federal agency not under DHS admitted to keeping the images made at a Florida courthouse and that folks are suing to stop their use at air terminals. Look, I understand why people would be a bit unnerved at the thought of images of their naughty bits in the hands of the government. But the alternative -- risking being blown out of the sky -- is totally unacceptable.

This new technology (almost literally) exploded into our consciousness last December when we learned that the explosives packed in would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's underwear would have been detected by this more revealing security screening equipment. The backscatter and the millimeter wave machine are the two types of units, as I explained back in January.

Both reveal outlines of the body. Although the millimeter wave machine is, how shall we say, more anatomically revealing. As if to prove the emotions involved in exposing oneself in this manner, a Transportation Security Administration agent at Miami International Airport was arrested in May after batoning a coworker in the parking lot in response to daily juvenile joshing. Let's just say he didn't appreciate the little jokes directed at him after he took part in a training exercise with the full-body scanner.

The security line at Chicago O'Hare was long, but I didn't mind for two reasons. One, because I suffer from ADA (acute departure anxiety), an affliction that has me at train stations and through security at airports more than an hour before departure. Second, because the terminal had one of those backscatter security scanners. I just had to try it.

You have to take off your shoes, belt and what-not as with magnetometer that you're used to. But with the backscatter, I had to take everything out of my pockets, including my handkerchief. Then I stepped between two blue boxes that look like photo booths of old. My feet went in the outlines, arms up with elbows bent. And I couldn't move for about 5 to 7 seconds. I was then ushered out to another feet-outlined mat where I awaited the verdict from the TSA screeners who viewed my images away from the security checkpoint. My forgotten wristwatch necessitated an extra screening.

It was a time-consuming process, especially when compared to the nanosecond stroll through the magnotometers. The images produced might not be flattering, but if it succeeds in keeping a would-be bomber off a plane, it would be well worth the intrusion -- and the wait.

By Jonathan Capehart  | August 6, 2010; 4:50 PM ET
Categories:  Capehart  | Tags:  Jonathan Capehart  
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Mr Capehsrt,

fwiw, i was ON a commercial flight (Delta)from SAT to BWI "on that awful morning in September" & i was SCARED SPITLESS. = i fly frequently, as my family lives in TX & i have "business in the Carolinas & VA/MD/DC/WV as well.
(i'm here in the DC area enough that i keep an apartment in NOVA.)

the ONLY problem that i see (PUN INTENDED) with the "new machines" is having women's "body images" checked out by MEN.

to solve that problem, get WOMEN as "screening officers" to do at least the women (& perhaps the men as well) and immediately "kill the images", so that NOBODY later can look at them.

just my opinion, as a RETIRED peace officer for many years.

yours, TN46

Posted by: texasnative46 | August 6, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

As you well know, sir, you are making a false choice, The choice is not between accepting these intrusive scanners and getting blown out of the sky. How stupid. Please do not treat us as children.

Posted by: Nemo24601 | August 7, 2010 7:32 AM | Report abuse

I suggested the men/men women/women thing to TSA when these were first announced. They ignored me. You ignored the privacy rights issue. The government things that if only one person sees you naked in a scanner it is not an invasion of privacy. With the massive illegal data mining going on with email, phone, bank records, obscenities of the Patriot Act, we don't need this. It seems the American people will accept any loss of their privacy and violations of the Bill of Rights for "security."

Posted by: parishs | August 7, 2010 7:38 AM | Report abuse

"But the alternative -- risking being blown out of the sky -- is totally unacceptable."

Yes, because all airports that do not use this technology are having their planes "blown out of the sky".

In fact, when was the last time a airliner was "blown out of the sky"?

Posted by: MDLaxer | August 7, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Why should we trust the government?

An examination by NYT has found that CT scan radiation overdoses were larger and more widespread than previously known, that patients have reported symptoms considerably more serious than losing their hair, and that experts say they may face long-term risks of cancer and brain damage.

The review also offers insight into the way many of the overdoses occurred. While in some cases technicians did not know how to properly administer the test, interviews with hospital officials and a review of public records raise new questions about the role of manufacturers, including how well they design their software and equipment and train those who use them.

The biggest overdoses at Huntsville Hospital — up to 13 times the amount of radiation generally used in the test.

Officials there said they intentionally used high levels of radiation to get clearer images, according to an inquiry by the company that supplied the scanners, GE Healthcare.

The overdoses, which began to emerge late last summer, set off an investigation by the FDA into why patients tested with this complex yet lightly regulated technology were bombarded with excessive radiation. After 10 months, the agency has yet to provide a final report on what it found.

Posted by: alance | August 7, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

I guess Jonathan Capehart must not be a big fan of Benjamin Franklin (except on his money, of course). It sounds like he's willing to give up everything for the illusion of security. These machines aren't perfect, and can't detect contraband inside body cavities. Maybe with this technology coupled with body cavity searches, Jonathan might finally feel safe again when he flies. No doubt he'll want to join the "Trusted Flier" program at that point. Perhaps we should all just strip naked (for the body cavity search), and then wear govt-issued gowns for the flight, with no carry-on luggage allowed. Would you feel safe then Jonathan? I guess as long as you feel safe, the rest of us should just go along and shut up.

Posted by: rdm539 | August 7, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

I guess Jonathan Capehart must not be a big fan of Benjamin Franklin (except on his money, of course). It sounds like he's willing to give up everything for the illusion of security. These machines aren't perfect, and can't detect contraband inside body cavities. Maybe with this technology coupled with body cavity searches, Jonathan might finally feel safe again when he flies. No doubt he'll want to join the "Trusted Flier" program at that point. Perhaps we should all just strip naked (for the body cavity search), and then wear govt-issued gowns for the flight, with no carry-on luggage allowed. Would you feel safe then Jonathan? I guess as long as you feel safe, the rest of us should just go along and shut up.

Posted by: rdm539 | August 7, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

In 2002 I flew home for Christmas. I had a tiny eyeglass screwdriver, a little cylinder about 3/4 of an inch long and 1/8 inch in diameter, with a screw off top that covered the tiny screwdriver blade. You could grip it between your fingertips, that was the only way you could hold it. TSA confiscated the thing. The agent had a big grin on his face.

It's not back-scatter scanners or "being blown out of the sky" that I'm afraid of. The airports since 9/11 are filled with lunatics. I refuse to go anywhere near one.

Posted by: fzdybel | August 7, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

MDLaxer asks "when was the last time a airliner was 'blown out of the sky'?" I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that last December 24 a passenger boarded a U.S. bound flight wearing a bomb. A combination of ineptitude by the bomber and attentiveness by the other passengers averted a disaster. Let's not pretend that there isn't an actual hazard!

alance asks "Why should we trust the government?" That's a reasonable question. I'm not thrilled with trusting the health of our health care system to Washington. (My concern here is particularly appropriate given alance's complaint about CT scan radiation.) But for airline security, who else is there? Al Qaeda? Spirit Air?

No one will be forced to go through the full body scanners. The option for a pat-down and possibly closer scrutiny is available to the more modest among us. Will the TSA take note of the names of people who decline it? Almost certainly. Should they? Of course.

I am a user of a medical infusion pump and a related sensor which uses a wire into my subcutaneous tissue. When I take off my glasses I can't tell where my carry on luggage is or who is directing me where. Those problems concern me much more than who may look at the scan or even whether there is excess radiation. If it turns out that I need to skip the scan and accept the pat-down, I have no objection to having my name on a list of people-who-refuse-scans.

Posted by: fi3ch | August 7, 2010 11:32 PM | Report abuse

Dear Jonathan Capehart:

So who needs a full-body scanner to take the measure of a man who couldn't wait to try one?


Posted by: martymar123 | August 8, 2010 8:52 AM | Report abuse

Capehart forgot to say it, so I will:

Remember, Big Brother Loves You!

(and we love Big Brother)

Posted by: TECWRITE | August 8, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

when an airliner is blasted out of the sky it will be because someone packed plastic explosives in checked baggage or by a bomb planted by someone in the cargo hold ---i will bet a dollar to a dime that within 24 hours after some hollywood starlet goes thru a scanner her xray will be on the internet

Posted by: KENMAREINC | August 8, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

You'll never understand, Jonathan, because you are not Irish.

Posted by: wgmadden | August 8, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

This is a strip-search, period. It makes no difference that the technology allows it to be done on an industrial scale, it's a violation of privacy that ultimately has, at best, no effect on safety. At worst, it exposes frequent fliers to elevated doses of x-ray radiation which may cause more deaths by cancer than the terrorists could ever kill with an airplane.

Body-cavities are not revealed, thus making this simply an exercise in power-mongering voyeurism.

You MUST opt-out of these intrusive searches, and maybe be wanded/patted by a same-sex guard. I did this a few months ago, which gave me the opportunity to officially express my displeasure - the guard wrote down the reason for my opting-out for their official records (it's a strip-search, I said). I suggest more people do this.

Plus - do you want your kids showing up to Beavis & Butthead in the back room looking like this:

There is no real way to validate what level of scanning is being done by the TSA. Example images on placards at the airport only show what the government want normal people and potential terrorists to see. If terrorists knew exactly how much scanning was occurring, they could adapt likewise. Therefore, it is implausible to expect the TSA to be honest about how high the scanning level is set. In effect, the TSA will feed the general public propaganda to stop the enemy from being more diligent in their stealth.

Posted by: wimpie | August 8, 2010 9:14 PM | Report abuse

These things belong in prisons, not in airports. What a f'ing waste of time and taxpayers money. I'll opt out every time. I'm not going through one of these nude-o-scopes.
Just to remind people, these are OPTIONAL.
You'll be groped instead but you're likely to be groped anyways. Might as well skip the unnecessary radiation dose.

Posted by: kthurley | August 8, 2010 10:09 PM | Report abuse

I guess we should get over our fear of illegal wiretapping, collection of our emails, monitoring our phone calls, the GPS tracking of our vehicles, the heat sensing of our homes, the new technology that allows Law Enforcement to actually look inside our homes. We should also get over our opposition to Torture, to detention without access to legal representation as well as extraordinary rendition and the assassination of Americans by CIA/NSA/whatever? Yep, we'll all feel safer if we just let the Police do whatever they want. Well you've got what you wanted, the police CAN and WILL and HAVE done anything they wanted and they've done it since before 9/11. The FBI routinely does illegal wiretapping, they just can't use the results in court. Police officers can shoot anyone they want, literally, without consequence, especially if they're not caught on video, no wonder they are now getting their panties in a wad when being photographed and videoed by citizens....Yeah, I feel so safe I'll never go near an airport for any reason since the last time when I was made to take off my shoes and turn over my laptop so they could peruse it's contents. You never know when some clodhopper might erase your hard drive by accident or copy sensitive information like bank accounts, passwords etc. No I don't trust the police state tactics that the misnamed "patriot" act has given cops nor do I trust cops at all anymore.

Posted by: Watcher1 | August 9, 2010 7:06 AM | Report abuse

... if it succeeds in keeping a would-be bomber off a plane, it would be well worth the intrusion -- and the wait.


If the purpose of airport screening would be to keep terrorists off the plane, you might have a point.

But the purpose is "equity" -- meaning all people are equally suspect, from granny to little Sissy with her teddy bear.

Profiling or concentrating on likely suspects is seen as racist, so even though 99 of the last 100 airplane terrorists have been young, Moslem men with no luggage paying cash for one-way tickets, TSA would never single them out. That would be profiling, and that's just so un-PC.

The government's and TSA's attitude seems to be that it is far better to (literally) strip every American of privacy than to concentrate on the real threat.

Capehart says, "If it succeeds . . . " and I simply quote the old nursery rhyme:

If wishes were horses,
Beggars would ride.

If turnips were watches,
I would wear one by my side.

And if "ifs" and "ands,"
Were pots and pans,
There'd be no work for tinkers!

Posted by: spamagnet987 | August 9, 2010 8:37 AM | Report abuse

So at what point will it end? Strip searches for all? Body cavity searches? At some point I hope people get over their ridiculous fear and realize that privacy is worth something, too. So long as some media people are willing to say that you risk being blown out of the sky if you don't, I guess they won't. The irony is that, even if you institute all of the above, there is still a risk of being blown out of the sky. If you want to completely eliminate that risk, the only way is to not fly.

Posted by: Ga_gal | August 9, 2010 8:46 AM | Report abuse

What's funny is that Tea Party types are absolutely hysterical that health care reform will mean socialism, the end of the world, etc. yet when government virtually strip searches every man, woman, and child that get on a plane they apparently have no issue.

Posted by: orange31 | August 9, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

What is missing from this discussion is facts. The only "evidence" that these scanners would have detected the explosives the underwear bomber carried are the assertions of the companies that manufacture the scanners. This is an expensive and invasive technology. Before deploying it nationwide, shouldn't we make sure it works?

Posted by: littlered2 | August 9, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

Well Thank God for universal healthcare to cover the costs of the increased cancer rates this will cause!

Posted by: scoran | August 9, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Is that BLACKMAIL and EXTORTION and PORNO I smell?

Posted by: perryneheum | August 9, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Capehart, are you daft, or just pruriently obsessed? People object to these machines on safety grounds.

The FDA has, over the last 18 months or so, opened several investigations into medical scanners delivering dangerously high doses of radiation, straight from the factory. See e.g., last week's NYT article at:

If medical scanners delivered to hospitals are so dangerously screwed up, why should we trust airport scanners even here in the U.S., much less in the third world?

Having once run my own test with a few rolls of old-style film and a lead bag in an airport x-ray machine prominently labeled "film safe", and seen how badly the unprotected film was fogged, I will never trust airport scanners to be safe.

Posted by: Itzajob | August 9, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Who inspects the cargo vessels that enter our ports every day? Seems is okay to intrude on citizens rights, but is not to delay commerce' corporate greed.

Posted by: barbablanca | August 9, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

"It was a time-consuming process, especially when compared to the nanosecond stroll through the magnotometers."

Nanosecond? Uh-oh. The Flash has inadvertently revealed his secret identity.

Posted by: kscheidegger | August 9, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

So we kill ourselves to be safe... scanners at airports, what about everywhere else and where might there be some you don't evern know about as you go into govt buildings every day, and court houses and stadiums and large venues of all types so eventually multiple scans everyday in everyway everywhere you go... that would count as an enormous victory for someone and an enormous drain on our economy too.

Posted by: Wildthing1 | August 9, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse

Another instance of the naive "if it succeeds in keeping a would-be bomber off a plane, it would be well worth the intrusion -- and the wait" argument without any supporting analysis or evidence that the claim is correct.

At its most basic, this is an economic question. You note that it takes much longer to go through the scanner than it does to go through a magnetometer. What is the opportunity cost to the nation (or the world) of increasing the wait time in the airport? Does this technology have a greater incidence of false positives than other technologies? If so, you have to add those costs into the analysis (or subtract for a lower incidence). Does the fact that you have to completely empty your pockets increase the likelihood that a person will forget/lose something? Have to add those costs in, too.

After adding all of those costs up, plus the cost of the initial purchase of the scanners and ongoing maintenance, how does the actual overall cost to the global economy compare to the expectation value of the cost of a bomb on a plane (economic impact times probability of occurrence)? Is there an actual cost-benefit to society?

Assuming this technology passes the cost-benefit analysis, given that we have a limited budget for security, how does the anticipated marginal reduction in risk associated with the introduction of these scanners compare to other possible uses for the same security dollars? No one has made a strong case that I've seen that spending resources on this technology is better than increasing the number of bomb-sniffing dogs or spending more on intelligence and law enforcement. Shouldn't we prove this is the best use of resources before implementing it?

And even if we do, is there a way for a would-be bomber to get around the scanners by going to a different airport? If so, then all you're doing by putting in the scanners is adding to the security theater. Any sophisticated attacker will pick an airport where there are no scanners, because once you're in the air travel system, you're generally trusted.

As far as the false dichotomy of showing people's "naughty bits" and the risk of being "blown out of the sky" is concerned, that's not the trade off, and any reasonably sophisticated commentator should recognize that.

By that logic, every person should get regular mammograms (since men have a risk of breast cancer, too, albeit much lower than women) beginning as early as there is a risk of such cancers developing. After all, by your logic if it's a choice between the inconvenience of a mammogram and the risk of getting breast cancer, then it's well worth it. And we should apply the same logic to every medical condition where there's a test that could reduce the risk to the patient.

This naive approach to security and risk analysis actually makes people think they are safer than they actually are. Security theater does no one any favors (other than the people getting paid for the alleged panacea-du jour).

Posted by: johnnicholson | August 9, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

and when the scanners FAIL, you'll have the next wave of authoritarian sheeple bleating, "if you don't want to be stripped and cavity searched when you fly than take a damn train!"

nothing like violating your human dignity for the ILLUSION of safety. Scanners, pat-downs, profiles...none of them worked. What worked? Passengers actually unplugging themselves from their Crackberries and noticing the whacko burning his underwear, or shouting about bombs, or lighting his shoes on fire.

In other words, we're responsible for OUR OWN safety!

But by all means, let's keep striving toward a "Total Recall" society to appease the idiots.

Posted by: Please_Fix_VAs_Roads | August 9, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

I believe this is a bad example of invasion of privacy.

I also believe that any image taken of a child is a federal crime against child pornography and anyone who places a child in one of these should be charged and tried for a felony.

Risks aside, you cannot have freedom without risk. The more you give up for security the less freedom you have left to protect.

“Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” ~Ben Franklin

Posted by: PaulKruger | August 9, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

To wgmadden's point above, Jonathan, the guys with big ones never mind being exposed.

Posted by: socaloralpleazer | August 9, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

I disagree with this article. We will never have 100% security. Just being alive is a risk. So by wanting to live you agree to some level of risk.

And how often have planes flying in the US been hijacked or blown out of the sky? Before 9/11, the last time there was a hijacking of a US airliner was 1972.

If we must have scanning, then listen to statisticians. By scanning about 3% of passengers randomly, you achieve more than 99% certainty. Is it worth the extra less than one percent to subject everybody to all this harassment and invasion of privacy?

Whatever happened to "give me liberty or give me death"?

Posted by: MrBethesda | August 9, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

I could care less about someone seeing my body - however, I despise that they are keeping copies for their files. I also despise that they are radiating my body with unnecessary x-rays. The other annoyance is the time it takes for these goons at the airport.

All of this nonsense is alledgedly due to the underwear bomber last December. Perhaps it was setup to fail so DHS can waste more money to make America a police state.

Posted by: alance | August 10, 2010 2:33 AM | Report abuse

So you are saying "just get over it" when my privacy is being invaded.
So you are saying "just get over it" as our civil liberties are getting chipped away.
Your statements are not logic, it's fearmongering.
So agree with Watcher1 above!

Posted by: sacredsage | August 10, 2010 8:48 AM | Report abuse

Back Scatter is not safe no matter who claims it is. It's used in industry firing radiation through Steel to reveal product levels on the inside. People working near or with that equipment must wear Radiation badges or be shielded. What makes anyone think it doesn't do the same thing with the human body?

It's another fine mess created by the FAA, Congress and President Richard Nixon making it illegal for individuals to carry guns aboard planes. What happened to all those "Air Marshals" they were supposed to have hired? More Domestic Spending Cuts? It's what Bush did to Border Patrol which Congress authorized 10,000 and Bush budgeted for little over 200. Not ONCE but TWICE! OR the other idiotic addition Pilots were supposed be locked in to keep hijackers out but now they are allowed to leave the cabin with a Gun to confront them? Who may end up flying the plane; Hijackers?

They waste Billions of Dollars to keep me from carrying a Gun! Give me my gun back; save Billions of Dollars and end this BS.

Posted by: ddoiron1 | August 10, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

to all,

WHY, given the MANY LIES that they have been CAUGHT telling, would you trust "the main-SLIME media", particuliarly "The NY SLIMES" on ANY subject?

are you really that brain-DEAD?

yours, TN46
coordinator, CCTPP

Posted by: texasnative46 | August 10, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

nemo24601; all,

my advice to you: STAY AWAY from airports if you don't want to cooperate with our best (current) efforts to keep us safe from FOOLS/IDIOTS/FANATICS/TERRORISTS.

NOBODY is requiring you to fly. instead, take a car, bus,train or bicycle.

otoh, i want the government to STOP talking about "racial profiling" & SCAN EVERYONE who may be a threat. - this, for example, means EVERY foreign visitor & "one way fliers, without baggage" and ANYBODY who paid for their ticket in cash.
(according to an aquaintance of mine, who works for TSA at SAT, uniformed members of the US armed forces, nuns/religious workers & police officers, statistically, are the "subgroups" who are MOST likely to be subjected to "additional screening", as they are UNLIKELY to "make a scene"! - fyi, young "dark-skinned" men are THE LEAST likely to be "singled out" for further scanning!)

are the "leaders" of the BHO regime terminally STUPID and/or are they just "too sensitive" to "ethnic/cultural/religious concerns" & will let more travelers get KILLED for their FOOLISH opinions & STUPID views?

my advice: on November 2, 2010, DUMP every single "politically correct", LEFTIST, LOUD-mouthed, brain-DEAD, arrogant DIMocRAT from every office that you can vote on.

just my opinions.

yours, TN46

Posted by: texasnative46 | August 10, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

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