TSA to Shelve Controversial "Nude" Full Body Scanners, Due to Privacy and Cancer Concerns

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is shelving controversial airport body scanners (called backscatter scanners) that produce naked images of travelers, finally ending several years of endangering airline passengers through potential exposure to cancer-causing radiation and invasion of privacy that some claim violated the Fourth Amendment.

Currently, the TSA employs two types of scanners, full-body X-ray (or so-called backscatter) scanners and millimeter-wave scanners. Backscatter scanners use X-rays to produce a naked image of passengers. 

The other scanner type, built by L-3 Communications Holding, uses millimeter-wave technology and produces a cartoon-like image of the human body. L-3's scanners emit low-energy radio waves, similar to those in cell phones, and do not pose known health risks. Their drawback seems to be a greater frequency of false alarms though independent tests (23%-54% compared to 5% in backscatter scanners). The millimeter-wave scanners are staying.

Rapiscan's full body backscatter X-ray scanners were at one point active in about half of all U.S. airports. Congress has mandated that those scanners be changed or removed by June.  The TSA stated Rapiscan was unable to provide "non-imaging Automated Target Recognition (ATR) software by the congressionally-mandated June 2013 deadline” adding that the software that was supposed to replace the near-naked image on the machine with a stick figure was flawed and couldn't be used to ease privacy concerns. The TSA received many complaints from passengers who found the full body, naked images the machine produced to be invasive and humiliating, and lawsuits have been filed to stop the use of backscatter scanners on grounds they violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure without a warrant.

Also of concern is the potential link to cancer. Backscatter scanners expose passengers to a small dose of ionizing radiation, which at higher levels has been linked to cancer. TSA union representatives in Boston claimed the full-body scanners were responsible for a “cancer cluster” in airport security workers. The Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) says obtained Department of Homeland Security (DHS) documents provide evidence that the government failed to properly test the safety of full-body scanners at airports, and dismissed concerns from airport agents about excessive exposure to the machines’ radiation. A study by Johns Hopkins University found that radiation zones around body scanners could potentially exceed the "general public dose limit." In 2011, the European Commission banned scanners that use X-ray technology “in order not to risk jeopardizing citizens’ health and safety.”

The TSA had removed some full-body scanners from some of the busiest airports and shuffled locations of others by October of 2012. TSA's new announcement means that all full-body backscatter scanners will be gone from U.S. airports by June 2013. After June, we may feel more free to fly.