TSA Scanners

There has been a lot of controversy over the new scanning procedures lately. And, like good stewards of the realm, the media has jumped into to protect the government “underdog” from the onslaught of the “ignorant Neanderthals” ignoring “good science”. The question, however, is whether or not we have properly labeled the sides.

There are two basic areas of concern for the masses who are against the new procedures. The first is health concerns over being scanned, primarily from backscatter X-ray radiation. The second is the privacy concerns.

Health Concerns

Are we getting too much radiation when we submit to scans? The government states no. The amount  of radiation from a single scan is estimated at .05 to .1 mrem (micro rems), which is 1000 times less than a standard X-Ray. CBS News then states a variety of things that will give you more radiation.

  • Living in a city
  • Sleeping next to a partner
  • Flying
  • Drinking water

There are two problems with the comparisons. First, we have no choice over many of the activities that give us radiation. We can’t stop living on this earth or drinking liquids. But, we do not have to submit to scans unless the government forces us to do it to fly. Second, the amount of radiation is under debate.

The figure quoted is a whole body radiation estimate from the device. If backscatter used the same energy as a standard X-Ray, your full body would get the dose mentioned. But backscatter radiation is not equivalent, as it uses lower energy and does not penetrate the body. A group of scientists in California have estimated the amount of radiation on the skin is likely to be 20 times higher, if not more. Considering the limited depth of the X-Ray, I would not be surprised to find this concentrated area receiving much higher doses. Until there is a peer reviewed study, all figures should be considered suspect.

The government estimates 1 additional cancer death per 200 million scans, so there is an awareness of a risk, albeit a very minor risk (except to that one person?). One additional death means many additional individuals coming down with cancer. The question is how many additional cancer deaths if the radiation figure is off by a factor of 20 … or more?

There are also scanners that use millimeter wave technology, or radio waves. The assumption is these scanners are safer, as they do not use radiation. Probably correct, but there are detractors from this idea. Scientists in California have shown that while radio waves cannot knock DNA base pairs or sequences out of whack, like radiation, they can do other types of DNA damage, like ripping the DNA strands apart. The setup of the millimeter wave scanners are different enough they could not cause this type of damage, but are there other unhidden types of damage?

There is also a topic I have not seen covered by the media and that is the fact that the scanners are set a low resolution. This leaves an option of increasing resolution; perhaps not with the current machines (not sure), but what if we decide we need more? Increasing resolution means increasing the beam, which means increasing the risk.

The risk appears to be very low. In fact, I would agree with the apologists that it probably is low, but I question whether or not it is necessary. More about this in the section on Effectiveness and Reasoning.

Privacy Concerns

One image that is being bandied about the Internet is this one:

Click photo to read article on this photo

This is stated to be a TSA image reversed in Photoshop. The gun in the back gives it enough validity for the average person to buy into what I see as a ruse. The problem is neither of the technologies present would capture the hair. NOTE: The photo shoot these pix were faked from is available here (NSFW).

But, even with the scans not able to capture this good of a picture, the scans are good enough to capture some detail which could embarrass someone. TSA has stated the images cannot be saved and later disseminated, but there are scans from the same type of scanners, albeit NOT in an airport, that have been released on the Internet. These scans are low resolution, but the resolution can be turned up.

I personally don’t have a lot of concern on the privacy front. I already have people scanning all of my possessions and occasionally rifling through my possessions. If privacy was a major concern, I feel the people should have revolted a long time ago. I will once again ask, however, whether or not it is necessary.

Effectiveness and Reasoning

If you have not seen the video of Adam Savage speaking in Seattle, you should take a look. On a recent flight, he states he accidentally carried on two extremely long razor blades which were not caught by the scanners. Others are envisioning terrorists molding explosives to their bodies, which would be missed by the scanners.

This leads one to wonder if the device is effective. And, if not, why burden the public with any risk?

This is not really about safety, but the appearance of safety. Certainly, the scans do catch some things. But the scans are only as good as the scanner, and they miss a lot. I have made it through security with full bottles of water, although they did catch my slightly oversized tube of toothpaste once (God forbid someone walking on with really clean teeth).

What we are observing is security theater. Make it look good and hopefully you will deter enough people that mean the public harm. At the same time, you will keep the average member of the public feeling safe enough to fly and ensure we have an airline industry to get us to our destinations.

When the security theater is merely an inconvenience, then it is probably fine. The deterrent is probably worth an extra half hour, right? But when you add inconvenience to a 1 in X chance of cancer and potential invasion of privacy, is it still worth it? If it catches people who bring very large razor blades on planes, then we might say yes … but they missed that one. Maybe next time?

The sheeple of the United States have acquiesced to the scans overall. I talked to a gentleman in the Austin airport the day before Thanksgiving who was ridiculing anyone who would not walk through the scans. I presented him with some contrary evidence that was backed by scientists, so he probably thinks I am one of the idiots now. Then again, perhaps I gave him a bit of food for thought.

My Thoughts

I am not going to go through the scanners. I don’t feel there is a huge risk, but I don’t feel there is a need to burden myself with any additional risk, no matter how small. If I go through the scanner, the government won’t make my plane arrive 4 minutes faster to offset the additional radiation. And they can’t shield me from radiation in my home town, or wherever I visit. There are simply no ways to offset this additional risk through some type of radiation “trade”.

Until there is a peer reviewed scientific study of the scanners, it is unlikely I will ever submit. And, even then, I don’t need to risk being one of the 1 in 200 million, no matter how small that risk is.

If the scans stop terrorists from blowing up planes, perhaps they can be a good thing. To date, I have heard of no incidents where the scanners have caught anyone. And, if they do, I would like some evidence the person would not have been caught by other means already in place, however, before giving any stamp of approval to a scanner.

I have serious issues with the idea that a handful of people dying of cancer each year is worth the security theater and appearance of safety. Until we show a case where it works, and previous technology would not work, I don’t see my mind changing on this one. Even then, I have to question how many such attempts thwarted by the scanners equal the number of projected deaths.

Peace and Grace,

Twitter: @gbworld


2 Responses to TSA Scanners

  1. Mark says:

    Don’t put up with this garbage! Boycott Flying COMPLETELY, until sanity returns! Please join us: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Boycott-Flying/126801010710392

    • I can’t boycott flying and I wish you luck, but I think it is about as likely to work as holding your breath. But, if enough people bug their representatives we can see this stupidity disappear. BTW, did you know the TSA no longer uses wands. WTF?

      Peace and Grace,

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