December 30th, 2009
02:00 PM ET

Controversial full-body scanners explained

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/TRAVEL/12/30/airline.terror.scanners/t1larg.scanner.afp.gi.jpg caption="A staff member demonstrates a full body scan at Manchester Airport in the UK" width=300 height=169]


The Netherlands said Wednesday it was installing the scanners at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, where security staff failed to detect explosives being taken aboard Northwest Airlines flight 253.

How do these scanners work?

There are two types of device which offer full-body scans. Millimeter wave scanners use extremely high frequency radio waves which are processed by a computer to produce a detailed 3D image of air passengers. Backscatter scanners use high energy rays that - unlike X-rays which penetrate objects - scatter when they hit materials, allowing computers to render a detailed image and detect substances such as explosives and plastic weapons. Both scanners, unlike conventional X-rays, can strip away layers of clothing, accurately mapping the contours of the body, any prosthetics beneath the skin, as well as clothing and metallic and non-metallic objects.

How long does it take?

The scanning process takes between 15 and 30 seconds. Passengers enter a small booth or archway and raise their hands while radio waves target them from all directions. It may take slightly longer for airport staff to review the images produced and - given the level of detail, more passengers may find themselves subjected to follow-up security checks as a result.

Why are they controversial?

Privacy campaigners say the scanners produce "naked" images of passengers which represent an unnecessary violation. They say the process is humiliating, and despite pledges that the images will not be stored or used elsewhere, it could be open to abuse - particularly with scans of celebrities. Although the U.S. Transportation Security Agency, which is installing the scanners in many airports, insist the equipment does not capture details of face or produce images of a quality that can be deemed compromising, opponents say the technology is still capable of this and may be utilized in the future.

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Filed under: Airline Safety • Terrorism • Travel
soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. Roger from california

    Interesting posts. this is the only next logical step aside from each of us going into a room and spending 30 minutes each stripping down for a full body and cavity search.. and dont think it would not happen. so this is the least offensive alternative to a solution we are still seeking.
    Israel has had no airliner jackings, no airport mishaps, none. and why, thier security QUESTION every person and LISTEN to and WATCH their reactions and answers. and breathing.. and they now have biometric scans implemented on a volunteer basis for now as a test; but the full body scan is now mandatory. with the biometric scan you are given a ID card and must pass thru security check points by swiping your card and if all goes well proceed to boarding areas. very simple and very good.

    January 7, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
  2. Joanne

    Safety at any cost, yes. I have an ostomy, I will now have to be exposed to all for that. I suport safety, but truly, I will be humiliated.

    December 31, 2009 at 12:03 am |
  3. Tara

    I understand the security benefits, however, for those women with breast implants, or men with liquid-filled prothesis this could pose a very embarrassing and harassing experience.

    December 30, 2009 at 11:33 pm |
  4. Larry Carroll

    From the sample images I see on this blog, it appears that these scanners only find objects under the clothing. After we all sign on for more humiliation, the terrorists will take the next step and fill a condom with a powerful explosive, insert it in a body cavity and bring down an aircraft. Then we can go to mandatory CAT scans, MRI's, full body X-rays, or a cavity search. Where does it stop?

    December 30, 2009 at 10:27 pm |
  5. Brandon US Veteran

    America needs to WAKE UP. We need to take security seriously; otherwise we WILL see another terrorist attack against America. Ever heard of the saying "No rest for the wicked"; America needs to open their eyes and put to rest these small liberal groups or we will be digger more graves for our children. Where is the moral and righteous backbone of America these days?

    December 30, 2009 at 10:22 pm |
  6. Tina

    I would like to ask those modest individuals who are opposed to these scanners just how modest they'll be when their body parts are being picked up in a field after their flight is hijacked?

    December 30, 2009 at 10:19 pm |
  7. karen

    most tsa agents at airports dont even have high school diploma? but they can pull only white americans out of line and pat them down and search even thier wallets? i use to travel 2 nto 3 times a week from salt lake to vegas, never saw any one but white americans be taken out of line at the gate and subject to search. when i ask why i was told it was random? well how many white woman are or have been terrosists? i dont fly anymore, and i wont again except on a private plane.

    December 30, 2009 at 10:18 pm |
  8. nea

    A learning experience thats all i have to say the fact that this happen and no one got injured instead of playing polictics its time to make the system work right this time even though nothing is guaranteed at least we can try to fix the problem instead of playing the blame game. Just get it right!

    December 30, 2009 at 10:08 pm |
  9. Jim Zimmerman

    Are we so irked and babied that opt-out of the body scan is even being considered? Opt for a different mode of transportation if you want to opt-out. Opt for a slow boat to China instead of flying and see what loss of freedom is really about.

    December 30, 2009 at 8:10 pm |
  10. Amy

    I think while this issue is being debated, & will be debated at a snails pace they use alternative methods. How many bomb sniffing, drug sniffing dogs are used at the airports? Could there be more? Would a dog have found this explosive material? Granted, dogs are a primitive alternative – but hey – better than nothing. Would love to see an AC 360 story on this.

    December 30, 2009 at 7:08 pm |
  11. Gman

    Maybe the use of scanners with some common sense like not scanning anyone under 10, but anyone not scanned including anyone under 10 gets sniffed by a friendly German Shepard. What is this argument all about? Are we to intelligent to even be able to come to some type of solution? Boy, I bet the Martians are laughing at us, they must think our brains are too big.

    December 30, 2009 at 6:09 pm |
  12. Anissa

    Although these scanners do pose privacy issues, they are much more effective and much less intrusive and humiliating than a pat-down. I would much rather be subjected to a visual strip search than be groped by a screener in public. Furthermore, considering where the suspect stashed his explosives, makes these machines even more necessary. A pat-down would not have revealed explosives hiddent hidden in a person's underwear or stashed in body cavities, which I imagine terrorists will try next. On that note, we can probably expect TSA to ban underwear next, being the geniuses they are.

    December 30, 2009 at 3:44 pm |
  13. Linda B., Ga.

    These scanners should've been installed after the 9/11 tragedy. If somebody complains because they have to go through it, then they shouldn't be flying.

    Just an FYI....I've flown out of Schipol (Amsterdam Airport) a few times and they had EXCELLENT security measures set-up. What I liked about their Security is, you go through the scanners at your gate that you are flying out of. You are also questioned, in detail, at your gate, by Security Agents before you go through those scanners. I truly think this guy had the explosives waiting for him on the plane, when he boarded.....they should be thoroughly checking the people who service those planes because I think somebody planted it on the plane for him to retrieve.

    December 30, 2009 at 3:41 pm |
  14. Patsy Wynne

    We have the full body scanners in our airport. But if they are not utilized they are not doing much good. For example my 14 yr old grand-daughter flew United Airlines over the holidays. She inadvertantly had a pocket knife and utility knife in her over sized purse. When she got home, and and dumped everthing out on the floor, I gasped and I said " You got through security with those in your purse?" And she said, "Yea, Why? I didn't think anything about it.!" I said, "So much for Obama keeping on top of our home land security!"

    December 30, 2009 at 3:40 pm |
  15. Mike in NYC

    Aren't the Dutch considering installing GPS tracking devices in all their citizens' cars to enforce a mileage tax? Not exactly the people I'd like to emulate.

    December 30, 2009 at 3:29 pm |
  16. jenny

    If it keeps my plane in the air and allows me and my loved ones to arrive at our destination saftly who cares about radiation, modesty etal. You do not like dealing with the hassels of public transportation the buy your own plan, train etal.

    December 30, 2009 at 3:26 pm |
  17. KIm

    Naked X-rays ! Go for it and let the dogs out too ! Sick em ! Team Up National Security "Turf " teams ! Communicate and go meet one another ! How much funding for the FBI and CIA do we need ? How are those teams communicating with the State Department ? Somebody better go get Hillary Clinton and what does she say needs to happen ?

    December 30, 2009 at 3:18 pm |
  18. Isabel Siaba (Brazil)

    I wonder what is best: "an unnecessary violation" or the safety of our lives?

    The safety of all of us is at stake. It is necessary to review procedures and increase the accuracy of inspection!

    December 30, 2009 at 3:06 pm |
  19. Melissa

    If you have nothing to hide, then I don't see the problem with it. I'm perfectly willing to undergo a full body scan, even if it means follow-up questions. Better a mild form of embarrassment than blown up by a psycho.

    December 30, 2009 at 3:05 pm |
  20. P. Roberts

    "Both scanners, unlike conventional X-rays ...", so they are still a form of X-ray, which means passengers will be getting another dose of radiation. Does this mean those super, elite frequent flyers will start to glow on night flights?

    Has anyone stated how much radiation each scan will give off?

    December 30, 2009 at 2:52 pm |
  21. B.B. Chan

    It really irks me that a 63 year-old white, christian grandmother like myself have to show my passport to cross the US border just to go over to Buffalo for a day of shopping and a young black muslin man is allowed to board an American Airline WITHOUT a passport. Who sold this guy the one-way ticket using cash? Are they looking into that?

    December 30, 2009 at 2:34 pm |
  22. B.Belto

    Hello, people this should have been in place right after the 9/11 attacks. We should have closed the boarders for a brief time to reasses the damage, also the head of each dept FBI,DIA,CIA, and Homeland security should have been put in check, but our Gov does things ass backward, and no were not safe to fly Janet A!!!

    December 30, 2009 at 2:20 pm |
  23. Tim Gibson

    If it makes air travel safe, then I personally would be willing to strip naked, as long as they kept the room temp to a norm, and walk through security.

    What do we want, virtual images or body bags?

    December 30, 2009 at 2:04 pm |

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