Many are cheering the fact that the TSA has begun moving backscatter scanners from major airports around the country, but it isn’t all good news. These scanners are being moved to smaller airports and aren’t being mothballed as most had hoped. The larger airports are also getting the millimeter wave scanners, leading some to believe that the TSA is preparing to admit that the backscatter scanners are, indeed, dangerous. Millimeter wave scanners have a significantly lower radiation risk and do not have naked picture representations of passengers.
The backscatters, as the X-ray scanners are known, were swapped out at Boston Logan International Airport in early October. Similar replacements have occurred at Los Angeles International Airport, Chicago O’Hare, Orlando and John F. Kennedy in New York, the TSA confirmed Thursday.
The X-ray scanners have faced a barrage of criticism since the TSA began rolling them out nationwide after the failed underwear bombing on Christmas Day 2009. One reason is that they emit a small dose of ionizing radiation, which at higher levels has been linked to cancer.
In addition, privacy advocates decried that the machines produce images, albeit heavily blurred, of passengers’ naked bodies. Each image must be reviewed by a TSA officer, slowing security lines.
One of the larger problems of the backscatters is the possible increased risk of cancer and other health concerns [pdf].
According to many studies, including a new one conducted by the European Union, the radiation dose from the X-ray scanner is extremely small. It has been repeatedly measured to be less than the dose received from cosmic radiation during two minutes of the airplane flight.
Using those measurements, radiation experts have studied the cancer risk, with estimates ranging from six to 100 additional cancer cases among the 100 million people who fly every year. Many scientists say that is trivial, considering that those same 100 million people would develop 40 million cancers over the course of their lifetimes. And others, including the researchers who did the EU study, have said that so much is unknown about low levels of radiation that such estimates shouldn’t be made.
Still, the potential risks have led some prominent scientists to argue that the TSA is unnecessarily endangering the public because it has an alternative — the millimeter-wave machine — which it also deems highly effective at finding explosives.
Still, while the TSA may be counting this as a win and some privacy advocates may be satisfied with the changes, the millimeter wave scanners aren’t altogether successful either.
tests in Europe and Australia suggest the millimeter-wave machines have some drawbacks. They were found to have a high false-alarm rate, ranging from 23 percent to 54 percent when figures have been released. Even common things such as folds in clothing and sweat have triggered the alarm.
In contrast, Manchester Airport officials told ProPublica that the false-alarm rate for the backscatter was less than 5 percent.
Essentially, passengers are faced with two, very difficult choices. They can use the backscatters, which has a 5 percent false-alarm rate, but risk their chances of cancer or they can use the millimeter wave scanners which have an atrocious false-alarm rate, but are safer for the human body. Surely, in the 10 years that these machines have been forced upon us, someone should have discovered a way to combine the safety of one with the accuracy of the other.
No study comparing the two machines’ effectiveness has been released. The TSA says its own results are classified.
Why are these classified? Why is the public, who is forced to use these machines, not allowed to know how the machines work or how the scanners are going to affect their health? Why are they not being informed about the next generation of scanners and what the risks will be with them?
When it’s all said and done, we’ve secured the cockpit doors and we’re prepared to fight back should a flight ever be highjacked again. There is no need for any type of scanner other than to line politicians’ pockets. Whether they be backscatter or millimeter wave scanners, they are there to give an illusion of security, not actually provide it.
This post originally appeared at The Daily Censored.