August 13 2010 by Chris McGinnis
Remember last Christmas when the "underwear bomber" almost brought down a jumbo jet over Detroit?
That prompted the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to grab a big pile of federal stimulus money for about 150 more full body scanners -- you know, the ones that produce those controversial ghost-like images of travelers' bodies.
There are currently just over 100 of the so-called "advanced imaging units" in use at airports across the country, but TSA says that number will soar to around 500 by the end of this year-- with nearly 1,000 in place by the end of 2011. That means frequent travelers should expect to encounter more of them, and soon.
Here's what you need to know:
- WHAT ARE THEY? There are two types of full body scanners: Newer "backscatter" scanners and older "millimeter wave" scanners which are in use at the international concourse at SFO.
- WHAT DO THEY LOOK LIKE? The newer backscatter machines look like two big blue boxes with a small open alley down the middle. (Millimeter wave units are rounder looking with the passenger surrounded by Plexiglas for the scan.)
- HOW DO I GET SCANNED? Walk into the scanners, turn sideways, place your feet in square boxes marked on the rubber floor, hold your hands up and wait for the TSA agent to tell you to exit. The whole process takes about five seconds.
- WHAT IS DIFFERENT? As usual, you must remove shoes and belts and place them with carry-on luggage in bins. But when getting a full body scan, you must also remove your wallet or any other non-metallic objects from pockets. (Wallet removal is not necessary with the standard magnetometers.)
- WHAT ABOUT RADIATION? The TSA says that the radiation emitted by these machines is equivalent to what you are exposed to during about two minutes aboard an aircraft at altitude, and far less than what the government permits for cell phones.
- WHAT DO SCANNERS SCAN? Body scanners only expose what's between your skin and the clothes you are wearing. They are NOT like x-rays which penetrate your skin and show internal organs and bone. (This is a plus for travelers with artificial joints or other metallic implants who've been slowed down and forced to submit to pat downs at traditional magnetometers.)
- WHO SEES MY IMAGE? The TSA agent directing you into the full body scanner never sees your image. This officer is wearing an earpiece and is in radio contact with another TSA officer viewing your image in a remote area. Once your image has been checked, this officer then tells the attending officer to allow you to pass, or to subject you to secondary screening if he/she sees any anomalies.
- WHAT HAPPENS TO THE IMAGES? The TSA emphasizes that these images cannot be stored, saved or transmitted. In addition, they do not allow officers to bring cameras, cell phones or PDAs in rooms where images are viewed.