Why the TSA Body-Scanners Don’t Bother Me

There’s been ongoing hoopla about the new airport security body scanners.  These scanners “use low-level radiation to create what resembles a nude image of the screened passengers.”  Criticism has lowered to a dull roar since Thanksgiving, but as people begin  traveling for the Christmas holiday, I’m sure debate and disproportionate outrage over the scanners will again flood the airwaves.  So, in anticipation of renewed discussion, and though absolutely no one asked me, I’m going to tell you why the scanners don’t offend me at all.

(First a caveat: this article is limited to privacy concerns about the scanners.  There may be other valid and legitimate concerns about the radiation levels, unnecessary expense, or ineffectiveness of the scanners that warrant further investigation and debate.  But, I’m exclusively speaking to scanner opposition of the “I don’t want them to see me naked” brand.)

The way I see it, getting into a body scanner is akin to going to the doctor’s office.  Sure, it’s embarrassing to let a stranger (or at best, an acquaintance) see you naked, and it may even be a little degrading to let them poke and prod you (especially for the ladies).  But you’re willing to subject yourself to an uncomfortable and unclothed doctor exam because it’s the only way to make absolute sure you’re healthy and safe.  The body scanners aren’t that different – they’re currently the most effective, efficient technology available to make sure that you’re safe.  And if the downside is that a stranger sees you distortedly naked for a whole thirty seconds, so be it.

I can anticipate a barrage of criticism distinguishing doctors, who are trained medical professionals, from airport personnel, who are a small step up from DMV workers.  And you’re right: airport workers don’t have extensive medical training to calm your delicate sensibilities when you slip out of your paper robe; they don’t have prestigious degrees mounted on the wall for you to fixate on while they do their dirty work.  (Maybe I shouldn’t use the word “mounted?”)  But airport employees do have one crucial thing in common with doctors: this is their JOB.  TSA workers aren’t some gawking perverts lined up to see shady gray images of your naked form; they’re people in the middle of long shifts who don’t really want to see your junk any more than you want to show it to them.  But, neither one of you wants to get blown up on a plane, either, so you begrudgingly step into the box and he begrudgingly checks the image of your fat rolls for bombs.

Maybe years of salon waxing have dulled my modesty when it comes to professionals observing (and touching) your body.  But that’s exactly what it is: professionals whose job it is to see a little more of you.  We commonly submit to nakedness in other contexts: think about gym locker rooms, some fitting rooms, girls’ night sleepovers after a really exhausting pillow fight (just kidding – girls aren’t supposed to let guys know that happens). So what’s the big deal?

Of course, the counter-argument is that naked locker rooms aren’t mandatory.  Well, neither are the scanners.  First, you can “opt out” of TSA scanners for a pat-down instead, though, this option is equally objectionable to most people.  But more broadly, you can avoid flying if you want to avoid the scanners. No one is coming to your house and strip-searching you, but if you want to take advantage of the privilege of flying, you are required to follow the rules. And if you want to blame somebody for your mild discomfort or temporary embarrassment, blame the underpants bomber, not the TSA.
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December 10, 2010 at 10:21 AM delete

A-Train, good article, but are you sure "TSA workers aren’t some gawking perverts lined up to see shady gray images of your naked form"? Apparently those shady gray images are sexier than you thought...


December 10, 2010 at 11:42 AM delete

I agree. I also have a sort of knee-jerk reaction to people who voice concerns about people seeing and storing "naked" images of them. It seems pretty narcissistic to think that TSA people really give a damn about seeing these images.

December 10, 2010 at 12:32 PM delete

Just a thought: http://cargocollective.com/4thamendment

December 10, 2010 at 7:05 PM delete


It's nice to see you have a blog. I hope you are doing well! :-)

I am against these TSA Body-Scanners for a couple of reasons that your note doesn't address:

* It set's up a slippery slope. What happens when someone tries to blow up a plane with an explosive device inserted into his or her internal cavities? This happened recently to a Saudi Prince. Are you comfortable with a screening which includes a more detailed x-ray or "pat down" of these inner cavities to help ensure safety for the privilege of air travel? I mean one's Doc/OBGYN who is kind of an acquittance has to do it for medical reasons?

* The 4th Amendment
["The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."]
protects against illegal search and seizure. I am not an attorney but to me I don't see how the Federal Government justifies these scans and pat-downs without probable cause or a warrant. If these are so vital and this amendment is "outdated" an amendment should be made.

* What the TSA is doing is expensive security theater. Airlines have significant financial and reputational interest to get their passengers from point A to point B safely. We should leave them to perform whatever screening they see fit (and constitutional). They are alot more nimble, creative, and cost-efficient than having everything performed by diktat from Washington, D.C. Even looking at airplane terrorist attacks during the year 2001, your chances of death are significantly higher just driving to the airport than being blown up on a plane.

I have to travel often for work to L.A. and don't have the luxury to drive or take the train and can't avoid these screenings and checkpoints. It stinks and I hope it goes away soon.

If this is the best we can do, the President and Janet Napolitano should demonstrate by sending their daughters and families through to lead by example. Oh, but they, and about 200 other select members of the Executive Branch and Congress have been exempted from having to pass through airport security checkpoints when flying commercial.

Anyway, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I hope you and your family are doing well and that you're having fun in Atlanta!

Best regards,

Arthur Noll

December 10, 2010 at 7:28 PM delete

So now the airlines are a tiny bit safer, but the determined terrorists will move on to "softer" targets, like Times Square, Xmas tree lighting ceremonies and cargo bombs.

Next attack - shopping centers, schools, cruise ships, sports events, subways, tunnels, buses, airport security lines to name but a few.

We cannot possibly catch every attempt by screening, but we can humiliate millions of people and help bankrupt already hurting commercial aviation companies.

Fire 25,000 TSA clerks, dump the scanners and pat-downs, bring in dogs, and give the saved money to the FBI & CIA, who can actually catch terrorists (maybe).

I, for one, won't fly until this travesty is lifted.

la mì
December 11, 2010 at 4:27 PM delete

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December 15, 2010 at 7:56 PM delete

I have to agree with Arthur on this one.

I fly a lot (90 segments this year). Most weeks I can avoid the scanners by simply choosing a security line that doesn't have them or timing when I approach the line to limit my chances of being "randomly" selected. I imagine within the next year, after 1000 more millimeter wave and backscatter booths are deployed, this will be no longer an option.

My issue is that Homeland Security is taking entirely the wrong approach. They are taking a blanket approach to security when they need to take a risk based approach. Instead of applying generally crappy screening techniques (which these scanners are) to all travelers they need to instead focus their efforts on applying strong screening to those who are most likely to pose the largest threat. Allow US Citizens to (pay to) go through strong, regular background checks and move through the line more quickly. Interview foreign nationals, those who buy 1 way tickets, people who looked frazzled, and anyone else that might pose a threat. I am sure I would feel different if I wasn't a white male citizen but this is the same approach every other security organization in the world takes.

I have one other concern. Homeland security refuses to allow independent audits of the scanning booths. This leads me to believe that there is (a) something wrong or (b) the booths are doing more than the government suggests.

In the end though, you are more likely to die on the drive to airport anyway.

Enjoyed your post!


bene yamin
September 16, 2013 at 10:12 AM delete

the airlines are a tiny bit safer, but the determined terrorists will move on to "softer" targets, like Times Square, Xmas tree lighting ceremonies and cargo bombs.Gatwick Parking


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