Why I Won’t Take the TSA X-Ray Machines

Man waiting on line to go through a TSA x-ray machine at an airportLately, the main travel news in the States has been about the TSA’s new Advanced Imaging Technology (X-ray machines) and the overzealous pat downs that accompany them. I’ve used the X-ray machines twice in Boston: once in September when they’d just started rolling them out and once last month. I’ve seen them in a lot of airports since then, but I’ve either gotten to use the regular line or the X-ray machines weren’t being used. Now that they’re being rolled out everywhere and used more, people are finally taking notice and complaining about them.

I find that ironic, since nearly everyone loved the TSA after the failed Christmas bombing almost a year ago. But leave it to the TSA to screw something up. They can’t do anything right. In principle, I’m for the new machines. In fact, I would love more airport security akin to something like they have in Israel. But every time I see the new machines, I will be opting out. It’s not the delays I mind, it’s the fact that the TSA is doing it.

For starters, there’s the issue of safety. Every time I get my teeth X-rayed, my dentist puts a lead blanket over me and walks out of the room. Given that and what we know about X-rays in general, I have no desire to expose myself to any type of X-ray, even if the TSA says it’s safe. It’s especially worrying to me because I fly a lot and don’t want to get an X-ray every other week. If it was a once in a blue moon experience, I would be less concerned about the health effects. But I’m a frequent flier, and the long-term effects of constant X-rays haven’t been studied enough for me to say, “OK, this is safe. I’ll do it.”

But what concerns me more is that it’s the TSA doing this. I have no faith in the TSA. None. They always seem to be having security lapses and missing stuff. Years ago, a kid hid knives on Southwest planes to make a point about lax security. I know friends who have accidentally walked through with sharp objects. I’ve gotten scissors through. If they miss the little stuff, how will they catch the big stuff? I don’t trust them to stop the terrorists. When you pay people $10 an hour, they aren’t really going to risk their lives for a stranger, nor are they going to be experts or professionals. There are always reports of overzealous workers and bad experiences. Who ever really has a good interaction with them? Let’s get some real security experts and professionals in there.

Moreover, as pointed out on Gizmodo, X-ray images that were supposed to be erased were actually saved by US Marshals. How do we know the TSA won’t do this too? Who’s to say that someone isn’t putting away a nice private collection of people to look at later? Given the TSA’s poor track record and how bad TSA agents are in general, I don’t trust them with these images and my privacy. I think people have genuine privacy concerns that are in part related to the fact that no one likes or trusts the TSA. Doing an X-ray requires giving up a lot of your privacy and that requires a lot of trust. Americans simply don’t have that kind of trust in the TSA anymore. Even Hillary Clinton would opt out.

But opt out of this advanced screening process, and you get an intense and intrusive pat down. The controversy over the X-ray machines really centers around this. People who have opted out have complained about insensitive searches and rude staff. Getting searched is even more intrusive than an X-ray, and without it being done right, many issues will arise. There are already videos circulating over this (including this recent one involving a kid). In response to the complaints and videos circulating, the TSA issued this video:

Videos like this only make the TSA more hated. They’re basically saying, “We hear your concerns, and we don’t care. Deal with our intrusive ways!” By doubling down and not trying to accommodate travelers, there will be even more backlash. Already there are calls in Congress to have a hearing on this issue. It’s simply too big of a problem now.

Once again, the TSA has screwed up by being overzealous, uncaring, and unclear with their rules. Things are probably going to get worse especially as the TSA has dug in its heels. It’s amazing that they haven’t learned lessons from the past and continue to be so bad. They need better employees, better policies, and more training on how to interact with travelers. Everyone wants airport security. I believe there is a way to strike a good balance between security and professionalism.

Yet, since I am more worried about health and how images are being stored than I am about some guy copping a feel, I’m going to opt for the pat down. But I’m not happy about it, because I don’t think it’ll be done in a professional way, and the numerous reports and complaints already show that I’ll encounter problems. Police officers go through intensive classes on how to handle body searches with the utmost care. TSA employees don’t go through such rigorous training. I’d rather do the X-ray machine than an “intensive” pat down. But until health and privacy concerns are addressed, I’ll be passing up machines and hoping the TSA agent doesn’t get “too feely.”

  1. My uncle works for TSA (he’s in the bag doing baggage, not at the gate, though I think he’d be better up there than most) and they have have him be “bomb boy” sometimes. This is when they strap a bomb to him and he’s got to go through every single gate to see if he gets stopped. He did it a couple of weeks ago. He was missed three times. Clearly, they are missing the big stuff. None of the searches and x-rays are going to help if they don’t stop the right people anyhow.

  2. That bomb boy test doesn’t surprise me in the least. I don’t fly near as often as Matt, but I used to fly twice a month. I could have wound up in jail several times with some of the items I smuggled through because I forgot they were in my bag. I made it through security 3 times one trip before I realized I had several knives on me .

    The TSA is getting it all wrong.

  3. I recommend the book Fear Less by Gavin De Becker. I refuse to get an x-ray or an intrusive pat down. It’s total bullshit, and they know it. They could save so much in many areas by doing what really would work, as opposed to this shit.

  4. Great post, Matt. I agree with much of what you said. We travel pretty frequently and it amazes us how bad the TSA is and how rude the agents can be. I’m all for more airport security (and I’m willing to submit to it for the love of travel and safety) but we need to have people who actually know what they are doing.

  5. did you know that legally airports are not required to follow TSA regulations for airport security? There are some congressmen urging the airports and reminding them that they legally are not required to do so… makes you think doesnt it?

  6. Apparently even the TSA’s own experts say the X-ray machines have to be set exactly right and stay that way to avoid harmful radiation. I just don’t see that happening.

  7. I totally agree with your overall sentiment. However, I wanted to point out that, whenever you fly, you’re getting a relatively large dose of radiation, whether you go through a backscatter scan or not:


    In theory, the radiation coming from the backscatter scan is less than the radiation one gets from flying at high altitude.

    Now, of course, the backscatter scanner is one MORE dose of radiation… And we certainly don’t need it. So the argument is totally valid when you say that you don’t need that dose and want to avoid it. But you’re not avoiding ALL significant doses of radiation when flying… Flying in itself will get you a large dose. It’s one of the largest sources of radiation you’ll get as a frequent flyer.

  8. NomadicMatt

    I do think opt out day is stupid. It’s going to create even more of a hassle. I agree and I agree in principle that we should be safe, I just don’t think the TSA actually does.

  9. Kathy

    I feel the government is doing what it does best….which is focusing ignorant, ill trained man power and inadequate systems and tons of money on procedures which are totally ineffective. And even though I am totally for companies making money…..who is making these machines and who in Washington has stock in this company!
    Finally, the last I heard, Congress does not have to be subjected to this kind of treatment. And Muslims are able to opt out due to religious reasons!!! So as usual the normal person in America…..paying the taxes and doing everything they can to make their life work….these are the people who are again paying the price for the crimes of a few crazy people. Meanwhile, a court in America lets a terrorist get off; because he was tried in a civil court. What is wrong with this picture?

    • NomadicMatt

      Honestly, let’s be like Israel. I’d go through a lot of security IF I knew it was done right. But the haphazard way we do things just doesn’t work.

  10. Kathy

    P.S. I did visit Israel in 2002. Their staff was really well trained so the pat down they gave me (on a Chrisitian tour) was very non-invasive and not really that uncomfortable. They did however, have these ‘wands’ which they swiped over my body and inside my luggage….these were very effective at detecting bomb making materials….and the whole procedure did not even take that long. Finally, they do use ‘behavorial profiling.’ I think these latest machines are simply making a lot of money for someone. Meanwhile, if you were a terrorist would you now carry a bomb on your body…..no…. how about the luggage that is not even being checked!!!! The government is totally ineffective at certain things…..this is one of them .

  11. Makes you wonder what will happen when a would-be terrorist sticks a bomb up his butt (I think it’s happened already actually.) I foresee anal probes in our future before we can even get to a terminal.

    All for our safety of course.

    Because you know, God forbid we should use common sense and preclude ourselves from stripping 10 year old kids to see if he’s packing.

    At some point we are going to have to come to terms with the fact that the second we step out of of the house, we assume the risk that we may get hurt one way or another. Our plane might crash, our plane might get hijacked, and then again we might land perfectly safe, only to leave the airport and get run over by a taxi.

    Why should I be fondled and groped by Biff the TSA agent because a minority of the population are so chicken weenie cowards that they won’t step on a plane unless every law abiding citizen gets alien probed for naughty bomb bits? If you’re that scared of life, stay the frig home and leave the rest of us to fly in peace.

    Amazing what people are willing to give up for what amounts to little more than security theatre.

      • Sam

        Huh? You got that quote terribly wrong I must say…

        It’s more like:
        “Those Who Sacrifice Liberty For Security Deserve Neither.”

  12. I think there must be some changes concerning the use of full-body searches and electronic scanning. Even Secretary of State Clinton said that the ideal solution would be limiting the number of people who are going to be put through surveillance. Otherwise flying can really become a nightmare for all of us.

  13. a correlated argument as to why Nat’l Opt Out Day is dumb http://www.slate.com/id/2275681/ . . . it’s amazing how much play this TSA fracas is getting in the blog-o-sphere. . . fun fact: the company that makes the machines is called Rapiscan. . . for real. Why don’t they just call it P0rn-o-vision? heh.

  14. I’m with you – TSA doesn’t make me feel any safer when I fly. How many terrorists have they actually caught? I can’t think of a single one, and it seems like something we would hear about if it ever happened.

    I feel safe (at least from terrorists, crashes are another issue altogether) when I fly because terrorists don’t take down planes all that often. Not often enough to necessitate sexual assault-like pat-downs and naked images of our bodies being shown to strangers. Come on, Americans. Toughen up! We can’t be so scared as to allow this nonsense to happen.

    And one final note: Where are the Republicans on this issue? I feel like abolishing or drastically limiting TSA is something I could agree with them on if they had the guts to stand up for the freedom and liberty they claim to cherish so much. They could seize this issue and run with it. Why aren’t they? Oh, yeah, because the Department of Homeland Security which overseas TSA was created when they had control of Congress. Sheesh. So much for their small government platform. Honestly, I really wish they would take this on. It’s becoming ridiculous.

  15. “We are committed to doing so efficiently, courteously, and professionally.” How on earth can he say that with a straight face?!

    Clearly we all want to be safe when we’re flying, but as you said I’ll never feel safe when we have underpaid and poorly trained TSA staff constantly making errors and grossly mishandling travelers.

    • NomadicMatt

      I don’t trust people with security who are undertrained and underpaid. It just never works. Look at how corrupt police are in Asia where they are underpaid and undertrained. The same principles apply. I wouldn’t take a bullet for 30,000 a year.

      • Matt,

        The TSA pays low wages and employs morons for one reason – they are easy to control and for fear of losing their paycheck-to-paycheck jobs will never object to an order from a higher up, no matter how ridiculous the order. It’s not a phenomenon exclusive to the TSA. Other government entities employ the same principles.

        A recent pat-down at Sea-Tac was done professionally and quickly, so no objections there. The funny thing was, I accidentally snuck an iPod through without having it scanned. If a dude can put a bomb in his underwear, or shoes it seems he could do the same with an iPod.

        At the end of the day the $10/hr. morons employed to search us could care less about actual security, and the same goes for their bosses in Washington. This is about money and control, plain and simple.

  16. All good points, Matt. I don’t fly very often at all, but I’m already considering my course of action when I fly from Pittsburgh to Honolulu in February. I know Pitt has the backscatter scanners, so I’m anticipating possibly having to deal with them.

    In principle, the idea of what could amount to many strangers looking at an image of me essentially naked makes me extremely uncomfortable. TSA agents are, as a rule, pretty questionable as far as I’m concerned, and the recent stories of agents making inappropriate comments before sending attractive girls into the scanners really pisses me off. The unknown amount of radiation from these X-ray machines is secondary to me (though I can understand why it’s more of a concern to a frequent traveler like you).

    I think I’ve decided that I’ll opt out of the backscatter if faced with it, and hope to not feel violated by the pat-down.

  17. Harrison

    Thank you for this wonderful entry. Completely agree with every point you made. I’ve opted out twice from the bodyscan back in Sept … first because of the “storing of images” issue and the creepiness of TSA worker looking at my junk. Great that you point out the health related problems with “X-ray”. The media/TSA only mention the words “millimeter” and “backscatter” loosely, without associating it with x-ray or high energy radiation. Well, if I remember loosely to my college physics, a dose of x-ray can be harmful even if it was short.

    Come on America, wake up and protest these TSA backed bodyscans.

  18. Guy

    Unfortunately, I think it will only get worse before it gets better….politicians are not truly concerned and will can only empathize because… they don’t have to go through these checks!

    And those full body scanners? They are now being used in court houses, so I think the chance they may disappear from use is pretty slim…

  19. Jeff

    Comparing x-ray machine at dentist’s office to the backscatter machine is flat out wrong. The x-ray machine at the dentist’s office shoots 16,000 times the radiation dosage of the backscatter machine and that radiation passes through your tissue and creates an imprint on the dental plate that the dentist placed in your mouth. So, it’s high dosage radiation passing through your tissue. In contrast, the backscatter machine uses low dosage x-rays that are scattered across the body, and what is being read are the x-rays that bounce back. Thus, the images that you see at the dentist’s office are different than the images seen at the airport.

    The gizmodo article was taken images from a courthouse not at an airport. Although the technology is the same, the machines used by TSA have the storage capacity disabled. Your worried about some TSA worker figuring out how to somehow store the images of you and . . . riiiight, because the outlined images produced by the backscatter machine are soooo hot, they are the only source of “sexy” images, and there is no internet.

    One of the comments suggested El Al as an appropriate model/comparator for TSA. El Al is essentially a state-run airline that has like two airports and the passenger through-put equivalent to New Jersey– it’s just not the same scope as the U.S. airlines, airports, and volume. What works for a small operation probably won’t work for the U.S.

    Finally, you don’t think that the pat-down will be done in a professional way? You fly a lot- has that been your personal experience or are you basing that upon the handful of examples that have gotten media attention? You do realize that hundreds of millions of people fly in the U.S. every year? Whenever I fly, the TSA people are fine. Some are friendlier than others, but they’re just people doing a job that needs to be done so that we don’t have another 9/11.

    • NomadicMatt

      I do fly a lot. I don’t have a good experience with the TSA. I don’t like them as it is so I wouldn’t want them giving me a pat down. I don’t trust the TSA to set the x-ray to the appropriate level and I don’t trust the agents to give me a pat down.

  20. Lawrence

    You’re right about x-rays, DANGEROUS! Will they suggest we stand in a microwave next to double check we contain water and not C4? Lovin the photo with the pink undies! hilarious, can you get out of the scan if you get naked?

  21. Hire pay wont it for or American’s (were the Government were here help you!?) look at our? Senator’s and Rep”s,THAT we pay and CALL them selves ( Public servants HA HA on US!!)

  22. I saw an interview with the TSA head guy (his name eludes me) on CNN. The man is a smarmy douchebag.

    The reporter was interviewing him and he stated, “MANY other countries have more security screenings than the USA”. When the reporter asked him to name a country that does, his reply was “I wouldn’t like to say”. Israel popped into his head shortly after. No other countries named.

    So much for “many”.

    They showed him videos of a woman in a wheelchair having her breasts pretty rigorously checked, and a TSA agent with their hand down a man’s pants. He made no apologies for anything.

  23. Andrea

    Sounds like it’s time for everyone to start pushing for more and better rail services in the US, particularly high speed. This latest TSA issue doesn’t surprise me at all, just more useless bs. in the name of the illusion of security. I completely agree about your not wanting to be exposed to radiation. I’m watching all this from Australia and, quite frankly, am happy to be out of the US for the last several years because travel has become such a pain. Last time we were there we dreaded every trip to the airport. Not just the security measures but also the sorry state of the airlines in general. We’re in no hurry to come back for these reasons. It’s all just very sad.

  24. The security circus now has special lighting effects? Wow … I’m mesmerised.

    Linda and I have only flown into the States once since 2003 because of the highly invasive retina scanning and fingerprinting for non-US citizens. Added to that, the US removed habeas corpus for non-US citizens sometime between then and now. (If I’m arrested, they don’t have to give me a reason for it, a lawyer or contact with the outside world.)

    And this? Another reason the US really sucks at tourism. Another reason for travellers not to visit, not to spend money on tourism in the US, not to fly internally if they do visit. In addition to the new $10 entry fee, I wouldn’t be surprised to see US tourism numbers dropping further in the next few years.

    And it’s a shame: so many beautiful places and beautiful people.

  25. Erica

    I got the pat down and xray wand leaving Paris for the US in July 2007. It happened so fast and was over so quickly I wasn’t quite sure what even happened! I think I was just ‘selected’ and when I looked nervous and questioning, the woman just assured me it was ok and to just stand still. I wasn’t thrilled, but don’t even remember much about it. Except the amusement of them trying to check out my overfilled backpack with the wand.

    On another note of US travel, I flew from Dallas to Rapid City, SD last summer and security was very lax. I think I had lotion and my lip balm in my purse, not my ziploc bag and no one even noticed!

  26. Bruce Schneider said that the only 2 things that have happened since 9/11 to make flying safer are

    1. Reinforced cockpit doors
    2. Vigilant passengers

    Link: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/11/22/do-body-scanners-make-us-safer/a-waste-of-money-and-time

    Totally agree with him. Think about it, if someone REALLY, I mean REALLY, wanted to blow up a plane, he/she could ingest or stick an explosive in some part of his/her body and none of this backscatter, pat down shit would do a damn thing.

    Other than that, you think someone who pulls out a knife on a plane will be able to take it over? No chance, 10 people would be pummeling him before he could even say “Hijack”. And good luck breaking down the cockpit door.

    The TSA is a massive waste of money and their attitude towards the general public is pretty disgusting.

    With all this security crap and general frustration, Osama, in a sense did win. Just look at how much he’s affected American life.

    • NomadicMatt

      I agree that the TSA is a massive waste of money. I think they are very poor at what they do and the agency needs to totally be reorganized.

  27. My previous comment was in response to to the Ben Franklin qoute. Delete this one if it slots in the right place after moderation.

  28. Mike Bowers

    Interesting article but I think people may not understand the bigger issue.I have been an executive for three different airlines over 30years. I started in 1979, one year after deregulation. The truth is, the various contractors the airlines used prior to 9-11 were no better. The bigger issue remains that the government burdens the airlines with the cost of security screening. As we all know, is is difficult enough, if at all possible, to make a consistent profit in the airlines as it is. As long as the airlines have to pay the cost of the security screening (currently the TSA), the quality of the program will never reach it’s full potential or the level needed to ensure no possible threat exists. At some point in time, We The People, have to decide if this is important to us or not. If it is, then we need to pay the cost of security screen and remove that burden from the airlines. We can then pay enough to provide the best talent and best leadership to run that organization. I would suggest to get to the highest level of security, we would not want the government running that screening company but bring together the best minds in the business. We would then be in a position to have competition on a new level of service provider who would be working diligently to enhance the tools needed to eliminate the possibility of a threat reaching the actual airplane. As long as the airlines have to pay the cost, we will always have pressure to keep the cost lower and there-bye receive poor customer service and a security system that does not fully protect the people that use it.