TSA replacing controversial body scanners with less invasive ‘millimeter wave’

TSA officers give a demonstration of an Advanced Imaging Technology unit at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

We will all soon be faceless body outlines in the eyes of TSA agents at New York City airports.  

The controversial full body scanners that are often criticized for being too invasive are being replaced at major airports, including John F. Kennedy airport and LaGuardia airport, with scanners that show a less revealing body image, officials said.

The full body scanners, called “backscatters”, have been at the center of debates over airport security since they were introduced in 2009. Critics argue that they emit too much harmful radiation and show revealing images of passenger’s bodies beneath their clothing.

The TSA defended the scanners for their ability to detect non-metallic threats, including liquid explosives.  The backscatters emit the same amount of radiation as two minutes of flying on an airplane, according to the TSA’s website.

The “millimeter wave” scanner is a newer, smaller machine and uses a rotating antenna to create a more generic outline of a passenger’s body seen on the monitor for a TSA agent. It does not use radiation, but rather radio waves.

TSA officials told Metro replacing the larger machines with millimeter wave scanners will allow for shorter wait times at security checkpoints and enhance passenger privacy. The agency denied that the decision to switch out the backscatters had anything to do with radiation levels.

“This move will add additional units outfitted with automated target recognition (ATR) software, which enhances privacy even more by providing a generic body outline, and eliminates the need for a separate officer in another to room to participate in screening,” TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein told Metro.

The decision came as welcome news to local politicians like Brooklyn Councilman David Greenfield, an outspoken critic of the backscatter full body scanners.

“I’ve been called by women who were convinced they were picked out of line by a TSA employee who wanted to see an image of them,” Greenfield told Metro. “It’s a significant improvement, it’s still not perfect.”

The backscatters were removed from LaGaurdia earlier this summer and the TSA is currently removing them from JFK, officials said. Newark never had backscatters.  They will be installed in some of the country’s smaller, less busy airports that are currently only operating with metal detectors, a TSA spokesperson said.


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