Airport body scanners, security, privacy and you

June 28th, 2018

By Dean I Weitzman, Esq.


The introduction last week of the first full body security scanners in Terminal F at Philadelphia International Airport means that air travelers here will have more decisions to make in balancing convenience, privacy and personal security when they fly.

The full body scanners – which produce detailed images that allow Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel to see if a traveler is carrying a concealed weapon or bomb device underneath their actual clothing – have been very controversial.

Air safety advocates see them as a necessary tool to ensure that flights are much safer from terrorists who would want to bring a plane down, while opponents, including privacy advocates, argue that the scanners are invasive and that the images could be stored long-term by officials, against the will of many passengers.

Airport security check sign.

Image credit: ©

The problem is that there are no easy answers on such scanners.

A story last week in The Philadelphia Inquirer described how incoming passengers will be able to choose whether they want to walk through the full body scanners or if they want to use the long-established walk-through metal detectors, along with pat-down manual searches.

“The new technology can detect both metallic and nonmetallic items – such as explosives and plastic weapons – concealed under clothing,” the story said. “A walk-through metal detector, as the name implies, only detects metal,” Ann Davis, a TSA spokeswoman, told the Inquirer. About 317 whole-body scanners have been installed in some 65 airports across the country for testing, according to the story.  Several more will be installed in here in Philadelphia in the future.

So what does this all mean for you, me and the rest of the flying public?

Well, it’s a matter of personal choice as to whether or not you decide to walk into the new scanners.

You have to weigh this with your thoughts about your personal privacy and your concerns about being on a flight that will be as safe as possible if all passengers are scanned using this kind of technology.

“The TSA says passenger privacy is ensured through the anonymity of the image,” according to The Inquirer story. “Facial features are blurred. The body image resembles a fuzzy photo negative, or a chalk etching,” Davis told the paper. The TSA employee who is viewing the scanner images cannot see the person who is being scanned at that time, nor can the TSA official who is directly working in the security lines with the passengers who are being scanned, the story said.

The TSA Web site specifies that the advanced imaging technology used in the body scanner machines “cannot store, print, transmit or save the image, and that the image is automatically deleted from the system after it is cleared by the remotely located security officer.” Facial features are blurred on the images.

Critics argue that those stipulations are not necessarily true. “The TSA first said this wasn’t possible, then later admitted the machines can save photos, but that this feature had been disabled,” according to a recent story in The New York Times. “This kind of backtracking has added to the agency’s credibility problem,” the story continued.

Critics also claim that the images produced by the machines are invasive because they show all the contours and features of the subject being scanned.

Privacy advocates with the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a lawsuit earlier this year against the use of the full body scanners, and has requested public hearings on the use of the devices to allow more disclosure about how they are being used. The EPIC lawsuit argues that the use of the devices by Department of Homeland Security violates three federal laws – the Administrative Procedures Act, the Privacy Act, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The suit also alleges that searches using the body scanners are unconstitutional, based on existing court rulings on searches.

As post-9/11 air travel policies continue to develop, nine years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 on American soil, we all have to weigh our own choices in terms of security, privacy and safety that we feel comfortable with on a personal basis.

In the meantime, the war against terrorism continues around the world and terrorists are still trying to use airplanes to kill people. Last week’s attempted mail bomb discoveries on several cargo planes in England and the Middle East refocus our attention onto the delicate and very real needs for air transportation safety procedures to ensure the safety of the public. The small bombs on those flights were packed into suspicious packages aboard the planes and were intended to detonate in flight and destroy the planes, according to a story in The Washington Post.

We here at MyPhillyLawyer will continue to watch the legal battles and questions being raised about full body scans and other forms of air security measures being introduced across the U.S.,  so that we can help you determine what options are available to you when you fly.

The safety of all of who travel on aircraft is at stake and is critical, but at the same time, it is a delicate balance when our personal rights are restricted or controlled unjustly.

Each one of us has to determine what we are comfortable with when we fly.

There are no easy answers.

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