The Health Risks of Naked Body Scanners

January 25, 2010 by Bob Livingston

The Health Risks of Naked Body Scanners

The naked body scanners that government and submissive, fearful travelers are clamoring for in the wake of the Christmas day Northwest Airlines bombing attempt will expose people to harmful radiation creating an as-yet-unrealized health risk.

And while the machines do a virtual strip search revealing much more than just knives and guns someone might have hidden away, the technology probably wouldn’t have revealed the bomb ingredients carried by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Even so, The New York Times reports that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has contracted for 900 of the scanners to be deployed in airports across the country.

The current technology uses one of two methods: the older backscatter X-ray method or the newer millimeter wave method.

With the backscatter X-ray technology, passengers stand against a large backscatter machine as a pencil-thin X-ray beam rapidly scans them, producing a negative image of the entire body. The X-ray barely penetrates the skin. So while any weapons that are hidden beneath clothing are revealed, weapons or explosives concealed in body cavities or beneath heavy folds of skin are not.

The Health Freedom Alliance (HFA) says backscatter X-ray machines are setting the stage for a future epidemic of cancer.

While the manufacturers claim it would take about 150 scans to equal the amount of radiation exposure of one chest X-ray, frequent flyers exposed to the scans, plus extra radiation exposure at high altitudes could be a deadly combination for them. The operators of the machines and those who spend a lot of time around them face the danger from exposure as well.

“Drawing on sources like The Mayo Clinic and The Radiological Society of North America as well as interviews with prominent radiologists, molecular biologists, and medical doctors, ionizing (penetrating) radiation in any dose, no matter how tiny, causes genetic mutations, which set all living cells exposed on the path to cancer. X-rays are considered ionizing radiation,” according to the HFA.

Researchers at England’s Oxford University say that X-rays given off by medical equipment are to blame for thousands of cancers every year. So combine the scans you get for medical treatment with those you will receive while traveling and you can see how the danger increases.

The millimeter wave technology machines may be as bad or worse. Researchers for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Technology Review blog write that the terahertz (THz) waves emitted by the millimeter wave machines interact with DNA in ways that are only now being understood.

According to the blog:

But what of the health effects of terahertz waves? At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss any notion that they can be damaging. Terahertz photons are not energetic enough to break chemical bonds or ionise [sic] atoms or molecules, the chief reasons why higher energy photons such as X-rays and (ultraviolet) UV rays are so bad for us. But could there be another mechanism at work?

The evidence that terahertz radiation damages biological systems is mixed. “Some studies reported significant genetic damage while others, although similar, showed none,” say Boian Alexandrov at the Center for Nonlinear Studies at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and a few buddies. Now these guys think they know why.

Alexandrov and co [sic] have created a model to investigate how THz fields interact with double-stranded DNA and what they’ve found is remarkable. They say that although the forces generated are tiny, resonant effects allow THz waves to unzip double-stranded DNA, creating bubbles in the double strand that could significantly interfere with processes such as gene expression and DNA replication. That’s a jaw dropping conclusion.

The blog goes on to say, “Of course, terahertz waves are a natural part of [sic] environment, just like visible and infrared light. But a new generation of cameras are [sic] set to appear that not only record terahertz waves but also bombard us with them. And if our exposure is set to increase, the question that urgently needs answering is what level of terahertz exposure is safe.”

And if the dangers to our health aren’t enough to give you pause, consider how the images produced could be used. While the TSA and the machines’ promoters are saying the images produced are too vague to be considered indecent, a German security advisor recently explained to the German publication Bild.com just how revealing they can be.

“Unlike with a complete X-ray examination, the rays do not go deeply under the skin. They see only the things which lie over it, so bladed weapons and firearms as well as ceramics,” Hans-Detlef Dau is quoted as saying.

“Beyond that, they show intimate piercings, catheters and the form of breasts and penises.

“But newer devices can automatically distort intimate areas in the picture.”

And a reporter for The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom, viewing a trial of the new scanners that have been placed in the Manchester Airport, wrote, “The full-body scanner on trial at Manchester airport consists of two Tardis-like blue boxes that passengers stand between and produces a ghostly naked image with curves and genitals eerily visible.”

The scanners produce an image that looks like a negative. And, as demonstrated here (caution: this image may not be suitable for viewing in a work environment or on a monitored computer) by using Photoshop computer software anyone can invert the image to create a photo of a naked body in full color.

The TSA says the images are not stored and there is no way for them to be transferred or transmitted. But the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) disagrees and claims that the TSA specified in 2008 documents that the machines must have image storage and sending abilities.

According to an EPIC press release:

These machines produced detailed, three-dimensional images of individuals’ naked bodies and are being used at airport security checkpoints, court houses, and correctional facilities.

While TSA originally provided assurances that the technology would not be mandatory for passengers and would include a privacy algorithm that blurred faces, the agency later withdrew these assurances. In April 2009, the agency announced plans to expand the mandatory use of body imaging to all U.S. Airports. This means that Whole Body Imaging devices will replace metal detectors at the primary screening devices in U.S. airports. As a consequence, the TSA could obtain naked pictures of every airline passenger, including children, who travel from a U.S. airport.

That leaves open the possibility the machines—which can see beneath people’s clothing—can be abused by TSA insiders and hacked by outsiders, EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg told CNN.

And how believable is it that the TSA is not going to store images? Wouldn’t they want to have a record available if a terrorist did slip through security?

Without a record of some sort there is no way to understand how the terrorist outwitted the system. And without that knowledge how can those invading our privacy while ostensibly trying to make us more secure ensure that that method—at least—is not used against us again?

The fact remains that until the government is ready to make us more secure by profiling and targeting those who seek to harm us, these steps are just window dressing. Unfortunately it’s the type of window dressing that is designed to make us more compliant and submissive while empowering government and enriching a few well-connected corporations and lobbyists.

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