Backscatter X-ray ‘naked scanners’ in the news

Security: the use of backscatter x-ray scanners has hit the US press now that the TSA are taking an interest.

These are interesting devices; unlike normal X-rays, they effectively render clothes invisible. That’s obviously got big privacy implications.

Quite a few of the press stories include images that have been blurred or obscured, presumably to render them printable. However, this image seems closer to the real results (not work-safe).

They were trialled in Heathrow’s Terminal 4 last year. One slashdotter’s experience:

Every Nth person in the line had to go through. They take you to a seperate are which is blocked off, make you lift up your arms and then move, facing three different directions. There was one operator and the screen was blocked off. The operator is always the gender of the person being scanned. Still I felt very offended for two reasons. First, even though it was enclosed it still made me feel exposed and my personal space violated, second, any questions I asked the operator with regards to their data storage, or if I could see the images that had been made were met with ignorance and my questions were ignored. However, turning down a scan you would probably get a strip search which would be even worse. I disliked airplane security checks before, but now it is incredibly annoying.

The Times has some passenger’s reactions to images from their scans:

‘I was quite shocked by what I saw,’ said Gary Cook, 40, a graphic designer from Shaftesbury, Dorset. ‘I felt a bit embarrassed looking at the image.’

A female passenger, who did not want to be named, said: ‘It was really horrible. It doesn’t leave much to the imagination because you’re virtually naked, but I guess it’s less intrusive than being hand searched.’

If these are installed more widely, I wonder how long it’ll take before we start seeing backscatter images of supermodels being saved to floppy by unscrupulous staff, and leaked?

Also, SpyBlog notes that images of children scanned with this device would constitute ‘making, distributing or possessing child pornography’ in the UK, presuming the machine stores them internally in electronic form. oops!

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  1. Gary
    Posted November 13, 2006 at 17:57 | Permalink

    These new machines have not been widely publicised in the UK, and although being a daily reader of BBC news website, i had not heard of these machines. On a recent trip to New York I was (I assume randomly) pulled out of the line at Heathrow terminal 4 for scanning. As I only had 15 minutes before my gate closed, due to 2 1/2 hours at check-in thanks to british airways, I did not question what the security staff were doing to me. I was rudely ushered to one side by an impolite and disrespectful staff member, and was asked to stand in three different positions for a ‘scan’ I was in view of other passengers, I wasn’t informed how the machine scanned me, what kind of image would be produced, if it would be kept, if I could see the image, basically, I was treated as an object rather than a person, and offered no explanation as to the scan whatsoever. After reading articles similar to this one on my return, and finding out in the UK, unlike the US, the images are not processed so as not to reveal your identity, I am both angry and disgusted at my privacy being invaded in this way, giving in essence a naked, and identifiable picture of myself without consent to a non-professional worker. If I had been given information about the scan and offered to see the image, and told what would happen to the image, then, although I wouldn’t have been happy about my naked picture being taken, I could have accepted measures such as these may need to be taken to ensure security. I also feel the choice of either the scan, the traditional ‘pat-down’ or even a strip search if deemed necessary should be offered; the issue I take with this is not one of being naked in front of people, but the invasion of privacy without my consent. Personally, I would prefer to be strip-searched in a private room where I knew exactly who was conducting the search and that it was not being recorded, than possibly un-professional workers with very few qualifications taking identifiable naked scans of anyone they choose, which can be stored onto removable media, and possibly published on the internet.

  2. Chris
    Posted December 5, 2006 at 17:40 | Permalink

    Have you seen the pictures? It isn’t like this is a picture of you naked. It is an x-ray. Like the ones of bones but it is the outline of your body. If it yours gets posted on some x-ray porn sight you wouldn’t even be able to pick out your own much less anyone else’s. People make a big deal out of nothing constantly which is why nothing ever gets done right.

    This machine would be used as an alternative to being patted down or searched. You would have a choice. You get to choose to either be fondled or ogled. I think it is a good idea and look forward to the extra security and faster airport lines.

  3. Gary
    Posted December 6, 2006 at 19:21 | Permalink

    In reply to Chris, I have seen the pictures on the internet, ( is an example, however these images are on American websites, and the American machines have software built into them to ‘fuzz out’ both the face and sensitive areas, i.e. down below, in order to maintain the dignity and privacy of the person involved, whereas the English machines don’t have this, so, although the image would be of a relatively low resolution and in greyscale, the person being scanned in England would still be fully recognisable from their scans. As for the choice factor – although I cannot speak for anyone else, I did not get one; I was ushered to one side and into the scanning ‘booth’ (3-sided box with the open side facing the security queue, so I could be watched by other passengers), and was told I would be scanned, with no alternative mentioned or offered. If the concern here is security, the x-rays used in ths scan are of a very low power, and can only show an outline of the body surface through the clothes, thus revealing anything hidden under the clothes, however I feel if a person was prepared to blow up an aircraft, comitting suicide in the process, then they would have no real reservations about hiding the explosives etc.. either within a body cavity, or perhaps in a specially produced prosthesis, neither of which would be detected by this scanner, and as for the time element, aside from the fact I found being pulled aside, having three scans in three different positions and then having the images checked was much slower than being patted down by a security guard, the new system requires two employees to scan one passenger, effectively halving the number of checks that can be carried out in a given time period when compared to two employees carrying out the pat-downs (I assume from the queues that Heathrow haven’t doubled the number of security staff), which effectively leads to even less security than we had previously. Also, we must not overlook the fact that pat-downs and these scans are carried out on a relatively small number of people in addition to the standard hand luggage x-rays and magnetometer scans, and so will have no effect on security queue lengths, and I feel it is naive to think otherwise, it is effectively replacing a flawed system with one with even more flaws, whilst breaking the UN universal declaration of human rights in the process. With the importance of airline security being so high, if these machines were truly effective in stopping terrorism then surely they would have done away with hand pat-downs, and they would be in every airport in the world rather than in just two terminals in the UK. After reading all the information available on these machines, unless the current policy changes to one where every passenger is scanned, it is impossible and naive to come to any conclusion other than they cannot not increase either the security of aircraft, or the security queues at airports.

  4. adrian whitetree
    Posted February 27, 2007 at 16:05 | Permalink

    My only concern is that that we have been taught for years that x-ray’s are potentially hazardous to unborn babies. And you are always supposed to tell the technician if it is possible you may be pregnant. What then happens when they pull someone out of the line that like the afore mentioned people have no clue of what is happening? I don’t much care about the nudity or invasion of privacy. I would much rather have a safe flying experience. I am just worried about the health risks involved. Any woman of childbearing years whether she is on a reliable birth control method or not is at risk. We all know they fail at times.

  5. SDP
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 07:30 | Permalink

    Okay, Here’s a curly one.

    If I manipulate myself before walking through (and what guy wouldn’t to make themselves look up to the task) and the panel operator then took offence at the resultant image, could I be done for obscene behaviour?

  6. Patty
    Posted March 6, 2007 at 03:41 | Permalink

    You mean manipulate yourself to get harder and look bigger?! Or do you mean to tuck it between your legs? You’re an idgit.

  7. SDP
    Posted March 12, 2007 at 10:26 | Permalink

    Oh Patty. If you don’t know which one of those two options a guy would resort to, then you need to get a boyfriend. :o

  8. Loopy
    Posted April 5, 2007 at 09:51 | Permalink

    I suffered the indignity of going through the Heathrow machine en route to my honeymoon in November. All I was told was that it would take ‘an image’ and I could refuse if I thought I was pregnant. I asked what radiation I would be exposed to and she didn’t know the answer apart from ‘very low’. I only asked because my sister works as a radiographer. I couldn’t be bothered to argue and presumed that all that would appear on screen would be the outline of any objects or a skeletal image. Having since realised that a recognisable naked image of me was taken and stored without my verbal or written consent, I am fuming!

    Incidentally, both my sister and I refused to go through the new trial scanner at Luton the other weekend on the basis that not one of the staff could really explain to us what level of radiation we were being exposed to.

    Apparently it is different to the back-scatter xray at Heathrow. The technology in use in Luton upto 29 March was an active millimetre wave which is non-ionising radiation unlike the back scatter at Terminal 4 Heathrow. The amount of power that the scanner emits is extremely low i.e. 10,000 scans through it are equivalent to a one minute call on a mobile phone.

    Whatever the level of radiation or type of image produced, I am appalled that Customs have been so lax in providing the right information and warnings to travellers. And they are getting away with it because people are scared to say no or don’t realise they have an option. The staff are generally uninformed, or even if they have been informed they can’t recall the details. None of them appear to be qualified or professional radiographers. And where are these images stored exactly???

    Nothing happened to us when we refused at Luton – we just walked through the normal scanners. No strip search thankfully!

  9. Sylvie Frossard
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 20:00 | Permalink

    Do we have a choice:

    March 22, 2008

    Dear Friends,

    I have created a new poll “Health Concern from Backscatter Screening at Airports for Kids under 11”, a very hot and controversial topic.

    It seems that “Backscatter X Rays” are going to take over the “Security Gates”. There are definite concerns with even the security-gate issue. The devil’s argument is that the magnetic field the kids are exposed to is very small, not more than magnetic field of earth. Now, look at this. Magnetic field of earth is one part in a hundred-thousand tesla, but it is uniform, and our body has adapted to it. Now, passing through gates (current does not go without wires, so you won’t have current in your body, but magnetic field travels in vacuum), you experience the field there. The magnetic field in your brain is of the order of one part in 10 000 000 000 000 tesla (13 zeros), and I don’t like kids getting through gates under any circumstances.

    Also, consider the emotional scar from the following situation.

    Alarm at the security gate beeps for reasons unknown to parent or child. Airport authorities label the child as a potential traveling bomb, and forcibly strip the child naked, sometimes in public, the child, totally unprepared for the situation, not realizing what is happening to him or her.

    Now, consider backscatter X rays, which penetrates clothes and gets images. What would it cause to human skin upon reflection? How much dose would be built up for a frequent traveler? What would be their effect on kids, when they get married? Would girls experience breast cancer, blood cancer or ovarian cancer at a later age? We do not know the answers as get. The question is to let kids experience this because of “security”. here, we have to compromise between security, modesty and privacy. I am proposing an optimized solution in this poll, and would like to get your frank views and comments. Poll address is:

    Also, there is a new launch of “Clothing and health policy for kids under 11 in school”. The address is:

    Please fill that out too. Many thanks. A new version of “Thoroughness of Physical Examination” shall be available soon.


    Sylvie Frossard [email protected]

  10. Steve
    Posted June 8, 2008 at 15:38 | Permalink

    These have been in use in Bahrain (Middle East) since 2002 and earlier. The US military bases use them to scan the “Foreign Nationals”, those non-US civilians that are hired to work on the military bases in labor jobs such as construction, food service, etc. Not everyone gets scanned, most have had a background check and have ID. Anything they carry gets x-ray’d. Any suspicious persons or the nth person in line at random gets a scan. It will definately let you see what is under the multiple layers of robes. Most security forces are men so it’s mostly men doing the scans and they scan both sexes. The scans are very revealing, very detailed. The computer gives the option to delete or save the scan to disk. (They are supposed to delete them all). Those being scanned are not told what is being seen nor are they allowed to see the monitor. Still, it was comforting to know that any weapon or explosives would have been revealed. I would have felt better if the scanner was in a separate room, with a barrier so that if they did have explosives, and chose to detonate them, they would not have taken out half of the main gate security personnel and computers. Side note, few people have a really great body, what looks good with clothes on can be real disgusting underneath. Believe me, no one’s getting entertained looking at you.

  11. Please think before you speak
    Posted June 20, 2008 at 16:55 | Permalink

    Benjamin Franklin once said that those who are willing to give up their freedom for security, deserve neither.

    One person said he/she didn’t care about the invasion of privacy, just about having a safe flight. Of course, we all want a safe flight. But you need to see that terrorists are getting exactly what they want. They want us to live in fear. They want us to give up our way of life out of fear. Being so afraid that you are willing to give up your freedom and privacy means giving them exactly what they want.

  12. Sylvie Frossard
    Posted June 20, 2008 at 20:35 | Permalink

    Backscatter-X rays: low intensity, but high energy

    What does the above mean?

    To understand, let’s go to some basics. According to quantum theory, light consists of small packets of energy, called photons. The energy carried by each photon depends upon the frequency of light. In fact, the energy possessed by a photon (of light or X ray) is directly proportional to energy. Hence, X-ray photon shall, always, carry more energy as compared to visible light. Certain processes, like photoelectric effect and Compton effect depend, critically, on the energy of the photon participating the processes. Hence, light below a certain frequency (above a certain wavelength), shall not produce photoelectric effect in certain metals, no matter how intense is the light (intensity could be visualized as the number of photons striking a surface/passing through a given area in 1 second).

    The ‘nature’ of damage depends on the energy of the photons interacting with the surface.

    The ‘extent’ of damage depends on the number of photons (intensity) interacting with the surface.

    Therefore, it should be very clear to the end-user, what the parent is accepting, when using low-intensity-, but high-energy-X rays (in fact, in the language of nuclear physicists, it is medium energy)

    Technical Note:

    Cross section for photoelectric effect is high for low-energy photons, drops as energy is increased. The cross-section increases for Compton effect and maximum for intermediate energies, drops off for higher energies. When the energy is more than 1.02 MeV, pair production is possible and the cross section increases for higher energies.

  13. Why
    Posted October 17, 2008 at 00:47 | Permalink

    Radiation from backscatter is alleged to be a low dose. Radiation accumulates with even a low dose being what tips the scale at some point in time. This is nuts! Like dentistry without radiation works, yet who hasn’t been pressured into over exposure to radiation? A visit to the nation’s capital in the USA to visit tourist attractions exposes everyone to enough radiation to feel sick. At least it did me. The washington monument is where the girls required me to stand by the backscatter looking device for several exposures. I went to the doc in VA as a result, feeling rad sick. I have not flown in years because of the nutty 911 paranoia. Can we take a couple of enemy attacks better then the massive economic and physical damage US paranoia has resulted in? ??

  14. Sylvie Frossard
    Posted October 17, 2008 at 19:57 | Permalink

    There is a new version of polls of effect of backscater on kids:

    Airport Security of Kids

    and options to avoid:

    Airport Security and Kids2

    Please vote. Many thanks.

  15. Posted March 23, 2009 at 08:05 | Permalink

    backscatter is realy a good technology thats provides us visibility to see the objects that are not made up of iron

  16. Leeana
    Posted September 20, 2009 at 20:11 | Permalink

    If we are so concerned to find out all ABOUT the backscatters, why don’t we first understand what they really are FOR. Do you still believe in terrorist stories? I am afraid, my friends, that these machines are not there to control terrorism, but rather to control all of us. I am afraid, that these machines are a smooth introduction into a very possible future where we find ourselves being slowly lured into having less and less privacy.