Going through an airport body scanner can be intimidating and embarrassing. It may also seem like an utter invasion of your privacy. You might wonder how much an airport scanner can see and who runs these machines. Are those pictures of your privates private?
Airport body scanners will not see your private parts. Instead, the TSA uses scanners that show a generic avatar with yellow or red blocks over the areas that need further investigating through a pat-down or inspection. These blocks indicate a foreign object or irregularity detected by the scanner’s program and gender defaults.
Which Airport Scanners Can See Your Private Parts?
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) used backscatter scanners by Rapiscan Systems. These airport scanners produced a naked image of the travelers who passed through them, effectively like a virtual strip search but without probable cause.
The Rapiscan scanners were used from 2007 and were phased out within a decade because of privacy infringements. Some unethical TSA officers kept and shared these images, adding to the privacy issue. Rapiscan Systems did not create a software fix for the scanners to comply with a Congressional mandate, so the FSA canceled its contract.
The image displayed by current airport scanners appears more generic, like a paper cutout doll. Additionally, the scanners use millimeter wave screening that is non-ionizing. The waves of the scanner bounce off the surface of the traveler’s body (not through it) and back to the machine. If the scanner picks up something uncharacteristic, it will indicate the area to be checked on the cutout.
What Are Airport Body Scanners Looking For?
The primary focus of airport scanners is to detect threats that passengers may try to conceal. These threats include contraband such as weapons like knives or guns, or explosives. Scanners were introduced after an increase in plane hijacks in the late 1980s. However, the TSA was formed after the tragic 9/11 events in 2001 to reduce and prevent future hijackings.
Airport scanners are programmed to detect metal and non-metal items that could pose a threat. Non-metal items could include ceramics or sharp plastic objects. If a traveler has any of these items on their person or in their pockets, the airport scanner will pick it up, and a TSA officer may have to do a pat-down.
So, what else might trigger an airport scanner? Reader’s Digest lists some of the items TSA agents refer to as ‘benign undivested items’. These items should be put into the scanner bin before going through a body scanner, where possible.
Such items would include:
- Jewelry, including some intimate piercings
- External medical equipment, such as a pacemaker
- External tumors
- Thick hair, especially if it is in a bun with clips or in a plait
- Menstruation products
Can Airport Scanners See The Size Of My Private Parts?
Previously, airport scanners would have been able to detect the size of your private parts. As you can imagine, this massive invasion of privacy was a contentious issue, and the TSA canceled its contract with these very revealing scanner providers.
The airport body scanners today use Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT), which shows a neutral avatar of your body without all the bumps and curves in various places. There are norms for two genders, and the TSA official indicates your gender as you enter the scanner. The scanner will detect anomalies if the person’s bumps and curves don’t fit into the prescribed range.
So, no alerts will come up if your bits fall into a normal range according to the AIT program. However, the very well-endowed folks might need to add extra time to their travel plans to explain the object hidden in their pants, like this man has gotten used to.
Can Airport Body Scanners See If You Are Transgender?
Since airport scanners use two default gender defaults, what happens when a transgender person, or someone in mid-transition, goes through a body scanner? Depending on the gender default the TSA officer has chosen, you might be flagged as having something suspicious in your groin or chest. This is because trans bodies do not always match the scanner’s default settings.
For example, suppose a traveler looks like a female to the TSA officer but has male genitalia. In that case, the scanner will indicate something that does not fit into its programmed expectation of a female. The same can be said for mid-trans individuals classified as males for the sake of scanning, but have growing breasts from hormone treatment.
As one can imagine, it can be frustrating and embarrassing for both the traveler and the TSA official in such an instance. The officer needs to follow standard operating procedures, but these SOPs don’t include asking people their pronouns. Additionally, the scanners would need to be improved to accommodate transgender travelers.
Can Airport Body Scanners See Piercings In My Private Parts?
An airport scanner can detect piercings in your private parts, especially if they are large or made of metal. However, TSA officials usually do a pat-down if the scanner picks up foreign objects. It is also unethical for travelers to expose their private parts to display an intimate piercing. Sometimes, a TSA officer will request a traveler removes the piercing to continue through the scanner.
However, there have been reports of unscrupulous officers demanding to see and remove intimate piercings while other officers watch and laugh. Such behavior is humiliating, and the process is unhygienic, especially in an airport. If a traveler has a new piercing that is still healing and should not be jostled, they should consider delaying their travel plans for a while.
Can An Airport Scanner See If I’m Using A Menstrual Product?
An airport scanner will not detect if you are wearing a tampon because that is worn internally. However, some female travelers have needed to get a pat-down because an airport scanner saw a foreign object in their genital area. In addition, airport scanners sometimes detect period products such as sanitary pads, panty liners, or menstrual cups.
As mentioned, AIT scanners have gender defaults. The default programming indicates a female with extra bits in the groin area needs to be investigated through a pat-down. Unfortunately, many menstruating passengers are unaware that scanners can detect these products and find the following pat-down humiliating.
Can You Refuse To Be Scanned By An Airport Body Scanner?
A traveler can refuse to go through an airport scanner, although it may raise curiosity amongst the TSA officials. Airport scanners form part of security protocol in airports and are meant to speed up the security screening of passengers. If each traveler refuses a scan, the security screening time at airports will take much longer.
The traveler who refuses a full body scan may need a full body pat-down. The traveler can request a private room for this pat-down. Usually, the TSA officer will just do it on the side to save time and because of the availability of TSA staff. A TSA officer might flag a passenger as disruptive or unruly if the passenger is rude or non-compliant.