Scanners Aren’t the Solution

A mere three days after the attempted bombing of flight 253, Obama, well-rested from his Hawaiian vacation, strutted up to a microphone and told the world, “We’re in an emergency!!!” The emergency was that we weren’t afraid enough.

Despite the fact that air travel is the safest method of travel per passenger mile, the only thing that would keep us truly safe was something that would strip us naked in front of airport security, shoot us full of radiation, and possibly store our biometric information. You know, a full-body scanner.

The astonishing thing was that hardly anyone in the mainstream media mentioned that a full-body scanner would not have been able to detect the chemical Abdulmutuallah brought onto the plane with him. Full-body scanners only detect things that are high density, like metal or wax, not things that are low density, like chemicals or plastics. That is the entire idea behind the full-body scanner: its waves pass through lower density clothes to show the higher density body.

So, if the motivation of the people pushing for these things isn’t actually to protect us, what is it? Well, it’s to take power from us, and to give it to themselves, naturally. That isn’t, however, something that the American people typically like, so let’s take a closer look at these scanners and see just how angry the American people should be.

Aside from not being able to detect low density objects, full-body scanners also can’t detect objects inside a body. Only a few months ago Abdullah Asieri proved that this is a danger by concealing a bomb inside himself while trying to assassinate the Saudi Arabian head of counterintelligence.

Even with the TSA’s additional purchases, there will still be hundreds, if not thousands, of airports with commercial airline flights inside the US that have no scanners. The United States alone has over 15,000 airports, and approximately 600 airports certified to serve commercial aircraft with nine or more seats. Worldwide, there are hundreds of airports that help bring over fifty million people into this country a year.

The US currently has 40 scanners in 19 airports. If the new scanners are installed in the same ratio, even if the TSA installs all 300 new scanners that it plans to buy, and the 150 that it simply allows to lay dormant, they will still only cover roughly 225 airports, barely making a dent in the total number of airports that have flights inside the US. This of course doesn’t even address the fact that the TSA says they may actually deliver only 300 of the 450 scanners in 2010.

Cost is another issue. Obama directed Homeland Security to purchase $1 billion worth of advanced-technology equipment for screening at airports. Each scanner only costs $150,000, so Homeland Security clearly won’t be using all that money to just buy scanners. We don’t know exactly what they will be using it for, but we do know that it will be going into the pockets of the defense-industrial complex. We could be using that money on more important things, like bailing out banks, or one bank, …one teenie weenie bank.

The scanners are also invasive. They take detailed nude pictures of everyone who walks through them: the old, the young, everyone. The images are so graphic that the British Department of Transport confirmed that images of people under eighteen may be considered “child porn.”

TSA officials claimed that images of genitals would be blurred out, but in October of 2008, an Office of Transport official in Australia said that they would not blur out the genitals because it “severely limits the detection capabilities.” Last week, scanners in use in the UK made images of people’s genitals that were “eerily visible.” Do we really think the TSA will be any different once the spotlight is off them?

Also, although a patch is put on the image of a person to distort its color, another patch can easily be put on the image to convert it into a clear black and white picture.

It also seems likely that these machines, although they might not do it now, are capable of measuring and storing our biometric data. Israel just introduced facial scanning into an airport. British CCTV cameras are already capable of being outfitted to recognize faces. With the importance of biometric data growing every day, do we really want the TSA to be one step away from being able to demand that we allow them to store virtually all of our biometric data before they let us on a plane?

As if that’s not enough, the radiation from these scanners is dangerous. In only six seconds, they pump us full of as much radiation as 10,000 cell phone calls do. Your scan goes an extra second longer than usual? Woops. That’s an extra 1666 cell phone conversations. In case you don’t know, there is evidence linking cell phone usage and cancer.

Also, the type of radiation the scanners emit is particularly harmful. Terahertz waves, the type of radiation emitted, have been described by Los Alamos researchers as “ripping DNA apart.” Apparently, strands of DNA are loosely joined, so they can separate easily for replication. The resonant effects of the terahertz waves “unzip” the strands. If your DNA has been “unzipped,” it can’t replicate properly.

Even the TSA’s additional screening for US-bound flights from 14 nations is harmful, because it unfairly focuses on Muslim nations, while not even including the Netherlands, the country from which Abdulmutuallah departed.

The powers that be certainly have exploited this “crisis” well. France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Canada all plan to install full-body scanners in response to the attempted bombing. Other countries that already have scanners are planning to expand their usage. In Britain, the number of passengers agreeing to be scanned has risen from 72% to 92% since the attempted attack. The Dutch police are even working on developing portable body scanners that can be used on the street on people “suspected of carrying concealed weapons.”

This is especially astonishing considering that in June of 2009 the House voted to bar scanners from airports by a margin of 310 – 118, and members of the European Parliament voted to ban them from airports in September 2008 by a margin of 361 – 16.

Perhaps the most upsetting part is that the focus on scanners diverts attention from where it should really be: the security failure that allowed this to happen. Let’s just take a look at some things that should have garnered extra attention from the TSA and airport security:

  • According to eye witnesses, he had no passport, and the only reason he was allowed on the plane was because an accomplice who was with him managed to convince an airline employee that Abdulmutuallah was a political refugee from Sudan.

If you think that any of these might be cause for suspicion, you’re not alone. In fact, the TSA would agree with you, because as it turns out, even before the attempted bombing, TSA officials were actually waiting to question Abdulmutuallah when he landed in Detroit. Abdulmutuallah had clearly had triggered something in the security system, and the TSA and airport security simply weren’t fast enough to act upon it.

As Rahm Emmanuel said, “you never want to let a crisis go to waste. [...][I]t lets you do things you think you couldn’t do before.” The truth of the matter is that we do have a crisis, but it is not what the people in charge of the government and the media tell us it is. It is not Umar Farouk Abdulmutuallah or Islamic fundamentalism, and it won’t be solved by turning our country into a police state. Our crisis is that our leaders try to pump us full of fear in order to make it easier for them to achieve what they want, even if that comes at the expense of the country. Once we realize that is the real crisis, then we finally will be one step closer to truly becoming safe.

Joshua Fulton is a writer and comedian from around Boston originally. He currently lives in NC pursuing an MFA in creative writing. Read other articles by Joshua, or visit Joshua's website.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Reason said on January 15th, 2010 at 1:01pm #

    There are a few factual errors in your posting. For example, an airport scan that uses millimeter wave technology is not the same as 10,000 cell phone calls, as you claim — it’s actually 10,000 times LESS radiation than a typical cell phone call. (Millimeter wave technology does not use ionizing radiation.) The airport scanners that use backscatter radiation, instead of millimeter wave technology, deliver a dose of less than 10 microrem, which is less than 1% of the radiation you’d receive during a typical dental x-ray.

  2. Josh Fulton said on January 15th, 2010 at 4:55pm #

    Thank you, Reason. I’m afraid what you’re saying doesn’t contradict what I said. If you look at the link, it does say equivalent to 10,000 phone conversations. Even if the waves themselves are weaker than X-rays, you can still emit enough of them for them to add up to add up to the equivalent of 10,000 phone conversations.

    Also, by any chance would you happen to be from Reason magazine? Or is that just a coincidence?

  3. get the facts said on January 22nd, 2010 at 4:00pm #

    Reason is correct – the dose is 1000 time LESS than a mobile signal. Think about it…your mobile phone has to transmitt through walls, windows, clothes, your head (if facing the wrong way) etc and to an antenna several miles away. These scanners have to detect a few feet away and it shouldnt pass though a person otherwise its too powerful, it HAS to be weak as its only going though cloth otherwise the person would not be seen. Also your comment on Terahetz is incorrect. Terahertz is not the same as micowaves (a completely different frequency), and your body emmits more Terahertz radiation than any scanner does because its warm and so does a light bulb. The world is full of radiation (lots from the sun) any radiation that is around is in large intensities does not need testing as long as the amount of exposure is negligable compaired to nature and in this case it is. Sit in the dark for 10 seconds out in the cold, in a wire cage (to avoid the micowave and radio waves) if you want to negate the effect of one of these scans. The privicy issue is real the radiation issue is not.

  4. Josh Fulton said on January 22nd, 2010 at 5:55pm #

    Again, two different things. As far as I know, the power of the waves and the radiation are not the same.

  5. Josh Fulton said on January 22nd, 2010 at 6:08pm #

    Also, I didn’t use the word micro- or millimeter wave once in my post or in my reply. I simply quoted the article. These machines, as far as I know, use terahertz waves. If you don’t think they’re dangerous, tell that to the Los Alamos researchers who said they unzip DNA. You can say a lot of things are in nature, but we still put on a lead sheet when we get an x-ray, and we do that for a reason.

  6. get the facts said on January 23rd, 2010 at 10:12am #

    EM radiation is measured in power and frequency both are important. Unless the frequency is correct to cause a vibration in the DNA helix nothing will happen (it has to be precisely the same). Molecules are excited by radiation thats why we see colours as different wavelengths are absorbed or not. That absorption causes the molecule to vibrate. DNA is a bigger molecule so therfore has a longer frequency absorption, so not in the visible but the Thz. Depending on the power of the EM this also have an effect. Thz waves are also absorbed by water so cant penetrate the skin. Your DNA is damaged every day you wash, molecules broken up. You sit in the sun you get a tan. These machines do not use Thz radiation as the only Thz scanner available only scans passively ie it emits nothing and only detects what the body naturally emits which is quite a lot.
    I am an expert in Terahetz radiation and a Phd in Applied physics and wish that people had a basic understanding of what radiation is. I have read the Los Alamos paper and its firstly just a mathematical model and also has no bearing whether these instruments are safe. Its a crazy extrapolation because this is expected, all radiation effects molecules in our body its one of the main principles of physics. We would be long dead if it caused us problems.

  7. Josh Fulton said on January 23rd, 2010 at 2:27pm #

    I have a Phd in Readology and once you write up a paper showing that there are no dangers to Terahertz waves, then I’ll read it, or at least take a look at it.

    Also, I have no idea why the paper would have no bearing on whether these things are safe if they’re saying “Terahertz waves can be dangerous,” and these things shoot Terahertz waves.

  8. get the facts said on January 23rd, 2010 at 6:26pm #

    the DONT shoot terahertz waves they recieve them only!!!! The only company that has close to Terahertz frequencies is Thru vision http://www.thruvision.com/Safe_Technology/Safe_Technology.htm
    Living warm things emmit Thz thats how the scanners work. There is no radiation getting to you other than the amount in the room already. The dangers of Terahertz depends on the power. As I mentioned a person emits about 1 Watt of THz (read up on “thermal radiation” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermal_radiation ). Terahertz at these kinds of levels are safe as they are all around us. If someone invents a high power device that can emmit 100′s of Watts then there might be an issue. Same as a laser gun could burn you but not a light bulb.
    Gosh this is school boy science. Its radiation not radioactivity there is a difference.

  9. Josh Fulton said on January 24th, 2010 at 1:28pm #

    Oooook. Sorry. You make interesting points. I’ll check those out. Thanks for the info.