What Are TSA Backscatter or Body Imaging X-Ray Machines at Airports?

What Travelers Should Know About TSA Security Body Imaging

TSA MIllimeter Wave Picture - TSA Backscatter Body Imaging Picture - image from the TSA Showing Body
••• TSA Millimeter Wave Picture (Xray Body Imaging Image). © TSA

The TSA installed backscatter, or body imaging X-ray, or millimeter wave images machines at airports across the United States only to remove all of them a few years later in favor of machines that are less intrusive.

The body imaging, or millimeter wave imaging machines, or TSA scanners used scan a passenger on all sides and transmit the image of the passenger's body, without clothing, to a TSA agent who was seated 50-100 feet away from the TSA scanner.

The object was to identify concealed (purposely or not) metal, plastics, ceramics, chemical materials and explosives via millimeter wave technology.

The TSA scanner images produced by the body scanning were not saved or printed, according to the TSA. They had this to say about privacy and your body parts:

"For additional privacy, the officer viewing the image is in a separate room and will never see the passenger and the officer attending to the passenger will never see the image. The officers have 2-way radios to communicate with other in case a threat object is identified."

People complained about their privacy being violated despite these reassurances and so the backscatter machines have since been replaced by Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines. These provide the TSA officer with a generic outline of a body in a cartoon style, with any suspicious objects colored in yellow to indicate where they are on the person's body.

They can then either let you pass through and collect your things if nothing is detected, or give you a patdown is something shows up. You can see an example of what the office will see on their screen here.

Are The New Machines Safe?

Yes. The AIT machines are millimeter wave scanners, just like you'd find in your cell phones.

If you're happy to use a cellphone, you shouldn't have a problem passing through these scanners. 

And in terms of security, the AIT machines are just as accurate as the backscatter machines, if not more so. The AIT scanners use an algorithm to automatically detect metals and other suspicious objects, removing the likelihood of human error. 

Do You Have to Use Them?

Not if you don't want to. 

You can choose to opt out of the full-body scan, but bear in mind that you'll be treated with suspicion if you do so -- especially if you're not opting out for health reasons. You'll be given a pat down by a TSA officer instead, and it's likely to be very thorough. Given that there's no health risk through using these scanners and the TSA can't see you naked when you pass through the AIT machines, there's no real reason not to use them. 

Do All Airports Have Full Body Scanners? 

Across the United States, 172 airports now have full-body scanners at airport security. You can see a full list of them in this article. Suffice to say, if you'll be traveling through a major U.S. city or airport, you can expect to have to pass through these scanners at security. 

What About Outside of the United States? 

It depends on the part of the world you'll be traveling through.

In Western Europe, for example, these scanners are extremely common and you'll likely find them in most major airports. The same goes for Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. 

Outside of the Western world, though, they're not as common. In most parts of the world, you'll just have old school metal detectors scanning you. 

In the Philippines, I came across an airport with no security scanners. Instead, the security official, grabbed my bag, shook it, and asked me what was inside. When I told him it was just clothes and toiletries, he nodded, and let me pass through! I wasn't sure if that was a good or bad thing.