For those about to opt-out: a TSA scanning machine cheat-sheet

As Cory notes in this pre-Thanksgiving travel day post, some travelers in America will be opting out of scanning machines in TSA lines for privacy concerns, or for health and safety reasons. I wanted to post a reminder, however, that there is more than one type of so-called "TSA full-body scanner" at use in our nation's airports, and not all of them emit ionizing radiation.

This PBS NewsHour story by Miles O'Brien (which I worked on, as a shooter/producer) breaks it down.

Here's the deal: The devices branded "Rapiscan" that look like a blue box are the backscatter devices. These are the controversial devices that emit ionizing radiation (though exactly how much, and whether that's safe, is debatable). They also store and transmit very clearly invasive images of your naked body.

The millimiter wave machines made by L3 that look like a Tardis do not emit ionizing radiation. By all means, go ahead and opt out of those too, if privacy and civil liberties are your primary concern and you believe these searches violate your rights. But the Rapiscan devices are the ones that cause radiation exposure health concerns, not the L3 millimeter wave devices.

Again, the Rapiscan backscatter machines (which cost our government around $200K each) are the ones that emit ionizing radiation and create an invasively clear image of your body ("pornoscanners"). The L3 millimeter wave devices do not.

As ProPublica reports, the Rapiscan devices are quietly disappearing from major airports in the US and showing up in storage warehouses. Nobody in the civilian world is really certain what's going on, but it does appear that the TSA/DHS are retiring the Rapiscan devices for which we taxpayers paid billions.

(Thanks for the explainer, Miles O'Brien!)


  1. Waitaminnit. . .  the device that is more dangerous and more thoroughly violates your privacy is called a “Rapiscan?”

    A marketing department somewhere actually thought that was a good name?

    I can only assume that these devices will eventually be running for office as republicans.

    1. where do you live, I have seen the L3 devices all over Europe (schipol, amsterdam, only used these no metal detectors) and Canada

      * sorry i said the rapiscan I meant the L3

      1. Where besides Schipol have you traveled in Europe? I haven’t seen either one of these in Paris-Charles De Gaulle, Brussels, Charleroi, Zurich, Geneva, Krakow, Prague, Milan-Malpensa, Frankfurt, Malta, or Valencia in the past few years.

  2. Thanks for the info, I think I have only ever seen the L3 ones, but I have only been in a handful of airport security lines over the past few years.

  3. As I write this I sit at my departure gate in the Omaha airport, having just opted out of a Rapiscan backscatter. I was given a thorough pat down by a very courteous agent, and as I stood there in the middle of the concourse, arms outstretched, palms pointed up towards heaven, I was amused to notice that I was completely unashamed. Rather, I was pleased to notice people watching. When the agent was finished, we both wished each other a happy Thanksgiving and I went on my way.

  4. Sorry, I got lost on the Tardis reference, because the Blue boxes remind me more of a Tardis than the grey metal unit.  Took me a while to figure out what was what.

    1. How about “The millimiter wave machines made by L3 that look a bit like a miniature version of the Hulk’s cage from The Avengers do not emit ionizing radiation” and “The devices branded ‘Rapiscan’ that look like a pair of TARDISes are the backscatter devices.”?

    2. Yeah.  There is actually nothing about the L3 that should remind anyone of a Tardis.  I’m guessing there was some mixup in the descriptions in writing or editing the article – considering the Tardis is known to be, specifically, a blue box.

  5. There are good physical reasons to opt out of millimeter wave – we don’t know squat about their long-term effects.

  6. The link to the L3 machines is to their actual manufacturer.  Can someone either explain here or offer a good third-party link to show how it is these are not radiation-based or otherwise medically problematic?

    While I also object due to a respect for civil liberties, my personal concern is medical, so I would really like to know if I’ve been opting for a lot of unnecessary pat-downs in avoiding these machines.  (Probably still will, because of the civil liberties issue, but still….knowledge is power.)

  7. Baaaaaht..I dooooon’t see anything Wrooooooong with it,…they are only trying to protect us,..baaah. Janet had her little lambs, little lambs…

  8. As someone who gave in and didn’t get a patdown one time, I’m relieved to learn that the machine I went through was the harmless (or at least less harmful) one. I don’t think I’ve even seen the blue boxes one in an airport before, though admittedly I only fly maybe once a year.

  9. If you are screened leaving Amsterdam heading for the USA, the operators of the screening equipment are contractors, not TSA. This means that they are accountable via the contracting airline, and not whatever accountability (!?) the TSA is. (Public shaming via videos on YouTube, it seems.)

    I have found on two occasions that the supervisor of the team employed by KLM in Schiphol was rude and resistant to me exercising my rights to  opt for a hand search. (Example, “You need to wait here for a pat down. May I go check your baby (who’s already on the other side, alone)”, “No, please search me first so I can come be with you and the baby.”, “What, you don’t trust us?”, “?!?”.)

    It is imperative when this kind of thing happens that travelers file a formal, written complaint with the contracting airline, so that the security firm can be corrected (or better yet, FIRED).

    Thanks for helping me get some respect for myself and my family,


  10. mm waves unzip DNA – we know that for a fact (google for the paper).  We don’t know yet what the long-term effects of that are.  I know, let’s experiment on the entire population!

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