THE BACKSCATTER BACKSTORY
By Joe Brancatelli
December 14, 2011 -- Travel tradition dictates that this is the week when business travelers cede control of the nation's airports to holidaymakers who no longer get to grandmother's house by going over the river and through the woods. And just like the big bad wolf, the TSA has a nasty surprise for all those innocent holiday flyers.
On Monday, the agency announced that 16 more airports will get the full-body scanners that first caused an uproar last holiday season. Coupled with last month's deployment of "nude-o-scope" scanners in nearly a dozen other cities, there are now more than 500 of what the agency calls "advanced imaging technology" (AIT) units in operation at more than 100 airports.
But I do bring you limited, government-approved, and totally conditional tidings of comfort and joy: The new scanners are of the "millimeter wave" variety, a much less controversial system than the so-called "backscatter" X-ray machines that dominated the initial TSA deployment of full-body imagers.
Why does that gobbledygook terminology matter? Because in the nearly two years since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab unsuccessfully stuffed his shorts with explosives and the TSA moved AIT devices to the front lines of airport security, the debate over the full-body scanners has shifted dramatically.
In the months immediately after the Underwear Bomber tried to strike on Christmas Day 2009, the argument centered on the ability of the new scanners to better detect terrorists. By Thanksgiving Day 2010, the argument was over privacy: Were the "nude-o-scope" images too revealing? Was the TSA inappropriately "groping" passengers who invoked their rights to decline to pass through the scanners?
But now that the government has switched to a less-invasive type of imaging software and courts have ruled that scanners are legal, lots of folks are questioning the safety of the backscatter X-ray units.
Do they subject flyers to too much radiation each time they pass through the device? Are they dangerous when the cumulative effect after many security scans are considered? Has the TSA known all along that the backscatter scanners were unsafe? Why won't the agency allow an independent study of the devices? Are the devices calibrated properly? Does anyone even know how much radiation the backscatter units actually emit during each scan?
I can tell you with confidence that I have no idea what the truth really is. I'm no doctor, and I don't play one in this column. I'm not a scientist, either. And there is so much conflicting evidence that it is impossible for even a well-informed business traveler to get a handle on the controversy. Besides, I'm not even a well-informed business traveler in this particular matter. Everything I "learned" about radiation came from a scary episode of the Outer Limits. I saw it when I was 10 years old, and the mere mention of radiation reminds me of Warren Oates' spooky, bug-eyed, cue-ball-bald mutant.
I can relate to the prevailing narrative, though. A lot of business travelers think backscatter scanners are bad for their health, and they can cite a plethora of scientific and anecdotal evidence to support their suspicion. (Just Google "backscatter x-ray" and start reading.) And they'd rather submit to the full-metal-grope from a TSA screener than voluntarily walk through a backscatter X-ray imager.
"My doctor told me they're dangerous, and that's enough for me," says Sylvia Religter, who flies about 75,000 miles a year. "[My doctor] says that she won't go through them when she goes to the airport, so why should I?"
The no-backscatter brigade can also point to last month's decision by the European Commission to ban backscatter scanners at airport checkpoints in the 27 European Union countries. The machines were barred "in order not to risk jeopardizing citizens' health and safety."
If you're unaware of the backscatter backstory, you can get a surprisingly cogent and dispassionate overview at Wikipedia. I don't usually take Wikipedia at its word, of course, but when we're talking about things like ionizing radiation, where else are we going to turn for a plain-English explanation? After all, this stuff is the airport equivalent of rocket science, and most of us will never get the finer points. However, here's the oversimplified Seat 2B summary: The X-rays that the backscatter imagers emit have enough energy to cause a DNA mutation, and that could lead to cancer. As I said, real Outer Limits stuff.
Thankfully, if you're spooked by backscatter scanners, there is good news: You can identify them at the airport fairly easily. They're the devices that require you to stand between two large (usually blue) boxes. The less-controversial millimeter-wave units, which rely on radio-frequency scans, look like a round telephone booth.
What does the TSA say about the approximately 250 backscatter machines that they deploy? They insist, with bureaucratic certainty and regulatory rigidity, that they are perfectly safe. The agency even goes to great lengths to provide reams of support material. It also claims that all sorts of other federal agencies have declared both backscatter and millimeter-wave scanners are harmless.
As usual with the TSA, however, there is room for skepticism.
For starters, the agency's major piece of supporting evidence for the safety of backscatter devices is literally written by the primary manufacturer of the devices. But the company, Rapiscan Systems, has political credibility problems. Days after the Underwear Bomber struck, former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff went on a media blitz touting the value of the backscatter devices. He never disclosed that the first ones were ordered when he was secretary of Homeland Security, the parent agency of TSA. Nor did he disclose that his eponymous consulting firm once worked for Rapiscan.
As for all those other government agencies and august independent bodies that the TSA cites as having endorsed backscatter technology? More than a few critics have punched holes in those claims.
If you're wary of backscatter scanners, however, you might be most concerned with the TSA's refusal to submit the devices to independent testing. Even after he promised a Senate committee last month that he would conduct a study of the heath effects of the scanners, TSA administrator John Pistole reneged. His rationale? A new report was available from the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security. But that report has yet to be made public.
At the end of the day—or, more accurately, before you take your next flight—you'll have to make your own decision on whether to submit to backscatter scanners. Whichever choice you make, there will be plenty of "evidence" to support your conclusion.
Me? I go through backscatter scanners because I'm too lazy to object or too time-pressed to wait around for the TSA pat-down. But I fully understand if you take the advice of your doctor or your astrologer or your next-door neighbor and skip them—or just have visions of a bug-eyed Warren Oates from an old TV show dancing in your head.
The Fine Print…
A followup to last week's column on hotel financing: Sol Kerzner, the impresario behind the Atlantis resorts in the Bahamas and Dubai, Sun City in South Africa, and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, is the latest loser. Kerzner's company disclosed last week that it will forfeit the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island after failing to refinance its debt. The company is also selling its 50-percent interest in the Atlantis in Dubai.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2011 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.