Bye-Bye to the Rapiscan Backscatter Machines

By James Fallows

Good news from our friends at TSA: they are getting rid of the hated (by me) Rapiscan "backscatter" screening machines like the one shown at right. These are the scanners in which you stand between two big, opaque boxes, raise your hands, and have X-rays shot at your body. The systems measure the "backscatter" radiation that reflects back from hard and soft surfaces on your body and clothing. Radiation in such backscatter systems is much weaker than medical X-rays, which are of course meant to go right through your body. Still, it is ionizing radiation, which is guilty until proven innocent in terms of possible health effects. 

The TSA had decommissioned about one third of its Rapiscan systems already and now will get rid of the rest. Details from BBW and, with additional tech details, from Wired. I've gone through these systems only once during their roughly two-year run. That was at (surprise!) Dulles airport last year, where I'd edged my way over to the metal-detector-only line but, seconds before stepping relievedly into the innocuous metal detector, I'd been waved over for a Rapiscan screening. I said "opt out," as I had in all previous Rapiscan encounters; I was taken through the metal detector (!) to a little holding pen to wait for "male assist"; and then I watched the clock tick on for 15+ minutes as departure time drew near. Every man has his breaking point, and missing the flight was mine. I knuckled under and meekly asked permission just to go through the machine.

The full-body screeners the TSA will now use are the "millimeter wave" scanners like this one from L-3. These I un-complainingly go through, although I am always darting my eyes around in search of a metal-detector-only line. (TSAStatus gives you crowdsourced info on what kinds of scanners are being used in different parts of different airports.) I don't mind the millimeter waves systems because, based on all the science I've heard of, the electromagnetic waves they use -- essentially, radio waves -- are innocent until proven guilty when it comes to health effect. (For a more skeptical view of the L-3 systems, see Lisa Simeone's TSA News Blog.)

The TSA appears to have pulled the plug on Rapiscan principally because of concerns about privacy rather than about health. In specific, Rapiscan could not meet the TSA's schedule for designing new Congressionally mandated privacy-protecting software. For my money, passage of such a mandate should raise Congress's approval rate from about 12% all the way up to 14% or 15%. Whatever the impetus, this is a positive step.

I've now had increased experience with the government's "trusted traveler" ID system. Despite my shifty eyes, I have now qualified for a "trusted" card. This system deserves more careful discussion, which I'll try to do soon; mainly it's another positive step. For the moment, let's recognize a rare reversal of the otherwise-ever-advancing ratchet of security-theater measures. And adios to Rapiscan.

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