All About the TSA Body Scanner Image

By Jenny Green

What can be seen when I go through a TSA body scanner?

All About the TSA Body Scanner Image

Going through a Transportation Security Administration body scanner at an airport security checkpoint can be nerve-wracking. Passengers often aren't sure if the scanning is dangerous to their health, and they worry that the TSA agents are able to see them nude. In fact, TSA body scanners aren't dangerous, and agents see only a generic body outline.

TSA body scanner image

The TSA body scanning machine displays an image of a simple human form, not a picture of the scanned passenger without clothes. If the passenger is carrying something that could be a weapon, explosives, other threats to air travel security or contraband items, the scanner detects the objects and shows the location on the scanned body. Using this information, the TSA agent can take further steps, such as conducting a personal pat-down.

How a body scanner works

The TSA body scanner uses millimeter wave advanced imaging technology, or AIT. The scanner emits a special type of microwave called a millimeter wave, similar to the waves used in cell phone transmissions and radio broadcasting. Millimeter waves can penetrate clothes, but they bounce off skin and any concealed liquid or solid objects. A single scan takes about 10 seconds. Receivers pick up the rebounding waves, and software interprets the signals before displaying the information on a screen. The picture displayed isn't an image of the person who was scanned, but any suspicious items appear as a yellow box in the same area of the passenger's body where the scanner detected them.

Are body scanners safe?

TSA scanners meet U.S. national standards of health and safety. Like visible light, microwaves and radio waves, the millimeter waves that scanners emit don't affect biological molecules. Millimeter waves aren't X-rays, and they have no known effects on human health.

Alternatives to body scanning

Passengers who object to AIT body scanning can ask for an alternative screening. Usually, TSA agents will perform a personal pat-down in place of a body scan. Pat-downs can include the touching of sensitive areas of the body such as the genitals and buttocks, but agents touch these areas with the backs of their hands.

Very rarely, passengers are selected for advanced screening, and they don't have the option to refuse a body scan. The selection notification is printed on your boarding card.

About the Author

A graduate of Leeds University, Jenny Green completed Master of Arts in English literature in 1998 and has been writing about travel, gardening, science and pets since 2007. Green's work appears in Diva, Whole Life Times, Listverse, Earthtimes, Lamplight, Stupefying Stories and other websites and magazines.