Our friends at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have a new device to help better detect dangerous objects passengers might sneak on flights. Using “millimeter wave” body imaging, the TSA can see what’s under any passenger’s clothes. Luckily, the machine being used is large enough that the traveler has to step inside it. (I fear the day technology reduces it to the size of those creepy x-ray specs you see on the backs of comic books.)
According to this CNN article, this type of security is secondary to the usual metal detectors we’re so fond of. Only after the initial screening process will randomly selected people be subject to the wave machine (that name makes it sound relaxing, no?). Anyone reluctant to try the machine can opt for a pat down instead.
Why the other option? Well, it seems that the machine can see everything going on underneath your clothes. The photo on the TSA millimeter wave tech page seems a bit revealing—perhaps some people won’t like being viewed in all their scanned glory. Luckily, the image is not stored for future use, and the person doing the viewing is in a remote location, unable to see the traveler, whose face is pixilated for privacy.
This kind of reminds me of a joke I heard decades ago from a Japanese stand-up comic (wish I could think of his name, and I'm pretty sure he was Japanese):
The Japanese comic went skinny-dipping with two of his American friends. After they got out of the water, before they could get dressed, a group of women approached. The two Americans quickly grabbed their towels and wrapped them around their waists. The Japanese man threw the towel over his head.
After the women passed, the Americans asked why he did that. He told them, “In my country, we’re recognized by our faces.”
Thank you. I’m here all night. Try the veal.
Personally, I’m not too offended by this technology. We all suspected it would happen sooner or later, right? It seems quick and easy (it takes about five seconds according to the videos on the tech page). What irks me the most is the description of what this technology detects:
“Metallic or non-metallic devices and objects are displayed, including weapons, explosives and other items that a passenger is carrying on his/her person.”
“Metallic or non-metallic items…” What other kind is there?
“…weapons, explosives and other items…” So…everything, right?
Of course, the big concern is that the machines will emit ultra-thick levels of harmful radiation. After all, if the baggage X-ray machines can destroy film and make entire valuable personal items completely vanish, what kind of radioactive power is needed to see everything under our clothes, including our metallic and/or non-metallic devices and firmly-chiseled buttocks?
According to the TSA tech page, not much. According to the picture they provide, the machine emits less radio frequency energy than televisions, boom boxes, the sun (on a partly cloudy day), or people spitting on their cell phones.
So we’ll see how well this works out. Perhaps it’s a good thing. Maybe it will even replace the machines used now. Sure, we complain about our privacy, but maybe we need to trade in a little remotely-viewed partial nudity for some quicker moving lines once this takes off. Rather than having to remove our shoes while standing and guarding our plastic tray we swiped off the conveyor belt from an x-ray machine that’s not being used because no one is bringing the empty trays back to where the people need them, perhaps we can simply get scanned in 1/800th of the time and get on with our travels (which may or may not include sitting at the terminal for hours on end since our flight was ultimately canceled). Perhaps this is just the boost we need to view airport screenings with less disdain than we normally reserve for dentist visits, politicians, and the DMV.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to pick up a copy of the Buns of Steel Workout on DVD. And a lead jock strap.
Thanks to Catherine Bodry's Gadling article for the tip!