By Ken Hegan for MSN Travel

Exposed yourself in a major US airport lately?

Not for much longer, as the TSA is quietly removing its most invasive X-ray machines.

The full-body X-ray scanner is called the Secure 1000 or, as the TSA calls it, a ‘backscatter’. It looks like two enormous, 6.5-feet-high stereo speakers that basement stoners would crank to 11.

I’ve spread for backscatters in JFK and LAX and it ain’t pretty. Guards order you to hold your hands over your head like you’re a surrendering criminal / war loser. Then the X-ray machines scan through your clothes to reveal your naked flesh.


A woman (who refused to be identified) assumes the position for the backscatter X-ray. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Lovely inventions, they are, and privacy advocates hate them. Yet the TSA rolled them out nationwide four years ago, shortly after the failed underwear bombing on Christmas Day 2009 (and god knows, nothing’s more disgusting than ‘failed underwear’).

But now it turns out the TSA is removing the Secure 1000 scanners from four of America’s busiest public airports.

According to a story in ProPublica, the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) removed these scanners from Boston’s Logan Airport earlier this month, and is removing similar scanners from LAX in Los Angeles, Chicago O’Hare, and JFK airport outside Manhattan.

“Why?” you might ask.

Backscatter 2
A TSA employee demonstrates the joy of X-ray scanning.  AP Photo/Matt York

Is it because the scanners are made by a company with the disturbing name Rapiscan? No, it’s not that.

First off, each airport is replacing the scanners with X-ray machines that ProPublica says produce a “generic, cartoon image of a person’s body” which mitigates privacy concerns. These replacement machines are also safer because they use low-level radio waves.

For years, radiation experts have warned that the Secure 1000 scanners are unsafe. Apparently these scanners emit a “small dose of ionizing radiation” which, at higher levels, has been linked to cancer in humans. Before they were installed, experts predicted between six and 100 American airline passengers would get cancer from these machines each year, out of 100 million travellers exposed to them.

European airports refused to install the Secure 1000 scanners. Meanwhile, it seems the TSA read those cancer statistics, found their own statistics that questioned these findings, and installed the scanners anyway.

But here’s the thing … the TSA is not removing the scanners because they cause cancer. Instead, they’re removing the scanners because they’re too slow. Each time the machine scans someone, a guard has to inspect the X-ray image to look for weapons, drugs, or stacks of money duct-taped to your naked torso. It’s a plodding process that can cause long lines and delayed flights.

In other words, the TSA is removing these scanners because they’re too slow at giving people cancer.

Fortunately, the TSA is taking the scanners away and destroying them forever (like evil Terminator robots) so noone will die at their hands again. Right?

Nope. The TSA is simply moving these scanners to smaller American airports. You know, the kind of relaxed, friendly, regional airports that could only be improved by adding long, cancer-causing lineups.

Good luck with that.

— Ken Hegan


BING: learn more about backscatter X-ray technology

Read all Ken’s stories here

Twitter: @KenHegan