Remember when the airports started installing those radiation machines that are supposed to be more effective than metal detectors? People protested partly because they didn’t want security agents looking at images of them naked.
Apparently they were right to be worried.
A writer claiming to be a former TSA screener has described a bawdy, sophomoric atmosphere in the rooms where TSA agents view the images from the “backscatter x-ray full body scanners.” These rooms, called IO (image operator) rooms, have no surveillance cameras or recording devices so there will be no pictures of the bodies on the screens and no information about the machines’ operation will leak out to the bad guys. People must give notice and wait before entering the room so that they don’t see a passenger clothed, then walk into the IO room and see them naked: TSA guarantees that agents who see a naked image will never see the passenger in the flesh.
This is a perfect set-up for agents who want to act like asses and suffer no consequences. The former screener describes their behavior like this: “Personally, in the I.O. room, I witnessed light sexual play among officers…and a whole lot of officers laughing and clowning in regard to some of your nude images, dear passengers.”
In another post, the same writer describes TSA screeners as a group: “Thousands of kids fresh out of high school with minimal training [with] the power to put people into radiation machines and view their nude images; the descendants of entire generations of boys let down by empty comic-book promises of x-ray spec vision finally scoring.”
When you put it like that, it’s no wonder that things get nasty in the IO room.
Interestingly, TSA has started removing the backscatter machines from large airports, allegedly because they are too slow. An agent must look at an image of every individual who passes through one of these machines. TSA is replacing them with machines that alert agents to potential threats, so agents can skip the images that the machine doesn’t flag.
As far as the atmosphere in the IO rooms, the new “millimeter wave scanners” will render only “cartoon-like” images of people rather than accurate naked images, leaving dirty-minded agents with little to mock. On the other hand, they have a high false-positive rate — up to 54% in German airports – often caused by sweat or folds in clothing. In contrast, the backscatter machines have less than a 5% rate of false positives.
The old backscatter machines aren’t going away. Those removed from large airports will be installed in smaller airports, presumably because there is less risk of long lines and serious delays from slow machines where there are fewer passengers going through security.
If you do run into a backscatter machine, you can always request a pat-down instead. At least it’s out in the open where no one can laugh. On the other hand, it is a full-body feel-up. If you prize your physical privacy, your best bet is not to fly.