The Thing About Full Body Scans
is that they are mostly a waste of resources and passengers’ time.
Update: Here’s a NY Times OpEd making this point with much more authority.
One of Miss Mussel’s other gigs is writing for an aviation security trade mag. The pages are glossy but the adverts are for things like cargo security scanners and anti-terror conferences; something I find simultaneously terrifying and fascinating.
The front of book section consists of a short piece from the editor and a list of all the incidents of violence and terrorism that happened in the previous two months. Considering how many flights takes off over a two month period, two pages of incidents is insignificant statistically. Even so, it is difficult not to feel a little bit afraid – in the moment at least.
The security industry is just like any other in that it has a vested interest in creating fear in order to justify the marketing and selling of new products. “Just to be on the safe side.” has to be the most expensive phrase ever uttered.
In all my assignments, the tension has always been between putting resources into preventing an incident that has an almost negligible likelihood of happening and making sure passengers aren’t harassed or delayed unduly. What is possible vs. what is probable.
Sure, I say negligible but what about that news report the other week? Plane crashes are the exception that prove the rule. They are reported in the news because they are so rare. How many times has Tom Brokaw reported on a car accident?
Let’s do a bit of math.
Most people, told their surgery carried a 1% chance of death wouldn’t think twice before hopping on the table. Let’s stick to that ratio and imagine that 1% of the 40 million passengers JFK airport handles each year were killed every 12 months in a terrorist-related incident. Not so many in the grand scheme of things, no?
Just 1% of annual JFK passengers dying would equate to 83 Boeing 747s going down every month (assuming 400 passengers each).
So, that’s 83 full airplanes every month from a single international airport.
According to planecrashinfo.com over the whole of the past decade, there have been fatal 101 plane crashes. 80 of these were the caused by pilot or grounds crew error.
Only 9 were down to hijacking, sabotage or being shot down; the same number of accidents as caused by the weather.
Perhaps security money would be better spent on developing robots to fly, load and maintain the planes.
The number of terrorist incidents that have led to fatality are much less then they were in the 70s and 80s, even when 9/11 is included. Whether that’s because security measures are better or there are less terrorists is a matter of opinion.
So. Fully body scans are unnecessary. But they’re here. What do you need to know about them?
In terms of radiation, the X-ray scanners emit levels that are practically negligible. A single scan from an airport x-ray machine is equal to a half-day in the sun, or more interestingly, less than 45 minutes on an airplane traveling at 39,000 feet.
To compare this with common medical X-rays, this scanner emits 0.35% the level of radiation of a regular abdominal X-ray.
Some people worry about the scanner operator seeing them naked. First of all, you’re not naked in the images. Second of all, as far as Miss Mussel knows, the person looking at the screen, can’t see you, so there is no connection to an actual person. Even if the technician could see you completely starkers, after looking at x-ray images all day, it stops becoming a body and is just an image. Ask any gynaecologist, esthetician, nurse, massage therapist or hooker.
And, speaking of naked, here’s one of my all time favourite speeches by Sam the Eagle.