Images of what Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers see on airport security monitors.


With all the hullabaloo over heightened airport security screening measures — full-body X-ray scans which sees through clothing or the rigorous physical pat-down for those who refuse to pass the scanning machine — Winnie Ner of Jersey City, N.J. is fidgety about her upcoming trip to the Philippines with her husband Rene.

“I think that machine will invade and violate my privacy,” Mrs. Ner said of the newly-implemented use of advanced scanners that essentially see everything, even a passenger’s privates, to make sure no one is hiding a weapon or explosives.

“But I don’t want people to touch me either,” Mrs. Ner said.

Knowing she has no choice but to give in to the security measures, Mrs. Ner said she would walk-through scanning machine — albeit with hesitation.

Makikita na lahat sa iyo, wala kang maitatago,” said Mrs. Ner, a retired United Nations employee, who is now with the Center for Migration Studies based in Manhattan. “Eh for security raw, what can I do? You just have to follow, or else.”

A group of New Jersey lawmakers joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Monday in asking Congress to review whether the X-ray devices lead to unreasonable search and seizure.

Sen. Jim Beach (D-Camden) said the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) must need to address the public apprehension and do something right away.

“Airport security is meant to make passengers feel better about flying, not humiliate them,” Beach said.

The Allied Pilots Association, which has 11,500 members and is the largest independent pilots’ union in the world, has liken the procedures to a “virtual strip search” and a “grope.”

And the travel group said it plans to boycott the full-body scanners, and will insist that pat downs take place in a private room with a witness present, according to USA Today.

The Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed a federal suit to block the scanners’ use, alleging they violate the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search.

But Secretary Janet Napolitano of the Department of Homeland Security emphasized the importance of the measures for safety purposes, and argued that the scanners — Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) units that help detect concealed metallic and non-metallic threats — are “safe, efficient and protect passenger privacy.”

She also pointed out that the privacy of travellers is protected through “rigorous” safeguards.

“All images generated by imaging technology are viewed in a walled-off location not visible to the public,” Napolitano said. “The officer assisting the passenger never sees the image, and the officer viewing the image never interacts with the passenger. The imaging technology that we use cannot store, export, print or transmit images.”

“We ask the American people to play an important part of our layered defense,” Napolitano wrote. “We ask for cooperation, patience and a commitment to vigilance in the face of a determined enemy.”

Some also worry that the policies will add to airport wait time during the holiday travel season.

For Melinda Capinpin of Jamaica, N.Y., the health risks posed by the X-ray machines bother her.

She and her 11-year-old daughter Janina are flying next month to celebrate Christmas with her family clan in Quezon City, Philippines.

“I’m more worried about my daughter,” said Capinpin. “I don’t worry much about my privacy because I’m convinced it’s for the security of all passengers, but I worry about the possibility that my daughter will be exposed to radiation. ‘Yun ang nire-research ko ngayon.”

Napolitano on Monday said that the radiation levels are safe.

“The FDA [Food and Drug Administration], Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. Science and Standards Association have all measured the radiation involved in an AIT,” said Napolitano. “It’s almost immeasurable it is so small.”

But some scientists and two major airline pilots unions told CNN that not enough is known about the effects of the small doses of X-ray radiation emitted by one of the two types of airport scanning machines.

The TSA’s advanced imaging technology machines use two separate means of creating images of passengers — backscatter X-ray technology and millimeter-wave technology.

Reports said about 190 backscatter units and 152 millimeter-wave machines are now in use in more than 65 airports.

The total number of imaging machines is expected to near 1,000 by the end of 2011, according to the TSA.

According to CNN, while the TSA says the machines are safe, backscatter technology raises concerns among some because it uses small doses of ionizing radiation.

The use of millimeter-wave technology has not received the same attention, and radiation experts say it poses no known health risks.

The risk of harmful radiation exposure from backscatter scans is very small, David Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University and a professor of radiation biophysics, told CNN.

But he said he is concerned about how widely the scanners will be used.

“If you think of the entire population of, shall we say a billion people per year going through these scanners, it’s very likely that some number of those will develop cancer from the radiation from these scanners,” Brenner was quoted as saying.

Skin cancer would likely be the primary concern, he told CNN.

Each time the same person receives a backscatter scan, the small risk associated with the low dose of radiation is multiplied by the number of exposures.

Brenner said the risk to an individual is “very small indeed” for a single scan.

He said he is most concerned about frequent fliers, pilots and young people, because children are more sensitive to radiation.

Peter Rez, a professor of physics at Arizona State University, has independently calculated the radiation doses of backscatter scanners using the images produced by the machines.

“I came to the conclusion that although low, the dose was higher than they said,” he told CNN.

In April, four science and medical faculty members at the University of California, San Francisco, reportedly sent a letter to the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy expressing concerns about potentially serious health risks related to the X-ray scanners.

In the letter, they claimed there could be risks to children, senior citizens and women susceptible to breast cancer, as they urged for a clear screening policy for pregnant women once possible risks to the fetus are known.

The group demanded a review of data and recommendations for additional study by an independent scientific experts.

The Department of Health and Human Services recently provided a point-by-point response to their concerns, asserting that the potential health risks from full-body X-ray screening are “minuscule.”

The response cites expert analysis, reports and recommendations spanning two decades.

“As a result of those evidence-based, responsible actions, we are confident that full-body X-ray security products and practices do not pose a significant risk to the public health.”

Dr. Marc Shuman, a cancer expert and one of the concerned California professors, called the federal agency’s arguments “seriously flawed.”

Shuman told CNN there should be a moratorium on full-body scanning until further study is conducted.

Noted Fil-Am photographer Rene Ner of Jersey City said he believes the aggressive security measures are “the price we have to pay” in the wake of various threats to the lives of innocent people.

“We are in a strange era where people are exposed to all kinds of terror threats,” said Ner, who is spending Christmas with his wife Winnie and relatives at their Rockwell condominium in Makati City. “I think the government is not taking any chances.”

“At my age, I’m not bothered by the privacy concerns imposed by the scanning machines, or the health risks brought by the machines,” Ner added. “But I’m worried about the children who will be exposed to radiation, not to mention the more aggressive screening procedures.”