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Fact Check: Once Upon a Time, TSA Full-Body Scans Showed 'Everything.' That's No Longer the Case

TSA body scans.
TSA/Public Domain

Claim:

Full-body imaging machines used by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) show a person’s private parts whenever they “walk through the X-ray scanner.”

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Rating: Outdated

Context:

The image above showing examples of TSA full-body scans is authentic and was captured using the agency's backscatter unit, hundreds of which were installed in U.S. airports in 2010. The devices were removed nationwide by 2013, however.

 

According to an illustrated X (formerly Twitter) post dated Jan. 18, 2024, the Transport Security Administration (TSA) “can see your c*ck and b*lls whenever you walk through the X-ray scanner.” The post (screenshot below) received hundreds of thousands of views before it was hidden by the user. An archived version still exists.

TSA body scans
TSA body scans

(@Ragland1836 / X)

Though the image included in the post was genuine, Snopes determined through a reverse-image search using Yandex (archived) that the earliest known instance of the photo on the internet was posted in 2010. Posts similar to the one above have circulated for many years.

At that time (2010), TSA was rolling out its new body-scanning technology, the so-called "backscatter unit."

“Backscatter technology projects low level X-ray beams over the body to create a reflection of the body displayed on the monitor,” explained TSA in a “How It Works” blog, noting that the technology "produces an image that resembles a chalk etching.”

By the end of 2010, hundreds of “full-body scanners” were formally installed at U.S. airports, according to TSA. Such units were used to detect non-metallic weapons explosives and other threats that could be concealed under clothing to evade traditional metal detectors already in place.

“Backscatter passenger scanners are used to detect threats such as weapons or explosives that a person could be carrying under their clothing. Backscatter machines use very low energy x-rays that are reflected back to the machine itself,” wrote the Environmental Protection Agency in a digital explainer.

“Generally, the amount of radiation received from a backscatter machine equals the amount of cosmic radiation received during two minutes of flight and the risk of health effects is very, very low.”

Handouts distributed at the time indicated that images voluntarily collected were “viewed in a remote location” and were not saved or stored, but rather were immediately deleted “after review and resolution of any anomaly.”

But backscatter scanners were short-lived. Deemed by some as “digital strip searches,” the machines were removed from U.S. airports after users expressed concern over the lack of privacy. TSA, on the other hand, noted that the scanners slowed down security checkpoints. Millimeter-wave technology similar to those commonly used in airports at the time of this publication replaced the backscatter scanners, offering a more cartoon-like (i.e., less revealing) image of people as they passed through the scanners.

Sources:

Center, Electronic Privacy Information. EPIC - Whole Body Imaging Technology and Body Scanners (“Backscatter” X-Ray and Millimeter Wave Screening). https://archive.epic.org/privacy/airtravel/backscatter/. Accessed 27 Jan. 2024.

Duffy, Lizzy. “‘Invasive’ Body Scanners Will Be Removed From Airports.” NPR, 18 Jan. 2013. NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/01/18/169733300/invasive-body-scanners-will-be-removed-from-airports.

Grabell, Michael. “TSA Removes X-Ray Body Scanners From Major Airports.” ProPublica, 19 Oct. 2012, https://www.propublica.org/article/tsa-removes-x-ray-body-scanners-from-major-airports.

---. “TSA Removes X-Ray Body Scanners From Major Airports.” ProPublica, 19 Oct. 2012, https://www.propublica.org/article/tsa-removes-x-ray-body-scanners-from-major-airports.

Https://Twitter.Com/Ragland1836/Status/1748203864845677028.” X (Formerly Twitter), https://twitter.com/Ragland1836/status/1748203864845677028. Accessed 27 Jan. 2024.

Transportation Security Timeline | Transportation Security Administration. https://www.tsa.gov/timeline. Accessed 27 Jan. 2024.

US EPA, OAR. Radiation and Airport Security Scanning. 15 Aug. 2017, https://www.epa.gov/radtown/radiation-and-airport-security-scanning.