An organization called EPIC is gaining traction by purposefully misleading the public about millimeter wave technology and posting images of backscatter on their website and calling it millimeter wave. Now there may even be Congressional action to get millimeter wave removed from the nation’s airports, which seems just crazy given that it is one of the first major improvements to checkpoint technology since the 1970s.

Aviation screening technology really hadn’t changed much between the 1970s and the last few years, when whole body imaging and AT X-Ray were introduced. Whole body imaging consists of millimeter wave — harmless radio waves that bounce off the body to create an image that looks like a robot, and backscatter that uses an X-ray.

Backscatter has not been as widely deployed because in its current form is too slow for use in primary screening (it takes about 40 seconds); moreover, the image without a privacy filter severely hampers the detection capability, making it unacceptable to the public based on privacy standards. You can see such an image on the EPIC website. They claim it is millimeter wave, but it is not.

Scare tactics aside, here is what a millimeter wave scan of an adult human being looks like:

TSA millimeter wave scan images

For a better understanding of the technology — how it works and how it impacts privacy — watch news coverage on 60 minutes and the Today Show.

Homeland Security technology advancements during the last administration were based on the premise that privacy and security are not mutually exclusive. You can have both, and a balance between privacy and security is needed in a post 9/11 world.

To that end the government has actively deployed millimeter wave whole body imaging for about the last 18 months. While I was at TSA, we worked to develop a meaningful balance between privacy and security that included the following measures:

  • Images would not be saved, stored, or transmitted
  • The TSO attending the passenger never sees the image
  • The TSO viewing the image never sees the passenger
  • Facial features on the image are blurred
  • Declining the technology is always an option

Why is whole body imaging needed? Because terrorism is still a real concern and we know from intelligence that terrorists will use plastics and other common items to make their explosives. Millimeter wave can see items (including non metallic items) hidden on the body without physical contact. It can also help people with hip and knee replacements avoid a mandatory pat down.  In fact when given the choice, passengers almost always choose a few seconds in the millimeter wave portal over the dreaded pat down.

Security is risked-based. It includes many layers, including confirming identity, behavior detection, and screening technology for people and things. In this post 9/11 world, millimeter wave is an effective tool in the toolbox that is a valued part of the security screening regime.

Ellen Howe is vice president of the Homeland Security Practice at Adfero Group, a public relations firm in Washington D.C. She headed Strategic Communications and Public Affairs at the Transportation Security Administration from 2006 until 2009.

  • Dave

    It’s still a disgusting and perverted technology. I don’t want to get strip searched every time I fly.

    What a waste of taxpayer money.

  • John Smyth

    Ms. Howe,

    The image you’ve posted is not of the same size, resolution, or level of detail that the TSA’s strip-search machines deliver. More accurate images can be seen here, albeit at a far smaller size than TSA would need to spot any “dangerous” items (such as the 0.6 ounces of lotion trumpeted on TSA’s own blog as proof of these machines’ efficacy). Please do try to be accurate in the future.

    Of course, it seems you’re not concerned in the slightest with accuracy, since you say “In fact when given the choice, passengers almost always choose a few seconds in the millimeter wave portal over the dreaded pat down.” This is an extraordinarily misleading statistic, since TSA goes out of its way to avoid providing passengers with accurate images of what the strip-search scans produce and often fails to tell people the strip-search is optional or uses the threat of retaliatory bag screenings to coerce unwilling citizens into the machines.

    That said, Ms. Howe, if you truly believe there’s nothing untoward about the government taking naked pictures of citizens — including children — why don’t you arrange with your old friends at TSA to be scanned and post the results here, on your web site, to show how innocuous these images are?

  • RB

    The TSA Privacy Impact Assessment states that brochures describing the MMW Strip Search screening process will be available to people before screening in order to gain their consent. of screening by the MMW Strip Search Machine.

    So where are these brochures?

    How can anyone have given consent to be screened by the MMW Strip Search Machines if TSA did not provide this information as required?

    The Congress is correct to limit the use of this disgusting machine.