TSA Begins Testing Security Without a Metal Detector


Pop quiz: Where is the one place in the continental United States where you’ll never be asked to walk through a metal detector before boarding a commercial aircraft? The answer is . . . Tulsa. Yes, the people of Tulsa can now rejoice; there’s finally something interesting going on there. The TSA is testing Millimeter Wave technology, and that means no more metal detectors (unless you want one).

The Millimeter Wave is a controversial device, though I’m all for it. It’s actually a better security device than a metal detector because it catches more than just metal. When you walk into a Milimeter Wave machine, it scans you and shows the outlines of foreign objects to the screeners. In one example, a passenger had left a credit card in her back pocket and the machine picked it up. This means that it can pick up non-metallic explosives as well. It’s also excellent news for people with metal screws or other non-native parts in the body, since those can be detected without the dreaded pat down.

You won’t be surprised to know that there are those who hate this idea. Some say that it’s too revealing and it’s an invasion of privacy because you see an outline of the person’s body parts, but I think it looks sufficiently vague to me. Here’s a sample view courtesy of Travelin’ Librarian via Flickr:

Millimeter Wave images

But for those Tulsa fliers who remain offended by this device, you can opt for a metal detector and pat down instead. Others are worried about the amount of time it takes – certainly longer than a metal detector. That’s a very valid complaint, and it means the TSA is going to need to adjust the number of machines it uses. I suppose that’s why they’re doing this test.

If anyone flies through Tulsa, let me know how it goes. In the next few weeks, this will also be coming to San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake City so more people will have the chance to try it out. I welcome this with open arms. What about you?

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32 comments on “TSA Begins Testing Security Without a Metal Detector

  1. I don’t know about you, but considering “Hands Up!” is a phrase we all know and relate to the police, seeing these pics of people with raised hands feels a bit alarming…

  2. CF:
    I have totally disagree with you on this one.

    I travel about 100K miles a year and I know that the most likely place for me to miss my plane is at the TSA Choke (I mean check) point. Adding a device that takes 15 – 30 seconds to screen a person will only aggravate this problem.

    Additionally, since these machines are MUCH more expensive than the typical metal detector, it is very likely that there will be fewer of them per airport. Hum… fewer screening devices and a longer time to screen each individual? Sounds like I should arrive at the airport the night before just to make my flight!

    And since we all know how “mature” the average TSA agent is… I can bet they will be have to spend extra time viewing the outline of an attractive woman just to make sure she is “not carrying concealed weapons”.

    This will be a great commercial for business flying where this type of nonsense hopefully won’t exist.

    Please reconsider your being “all for it”. Buisness travel is hard enough.

  3. Keith – My “being all for it” is certainly dependent upon the length of the security line not increasing. If they are unable to install enough machines to make the line manageable, then I will absolutely reverse my support. But the TSA knows they have to do that. We’ll see what happens after this test.

  4. CF
    Thanks for the response…. but do the math….

    Even if the TSA replaced all metal detectors on a one for one basis (a pretty daunting feat since the M-Wave detectors are larger, require more space/power and are more expensive) you go from the 1 second or less per passenger (assuming no alarm) with the current metal detectors to the 15 to 30 seconds per person for ALL passengers. I do not see how the time to clear security will not be increased.

    I think all it will do is add more ‘theatre” to the “security theatre”

  5. I support this. That being said, I have a couple of questions/concerns:

    In its infancy, I sense that this technology will experience lots of growing pains, especially in Las Vegas, where security is a circus in the first place (although over Thanksgiving, it seemed that they had streamlined their process a bit, which was a good sign). I can only assume that these machines cost quite a bit more than metal detectors, so unless some of those stimulus $$$ are being used to purchase them in mass quantities, I’m wondering where the funding will come from to provide enough machines to keep the lines moving, plus ample training for the already marginally competent TSA staff, plus extra metal detectors for those who don’t wish to be “exposed.” Will we be seeing Asia- and Latin America-style pay-as-you-go airport taxes in the near future? I certainly hope not.

    Also, will we still be required to remove shoes and belts? If not, then this alone will save the at least 15-30 seconds, making actual time through security a virtual wash between the old and new systems. If so, then they will have to find a way to crank people through at a reasonably fast pace.

    If they can get everybody through security in a reasonable amount of time and do it affordably, then I am all for the implementation of this technology. I don’t see how an argument against this technology on moral or invasion-of-privacy grounds holds water if everybody has the option of using a traditional metal detector anyway.

  6. I posed the question to a TSA spokesperson and he says that “At the present time these machines or their use have not negatively impacted security wait times. Each scan takes a matter of seconds.” Scan time is only a piece of the equation, of course, so the whole point of a test like this is to see if it will, in fact, be a problem. So far, so good.

  7. I am all for Security, Especially this Millimeter Wave Technology.
    In my opinion this technology is not an “Invasion Of Privacy'”, Security should always be our number one priority.

  8. Judy – the view of security always being the number one priority over privacy of the individual sounds sounds like some people in central Europe who ended up causing a lot of trouble for the rest of the world in the 1940s

  9. CF

    While I respect your optinions, can you actually believe anything that a TSA spokesperson says?

    Ask them exactly what science they have that proves this is harmless.

    Ask then if you can see actual images of them and their families, not just the same image they have been pushing on their so-called blog for the last 6 months. After all, if it is harmless and non-invasive, you seeing live images of their their families should not be a problem. Right?

  10. Frank – Well considering I have nothing else to go on, yes, I do. If significant delays arise, will the media not jump on it quickly? Absolutely. So until there’s harder proof out there, I have nothing else to go by.

    I really don’t care to see images of them and their families. Nor do I expect them to surrender their privacy any more than we do ours. The image is displayed in a secure area and once it is viewed, it is immediately deleted. Do I know this for a fact? Can I say I’ve inspected every hard drive they have to know if they’re keeping images? No. But I’d rather not concoct conspiracy theories for something that really doesn’t bother me. Now the second we see an image show up on the internet, the backlash will be so violent that this project will be killed. I just don’t think it’s going to happen. I have other things to worry about.

  11. My understanding is that this new technology will cost a lot of money to implement at airports round the world.

    Can somebody please demonstrate the real benefits of this ? In 1999, security at US airports was a joke – I was astonished at being able to carry a big suitcase to an international gate at JFK without even having to show a boarding pass. Since 2001, airport security has become much tighter – the incidence of fatalities from weapons in the air is extremely low.

    The money for this ultimately comes either from the taxpayer, or passengers through higher airport fees. Why do we need to spend this money ?

  12. If it takes a bit longer to get through security until TSA gets the bugs worked out then so be it. Just plan to get to the airport earlier.

    I’d rather be delayed than dead.

  13. Rob – nobody wants to be dead…. but is society getting a little too jumped-up at the risk of a plane being deliberately blown up in the sky ?

    If we are concerned about a suicide bomber in the sky…. should we not also be concerned about a suicide bomber with a backpack in a busy shopping mall or a packed commuter train ? Does the New York subway need to have bomb detectors at the entrance to every station ?

    Ultimately – is this threat of airborne explosives genuine, or is it just imagined, and if it’s imagined, why are we spending all this money on it ?

  14. More security theater. Thank goodness our national fearfulness hasn’t extended to buses, trains and subways.

  15. I would only support this thing if: only a computer “reads” the scanned nudie pics; allowing the computer to flag the people with suspicious bulges/objects iin inappropriate cavities, etc. The flagged individuals will then be subject to search by a pat down or whatever other “feel good” security measure works. I suppose I would allow the images to be stored for a period of 30 days or whatever in case they are needed for investigations. The point is that no TSA or other folks should get their daily porn fix this way.

  16. I would agree that efficiency and speed are paramount before rolling this out. I’m sort of indifferent as to if I’d prefer it to metal detectors.

    However regarding privacy: The airport attire isn’t exactly the opera, and it’s not even “casual” anymore. I see spaghetti strap tops on girls, teens, and tweens, and overweight women busting out of tight tops and leggings. Men dress in beach wear and tank tops, and the shorts on middle age men allow – well a view into places you don’t want to see.

    Of course the midwest bundles themselves up more in the winter, but given what people wear across the south (Vegas to Florida) I really don’t see anything in these photos that I don’t see every day on the street. (Except a weird robotic looking butt crack.)

    Hence a lot of folks would be hyprocritical to pull the privacy card on these images…

  17. @Dave — I for one am grateful for Cranky to have provided me my early morning porn fix with the pictures up on top when I read this post ;)

  18. One thing to add too: I would be concerned if these images were being matched up to my name/boarding pass somehow. But to my knowledge the TSO viewing these blobs doesn’t know it’s me, and the goofy image isn’t related to my personal information at all. (I would DEFINITELY love to know if that changes – i.e. you have to scan your boarding pass immediately before screening.)

    If in the end it DOES speed up the screening process and allow for more thorough screening I wouldn’t mind. I’m far from a TSA fan, but unlike liquids and shoe removal this doesn’t appear to be theater.

    Some love to complain about the TSA and screening no matter what the circumstance or development, and there’s been enough to complain about, but it’s important to separate it from personal isolated events and not complain just for the sake of complaining.

  19. Rent the 1990 sci-fi movie Total Recall with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone, this ‘xray’ concept was done much better. While boarding a ship for their vacation on Mars all passengers at the spaceport walk through a security machine showing the X-rayed skeletons of commuters and their concealed weapons. TSA needs to work on their design so no one need worry about outlined shapes of body parts.

  20. For those who think the TSA will do this screening correctly, remember, these are the same people that have given us the 3 ounce (not 3.5 ounce) bottle, the 1 quart (NOT ANY OTHER SIZE) plastic bag, the x-ray of sandals that are barely a shoe and treating people in wheel chairs like they are the next Osama!

    If any of you believe that none of these pictures will be saved or uploaded to the web, just think how easy it would be for a TSA agent, in a closed room, by themelves, to take a picture of the screen with a cell phone camera. Any picture that can be electronically blurred can be electronically unblurred.

  21. They have this system at Schiphol Amsterdam and it did not significantly delay our boarding procedure when I was subjected to it. I think I have spotted one of these machines idling at Atlanta Hartsfield (I live in Atlanta) so I wonder if they are going to be part of the pilot program at some point as well.

    Having said that, we all know that the real security threat is the luggage/cargo we sit on top off on any given flight. And the lunatic with a surface to air missile from the back of his pick up parked close to the runway. But scan away… you never know what granny is smuggling this time…

  22. I’m sure this is the machine being used at RIC for those (like me) who always set off the WTMT due to metal body parts. I have been scanned by it on two recent flights from RIC. When so used I prefer it over the whole body wand and pat down I otherwise receive. It is much faster and less intrusive. Last time the scanner asked, “what’s in that side pocket”. I pulled out a handkerchief and folded paper money surrounded only by a rubber band.

  23. Maarten – They have already been testing these as secondary screening devices at a few airports, so that may be what you saw in Atlanta. This Tulsa test is the first time it’s been used as primary screening.

  24. I’d rather they spent the money on screening cargo AT ALL, before trying to screen passengers BETTER. Cargo is where the big security hole is.

  25. Interesting.

    I do think it is awfully revealing. How much freedom are you willing to give up for precious security.

    I realize our government’s job is to protect it’s citizens, but this country was built on freedom. Every little thing just chips away at the freedoms we enjoy.

  26. “How much freedom are you willing to give up for precious security.”

    I agree. It seems to me the terrorists have achieved their goal.

  27. Ok see here’s my gut response to this whole idea. I’m trans – while I may look like a guy, and while my legal name is Adam which is on all of my legal documents I still don’t have a penis. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, I look like a guy, but I could easily see going me (or any other trans person) going through this device and then setting off a red flag for a further, possibly humiliating, search.

  28. Even for non-trans, there could be a problem with “shrinkage.” Like George on Seinfeld, some people would be explaining away, “I was in the pool, I was in the pool…”.

    Here’s an idea…cross-sell this screening with a Doctor’s x-ray evaluation. A Doc can sit with TSA and examine the images. Who needs Open MRI’s, when we can just to the airport!

  29. Adam – That’s an interesting point. Not sure where your travels take you, but if you ever have an experience with this, please report back and let us know if you have any issues.

  30. I fly in and out of Tulsa every other week or so. They are only using it on one of the security lines, which I have yet to go through. The local news did a story on some people upset about it, though it didn’t really gain any traction.

  31. @ Keith:
    Tsa agents are threatened with instant termination if they attempt to save any pictures, or have a cellphone/camera in the booth or postany pictures.
    Overall it does take longer. Yes they see everything in your pockets including a post it note in my shirt pocket. They tell you a few dozens times to remove everything from your pockets. if you leave stuff in it slows down the line. I was laughing at this guy in front of me who removed a bin full of stuff complaigning about how long it took.

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