Here’s What Airport Body Scanners Really See

They really are only looking for potential threats.

body scanner airport tsaCourtesy TSA

Going through airport security is a necessary safety step in the flying process. You can make it easier by wearing slip-on shoes and sporting as little metal jewelry as possible. But walking quickly through the scanners still brings up the question: what do airport body scanners really see? Find out more insider airport secrets.

The current body scanners the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) uses are Advanced Image Technology (AIT) scanners, according to Lisa Farbstein, a spokesperson for the Office of Public Affairs for the TSA. “They use millimeter wave imaging technology, which are harmless electromagnetic waves, to detect potential threats,” Farbstein says.

What do airport body scanners see?

A monitor shows a generic cookie-cutter-like outline of a person and highlights potential threats. It’s the same image no matter your gender, height, or body type, according to Farbstein. The scanner software recognizes metallic and non-metallic items hiding under clothing. The machine then processes an image using yellow boxes to point out any areas that may need additional screening, Farbstein says. If there’s no issue, a green “OK” appears on the screen without an outline or box. Travelers can see this image when they exit the scanner.

Do airport body scanners see me naked?

Before the AIT scanners were Rapiscan “backscatter” screening machines, and these machines use ionizing radiation or X-rays to scan the body, according to the Atlantic. “The problem with the earlier scanner is that they were showing too much intimate detail, essentially letting TSA employees see people naked,” explains Matt Pinsker, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, formerly with TSA’s Office of Chief Counsel in the department of Security Threat Assessment Operations. Backscatters are no longer in airports because of these explicit images, and airports took about 200 of those full-body scanners out since the company couldn’t update the technology for more privacy. Now, federal law requires privacy software filters for full-body scanners. That’s why a recently developed full-body scanner is going back to the drawing board, the LA Times reports.

For now, there are the AIT scanners, so no, the TSA won’t see you naked when you walk through security.

Emily DiNuzzo
Emily DiNuzzo is an associate editor at The Healthy and a former assistant staff writer at Reader's Digest. Her work has appeared online at the Food Network and Well + Good and in print at Westchester Magazine, and more. When she's not writing about food and health with a cuppa by her side, you can find her lifting heavy things at the gym, listening to murder mystery podcasts, and liking one too many astrology memes.