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Going through airport security can be stressful, especially when you have to walk through those mysterious scanners. What exactly are those machines seeing when you pass through them?

If you’re in a rush, here’s the quick answer: Advanced imaging technology scanners at airports create a cartoon-like outline of your body to check for concealed weapons or contraband without showing sensitive body parts.

Read on to learn all the details about what airport body scanners see and how the technology works.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explain the different types of scanners used at airport security checkpoints.

You’ll learn exactly what areas of your body are being scanned, what the TSA agent sees on their screen, and how the high-tech imaging software works to detect potential threats while protecting passenger privacy.

A Brief History of Airport Security Scanning Technology

Airport security scanning technology has come a long way over the years, evolving to become more efficient and effective in detecting potential threats.

Let’s take a closer look at the different types of scanners that have been used throughout history.

Metal Detectors and X-Rays

Metal detectors have been a staple of airport security for decades. These devices use electromagnetic fields to detect metallic objects on a person’s body or in their belongings.

They are effective at identifying weapons such as knives or guns, but they cannot detect non-metallic objects or substances.

X-ray scanners, on the other hand, use electromagnetic radiation to create images of a person’s body or their luggage

. These scanners can detect both metallic and non-metallic objects, making them more versatile than metal detectors.

They are commonly used to scan checked baggage, ensuring that no prohibited items are being transported on the plane.

Backscatter X-Ray Scanners

Backscatter X-ray scanners were introduced in the early 2000s as an advanced form of airport security scanning technology.

These scanners use low-level X-rays to create an image of a person’s body, revealing any hidden objects or substances.

The technology behind backscatter X-ray scanners has raised concerns about privacy and potential health risks, leading to their phased-out use in many airports.

According to a study published in the Journal of Radiological Protection, the radiation exposure from backscatter X-ray scanners is very low and poses no significant health risk to passengers.

Millimeter Wave Scanners

Millimeter wave scanners are the latest addition to airport security scanning technology.

These scanners use radio waves to create a three-dimensional image of a person’s body, highlighting any concealed objects or substances.

Unlike X-ray scanners, millimeter wave scanners do not use ionizing radiation, making them safe for all passengers.

Millimeter wave scanners have proven to be incredibly effective in detecting hidden objects, including weapons and explosives, without compromising passenger privacy.

These scanners are now widely used in airports around the world, providing an additional layer of security for air travel.

How Full Body Scanners Work

Full body scanners are an integral part of airport security systems, helping to ensure the safety of passengers and detect any potential threats.

These scanners use advanced technology to create detailed images of a person’s body, allowing security personnel to identify any concealed items that may pose a risk.

Backscatter X-Ray Scanners

Backscatter X-ray scanners are one type of full body scanner commonly used in airports. These scanners utilize low-energy X-rays to produce a detailed image of a person’s body.

The X-rays are projected onto the person’s skin, and the reflected rays are captured by detectors, creating a two-dimensional image.

The advantage of backscatter X-ray scanners is that they can detect both organic and inorganic materials, making them highly effective in identifying concealed weapons, explosives, and other prohibited items.

However, due to privacy concerns and the potential health risks associated with ionizing radiation, their use has become somewhat controversial in recent years.

Millimeter Wave Scanners

Millimeter wave scanners are another type of full body scanner commonly used in airports.

These scanners use radio waves with frequencies ranging from 30 to 300 gigahertz to create an image of a person’s body.

The radio waves are harmless and non-ionizing, making them safe for use.

Millimeter wave scanners work by emitting radio waves and measuring the reflections off a person’s body.

These reflections are then used to create a three-dimensional image, which is analyzed by security personnel.

The advantage of millimeter wave scanners is that they are less invasive and provide a more privacy-friendly alternative to backscatter X-ray scanners.

Computed Tomography Scanners

Computed tomography (CT) scanners are the latest addition to airport security technology.

These scanners use a combination of X-rays and computer processing to create highly detailed 3D images of a person’s body.

CT scanners can detect concealed items with remarkable accuracy, providing an enhanced level of security.

Unlike traditional X-ray machines, CT scanners produce cross-sectional images, allowing for a more detailed examination of a person’s body.

This technology can help security personnel identify even the smallest objects that may be hidden on a person’s body.

It’s worth noting that full body scanners are designed to prioritize passenger privacy.

The images produced by these scanners are usually viewed by security personnel in a separate location, and any potential threats are indicated on a generic avatar-like image rather than displaying the actual body of the passenger.

What Do the TSA Agents See on Their Screens?

Generic Avatar Images Protect Privacy

When TSA agents monitor the x-ray scanners, they do not see detailed images of the passengers’ bodies. Instead, they are presented with generic avatar-like images that protect individuals’ privacy.

These images show a basic outline of a human body with any potential threat items highlighted for further inspection.

The use of avatar images ensures that the privacy of passengers is preserved while still allowing security personnel to identify any potential risks.

Behavior Analysis and Threat Detection

TSA agents are trained to not only rely on technology but also on their observational skills. While monitoring the screens, they are trained to look for suspicious behavior or signs of potential threats.

This includes analyzing passengers’ body language, facial expressions, and interactions with others.

By observing behavior, TSA agents can detect potential threats that may not be identifiable through technology alone.

The TSA also employs advanced threat detection algorithms that analyze the images generated by the scanners.

These algorithms are designed to identify objects that may be concealed on a person’s body or in their luggage.

The technology takes into account various factors such as shape, density, and material composition to detect potential threats accurately.

In addition to the avatar images and behavior analysis, TSA agents also have access to real-time imaging technology that provides more detailed information about potential threats.

This allows them to better assess the nature and severity of any identified items and take appropriate action.

It is important to note that the TSA takes passenger privacy seriously and has implemented strict protocols to protect personal information.

The images generated by the scanners are not stored or transmitted, ensuring that individuals’ privacy is maintained throughout the screening process.

Controversies and Privacy Concerns with Airport Scanners

Health Risks

Airport scanners have become an integral part of the security process at airports around the world.

These scanners use advanced technology, such as millimeter-wave scanners or backscatter X-ray scanners, to detect hidden objects on passengers.

However, concerns have been raised about the potential health risks associated with these scanners.

Some studies have suggested that the radiation emitted by X-ray scanners could pose a risk to frequent travelers or individuals who are exposed to them on a regular basis.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has stated that the radiation levels emitted by these scanners are extremely low and are well within the safety limits set by national and international regulatory bodies.

In fact, the amount of radiation received during a scan is comparable to the amount of radiation received during two minutes of a flight at cruising altitude.

Therefore, the health risks associated with airport scanners are considered to be minimal.

However, it is important to note that pregnant women, children, and individuals with medical conditions may have specific concerns about the potential effects of radiation exposure.

In such cases, passengers have the right to request an alternative screening method, such as a pat-down search, instead of going through the scanner.

Privacy Violations

Another controversial aspect of airport scanners is the potential violation of privacy. These scanners produce detailed images of a person’s body, which some argue can be invasive and intrusive.

The concern is that these images can reveal personal information about a person’s body, such as their body shape, size, or even medical conditions.

To address these concerns, the TSA has implemented privacy measures to ensure that the images produced by the scanners are not stored, printed, or transmitted.

Instead, the images are viewed in a separate location and are immediately discarded after the screening process.

Additionally, the scanners now use automated target recognition software that generates a generic outline of a person’s body instead of producing a detailed image.

Despite these measures, some individuals still have reservations about the potential misuse of the images or the possibility of a breach in security that could lead to the images being leaked.

It is important to note that the TSA has strict protocols in place to protect the privacy of passengers and any unauthorized use or disclosure of these images is strictly prohibited.

Future Airport Security Technology

Airport security technology is constantly evolving to keep up with the ever-changing landscape of threats and challenges.

As airports strive to provide safer and more efficient travel experiences for passengers, several innovative technologies are being developed and implemented.

In this article, we will explore three key areas of future airport security technology: biometrics, artificial intelligence, and 3D scanners.


Biometrics refers to the measurement and analysis of unique physical or behavioral characteristics for identification purposes.

In the context of airport security, biometric technology is being used to enhance the accuracy and efficiency of identity verification processes.

This technology utilizes features such as fingerprints, iris scans, and facial recognition to accurately match individuals with their travel documents.

By implementing biometrics, airports can streamline the passenger screening process, reduce wait times, and enhance security measures.

According to a report by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), biometric technology is expected to be widely adopted in airports worldwide in the coming years.

In fact, some airports have already implemented biometric systems for certain processes, such as automated immigration control or self-boarding gates.

This technology not only improves security but also provides a seamless and hassle-free travel experience for passengers.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is revolutionizing various industries, and airport security is no exception.

AI-powered systems can analyze large amounts of data in real-time, enabling airports to detect potential threats and identify suspicious behavior more effectively.

These systems use machine learning algorithms to continuously improve their ability to detect anomalies and enhance security measures.

With the help of AI, airports can better monitor passenger movements, identify individuals on watchlists, and detect prohibited items.

This technology also helps in predicting and preventing security breaches by analyzing patterns and identifying potential risks.

Additionally, AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants can provide passengers with real-time information and assistance, making their travel experience more convenient and efficient.

3D Scanners

3D scanners are another technological advancement that promises to enhance airport security.

Traditional X-ray scanners can sometimes produce ambiguous images, making it difficult for security personnel to accurately identify potential threats.

3D scanners, on the other hand, create detailed 3D images of objects, allowing for a more comprehensive and accurate analysis.

These scanners use advanced imaging technologies, such as computed tomography (CT), to create a three-dimensional representation of the scanned item.

This enables security personnel to have a better understanding of the object’s composition and identify hidden or disguised threats more easily.

By providing clearer and more detailed images, 3D scanners can greatly enhance the effectiveness of airport security measures.

It is worth mentioning that while these technologies offer significant benefits, they also raise concerns regarding privacy and data protection.

Airport authorities need to ensure that the implementation of these technologies is done in a transparent and responsible manner, with appropriate safeguards in place.


Passing through airport security can feel invasive, but the technology used in body scanners has evolved to balance privacy and security.

Advanced imaging scanners use sophisticated software to detect potential threats while showing generic avatars to protect passenger privacy.

While some controversies remain around privacy and health, manufacturers continue improving the technology.

Future innovations like biometrics and AI may streamline security checks. Understanding exactly what airport scanners see helps travel go more smoothly.

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