TSA Swaps Backscatter Machines for mWave Machines in Major Airports

Since October, the TSA has been removing its controversial “backscatter” machines from major airports and relocating them to smaller facilities. The news passed relatively quietly since the transition began; the holidays probably had something to do with that.
But many are celebrating the backscatter’s passing from the United States’ major airports. For one thing, getting through them is a pain: You have to remove absolutely everything from your pockets — including your wallet, even if there’s no metal inside it — and your positioning within the machine has to be incredibly precise, and you have to stand still for longer than a 4-year-old’s attention span.
Not to mention, there are a couple of studies that have showed health risks in these machines: The radiation that the X-ray scanners put out is very little, but two peer-reviewed studies estimated that six out of every 100 U.S. airline passengers annually could develop cancer related to the machines. (The Food and Drug Administration has some thoughts on this, which are printed on Pro Publica’s website.)
Most of the phased-out backscatter X-ray machines have been replaced with millimeter-wave machines, which beam radio-frequency waves over your body and return a Gumby-like image, where anomalies are represented by little yellow boxes. If your Gumby comes back with yellow boxes, you’ll be pulled aside for further inspection.
The millimeter-wave machines still require the hands-over-the-head, stand-very-still routine, but there are no known health risks. One of the potential drawbacks: Tests in Europe and Australia showed the millimeter-wave machines have a high false-alarm rate — from 23 percent to 54 percent. It’s great that the machines are sensitive, but even sweat and folds in clothing have triggered the alarm.
Our advice: Streamline your in-pocket possessions while you’re traveling. Leave a little extra room in your carry-on for everything left in your pockets, including your wallet, and put them in a safe, secure place before you even get to the TSA checkpoint. It’ll smooth your way through the line, give you peace of mind that your wallet isn’t floating around in one of those little plastic tubs, and keep the alarms from going off, whether you’re in a small airport with a backscatter machine or a major airport with a millimeter-wave machine.
Above all else, be flexible and prepared for whatever may come. Keep a little extra patience in your pocket — no yellow boxes there — because not everyone will be as prepared as you for these new machines.