Until this month, anyone undergoing a TSA search at airports has had the right to bypass the "Advanced Imaging Technology" screening booths—the ones in which passengers hold their hands over their heads for a full-body image. Any passenger unwilling to use the machines could request a thorough hand pat-down from an available agent, requesting a private location if desired.
You no longer have that right. Amidst the holiday travel rush, the United States' Transportation Security Administration has quietly and effectively eliminated that right
As the Department of Homeland Security phased it in its statement (PDF here)
, "While passengers may generally decline AIT screening in favor of physical screening, TSA may direct mandatory AIT screening for some passengers as warranted by security considerations in order to safeguard transportation security."
The statement goes on to assure the public that the AIT machines are indeed private and store no images even though the machines are capable of imaging passengers' private areas.
However, many people who opt out of AIT imaging don't do so out of privacy concerns. They do so because some imaging machines expose the human body to an ionizing radiation: Backscatter-type machines emit X-rays. The government's reports claim the radiation exposure is "minimal" and a person would have to pass through a machine thousands of times to accumulate damage, but the first generation of those machines was removed from airports, which aroused suspicion in some passengers. The other type of AIT machine in wide distribution uses millimeter waves, and no comprehensive independent study has determined the long-term effects of those.
Many passengers have read news reports reassuring them
but are nonetheless made uncomfortable that studies are needed at all, or by potentially fallible government exposure standards
. Many passengers felt it should be their own right to decide whether to put their bodies into these machines, so they requested hand searches instead.
The DHS statement announcing the rule change did not mention making accommodations for passengers' health concerns. And those passengers may indeed still be given a hand search if they want one—but the TSA has essentially announced that it doesn't have to furnish one if it doesn't want to.
Who will be forced to undergo AIT screening? Who is allowed to have hand searches? How does the government decide who gets the right to a hand search? The TSA isn't saying.
It's clear as milk.
But one thing is clear: The TSA has put on the books its right to deny you a hand search if you want one.