TSA Whole Body Image Scanners – They Don’t Store Images

There has been considerable controversy over the deployment of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) backscatter whole body image scanners and millimeter wave scanners (referred to as WBI Scanners from now on).  Some people see the scanners as a violation of their personal right to privacy, others have religious objections, and others object simply because they can.

Back on the 4th of August CNET released a story regarding Federal Agencies in the United States storing and transmitting images. Despite the story stating that the TSA does not store or transmit these WBI Scanner images there are countless online stories, Twitter messages and quite a few e-mails in my box, stating that the TSA is storing and transmitting WBI Scanner images.

Despite the rumours and rumours based on rumours, the fact is that TSA’s WBI Scanners do not store or transmit images and cannot do so in the airport environment.

The WBI Scanners, manufactured by Rapiscan Systems and L-3 Communications, based largely on technology developed by Tek84’s President Dr. Steven Smith, follow very strict guidelines that would prevent any images from being stored or transmitted.

While TSA WBI Scanners technically have the capability to store and transmit images, the machines can only perform this function in Test Mode, a function not carried out in an Operation Area.  Placing a WBI Scanner into test mode is not something that can be in the field, at an airport where the units are deployed, and it cannot be done by anyone without “Level Z” authorization.

Presently the TSA has approximately 51,500 employees, of these 51,500 employees, only 45 people have “Level Z” authorization … of these 45 people with “Level Z” authorization, only 15 have actual authorization and training to convert a TSA WBI Scanner into Test Mode. So with 0.02% of those working within in the TSA having the authority and ability to place a TSA WBI Scanner into Test Mode, where it can store and transmit images, the likelihood of it ever occurring in an operational setting is pretty much zero

Aside from only 15 people, making up 0.02% of the TSA’s man power, having the authority and ability to switch a TSA WBI Scanner from Operational Mode to Test Mode … these 15 people are deployed to areas other than airports.  Where are these 15 people based? Let me tell you, 8 at Transportation Security Laboratory located at the Atlantic City International Airport, 3 at TSA System Integrations Facility located at Washington DC’s Reagan National Airport, and 4 serving as Training Development Contractors at Threat Mitigation Laboratory.

Still not convinced that the TSA WBI Scanners aren’t storing and transmitting images of passengers at airports?

Skip the dozens of conspiracy theories you may find online and look at the actual hardware its self. The TSA Backscatter Scanners are not network or online in anyway. The screeners viewing the images are connected via a hard-line with no part of their system being connected online. As the machines are not part of the network, they cannot be infiltrated or hacked by outside users. Worried some hacker will sneak into the airport and splice into the hard-line from the WBI Scanner to the TSA Transportation Security Officer (TSO) view the images without being spotted? The images being transmitted from the WBI Scanner to the TSO is encrypted.

…additionally, the machines are incapable of saving images to a USB device or printing via USB printer. The only way the TSA WBI Scanners can store or print an image is in a laboratory environment. Why are they incapable of storing & printing from USB devices? It’s because the required hardware is not part of the design of the machine.

You may object to the use of WBI Scanners … I know I prefer the  scanner to being patted down … but don’t base your objections on paranoia and incorrect information.

TSO’s operating the WBI Scanners have no idea who you are and are isolated from all others.  Once you leave the WBI Scanner the image is wiped from the system before a new person can jump in and get screened.

My issues with the TSA’s WBI Scanners are not with the technology, privacy or security or its usage, but with the policy the TSA has surrounding its usage.

Happy Flying!



  1. Fish,

    Great analysis. Question: do these machines have hard drives? And what about output ports other than USB? CDROM, DVD, firewire?

    So the Bad Guy brings a gun into security. He goes into the machine, and the alarm goes off. Officers take him away. Your research is very good, so this is not a criticism, but I find it hard to believe in the data-crazy world of Homeland Security that this machine wouldn’t require an output to be part of the chain of evidence to convict the Bad Guy. That’s like hooking up a camera to your store but promising the public there’s no DVR attached!

  2. No, the devices have no capability to store or transmit images.

    If the “bad guy” enters the Backscatter Scanner with a gun the TSO operating the scanner alerts the TSOs at the scanner. The person is pulled aside and searched. If a person is seen with anything that is not allowable in the Backscatter images then they are searched by hand, that is policy and practice.

    An image is not required as evidence.

    Happy Flying!

  3. Didn’t read the article, did you? Christ you are a hack.

    The title is “Feds admit storing checkpoint body scan images” and goes on to say…

    “U.S. Marshals Service admitted this week that it had surreptitiously saved tens of thousands of images recorded with a millimeter wave system”

    “TSA that it requires all airport body scanners it purchases to be able to store and transmit images for “testing, training, and evaluation purposes.” The agency says, however, that those capabilities are not normally activated when the devices are installed at airports.”

  4. Ricardo,

    Clearly you didn’t read my entire post. Failure to read my entire entry would have gleaned some relevance to what I was writing.

    Happy Flying!


    PS: Please use a legitimate e-mail address. Failure to use a real e-mail address, by the way is this you? http://twitter.com/ricardo_cabezas, is really the sign of a hack.

  5. There are three types of people who fly:

    1. People who don’t care about the body image scanners.

    2. People who no one wants to see naked.

    3. People whose clothing reveals more than the scanner anyway.

  6. All it takes is one TSO with a phone to put your naked image online. Whether or not the backscatter scanner is online itself is irrelevant.

  7. TSA will eventually admit that anything that can be recorded, will, through whatever means. No prosecutor wants to go before a judge with oral testimony only. The trail of proof that the Bad Guy had the gun at the checkpoing is critical, so you can bet those images will be somehow saved. Not every one, mind you, but anyone that raises a “red flag” will most certainly have a digital trail. It would be ill-advised from a law enforcement perspective for the TSA not to have storage capability. It already has this capability for the xray machines, and the overhead cameras, and virtually everything else digital that goes on in secure areas. “If they can, they will.”

  8. George,

    A) Please use your name

    B) Since the ‘enhanced pat down’ following an alert walking through Whole Body Scanner is in view of camera, anything found would be visible on that tape. The pat down would likely have multiple witnesses as well.

    Happy Flying!


  9. Fish –

    I’m guessing a lot of this could have been prevented if the TSA/DHS had put together a comprehensive PR campaign from the get go that detailed exactly what these machines could do and who would have access to the different functions. Unfortunately, there are so many different versions floating around the internet now that it’s difficult to know what is true and what is a rumor. If they had come right out and said that the machines can keep records for training purposes but that only 45 out of over 50 thousand are able to switch the machine to that functionality, it might have been better received. Now it just feels like they are playing catch up. Perhaps in the future they will start with all the information up front.

    Personally, I wish the TSA/DHS would get their act together. To this day, nothing they have done since their inception has made me feel any more comfortable while traveling. As an example; I can’t bring my trusty old Swiss Army knife on board, but my mom can get on an aircraft with a pair of 12″ aluminum knitting needles.

    Thanks for sharing your information and trying to clear up the confusion.

  10. The federal government says that airport images are being routinely stored and transmitted to them. Also, the specs for these machines say that they have to be able to do this in real time.

    This Steven Frischling guy is just straight up lying to you. What a jerk.

    Happy Flying!

  11. Wayne,

    I’d love for you to point me to any documentation that says that Whole Body Scanner images are stored, anywhere or that they are transmitted?

    Please point me to any documentation that shows any specs that shows data must stream in real time to any facility? I’d love to see it. I spent quite a bit of time lookin into the specs of the machines from both the TSA and the manufacturers.

    I am open to debate, but not debate that can’t provide a single piece of verifiable fact.

    Happy Flying!


  12. Rusty

    That is far from proof. You might want to go check one of the machines out.

    I have no soft spot for the TSA or DHS, especially given my history with them that has at times played out in the national media. However in this area, there is no evidence of any kind that the machines store or transmit images.

    Happy Flying!


  13. Uh, I watched both of those videos. What are you guys talking about? I didn’t see anything at all happen. I watched them 4 times. Are these even the right videos? What is the timing on the clips to look at? Everything looks normal. I don’t see any cops at all.

  14. Matt

    There are no video associated with this post, embedded or linked to, so I am not sure what videos you watched. Please clarify your comment.

    Happy Flying!


  15. This is all about control. This machines unsafe and untested. The machines and gropings are illegal and most importantly IMMORAL.

    From an engineer’s perspective who’s researched the available data, whole body mass was used to calculate radiation exposure, not skin surface, and, there is no available testing data.

    Flying is done safely and has been done safely without any of this for GSA and charter passengers, well, forever. They don’t give up their constitutional rights to fly, so why do commercial passengers need to either.

    And Groping – ILLEGAL and IMMORAL not any way to paint this as acceptable.

    True Americans have the responsibility to stand up for the rights, all those that don’t are complicit with illegal and immoral acts and are UNAMERICAN.

    As an aside, on my last groping, I noticed that 60% of the people chosen for screenings were large breasted women. Since when have large breasted women been a security threat. If so, half of the women in Orange County would be in prison.

  16. While TSA claims the machines can only store images in ‘test mode’, they have so far been unwilling to prove it. Even so, the fact remains that you can indeed screen people while in test mode, and nobody would be the wiser. Since ‘Level Z’ users (including service contractors) have the capability to switch between modes, there is nothing to stop them from switching the mode and then coming back later to download the images to a USB drive or even transmit them somewhere else, since they are connected to the Internet via Ethernet cable.

    All these capabilities are in direct contradiction to what the TSA has been telling the public before they even installed one, and their own contract specifications required vendors to include these features. There would be no point to do that if they didn’t intend to use them.

    At the same time, a FOIA request uncovered thousands of images stored from one of these machines in use at a federal courthouse in Florida, operated by federal marshals (http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/11/giz-scans/). So, either the marshals have ‘Level Z’ clearance and were knowingly operating the machine in ‘test mode’ (probably illegally), the installation of the system was flawed, or the service contractor switched modes at some point and never switched it back. Either way, it seems that it’s not visually evident to the operator as to when it’s in ‘test mode’ or ‘screening mode’, which is further evidence of the potential for abuse. And then there’s that whole 4th Amendment thing, which they just want to pretend doesn’t apply to them.

  17. Mulder,

    The scanners at Federal Court Houses are not the same in service at airports. Level Z authorization is for those within the TSA, with access to TSA scanners. Federal Marshals are not TSA, nor DHS and their hardware is different.

    Do not confuse the two issues, although it is easy to do so.

    Happy Flying!


  18. Fish,

    I’m not suggesting the equipment is identical, but it does perform the identical function: whole body imaging. And the procurement specifications for those systems at federal courthouses are the same as those used in airports by TSA.

    That means that some users have “super user” privileges to switch between ‘test mode’ and ‘screening mode’, without the actual operator knowing which mode it’s in. That’s what leads to images being saved illegally.

    But that doesn’t change the fact that if the various federal agencies responsible for buying these machines didn’t intend to use those capabilities, they wouldn’t have been required as part of the procurement specifications. Which means that DHS along with their TSA division has been lying to the public for years.

  19. Mulder,

    The specs between the US Marshal Service are part of the Department of Justice. The TSA is part of the Department of Homeland Security. The agencies have different procurement process.

    Check out the hardware and the specs for the TSA hardware for a more informed view.

    Happy Flying!


  20. Tomorrow the scanner will not be enough.. the technology exists to strip people into being nothing more than cattle. Opting out only leads to new enhanced pat downs. Groping in a manner that would land most people in jail.

    This is not about security, if security was the issue, then they would use the method that works. EL Al Airlines and don’t bring up the cost factor, they screen and load passengers just as fast and cheap as anyone else.

    The timing of all this just as people go into the busiest time of the year. Why? Are the less likely to protest so that they can be with family? Already exceptions are being made, Congressmen and women, staff. Pilots.

    Cancer patients are being forced to remove breast prosthetics, a mans catheter bag was ruptured and he had to board the plan with urine covered cloth. Old ladies leave crying, Children grouped, people humiliated. Dignity is stripped from good people, and the TSA is creating the precursor to SS or KGB, people who simply look down on you for existing.
    All of this in the name of security and yet not one word of who the terrorists are. Napolitano will say terrorists are getting more creative and we need to subject to this. REALLY?? Does she have evidence of a 90 year old with a bomb? Or a 3 year old or a women in a tank top or a man with a cath and pleads with them to be careful and ends up with urine covered clothes.. or a man who’s pants drop to the floor because his belt is off and he is forced to stand there before everyone else. Those terrorists? While Napolitano can’t say the word Muslim and terrorist on the same day? It seems that the biggest threat to Americans freedom is the TSA and its just getting started.

    Or is it more like this?

    Congressman John J. Duncan, Jr., of Tennessee took aim at former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, who Duncan accuses of having made a sweetheart deal with Rapiscan, a company whose backscatter scanners use one of two technologies at the center of the current controversy.
    Oh yes. Corruption makes a hell of a lot more sense than searching a 3 year old or a cancer patient for a bomb.

    Fish, the story’s the TSA is telling simply does not add up, in the end you will be wrong, the TSA is wrong . This is not the 1700’s in the Town Auction Block and the American people are not slaves to be inspected by the master.

    I know you started your story back in August before all this started coming out and before the NEW enhanced pat downs were implemented, perhaps you would wish to reconsider your original analysis. If not, I wish you well in your endeavor to try and hold your story together. Know matter how tech savvy you are you simply did not understand the human side of the equation.


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