WBUR

Mass. Inventor: Full-Body Airport Scanners Unflattering, Useful

Martin Annis invented the backscatter X-ray technology used in full-body scanners. (Curt Nickisch/WBUR)

BOSTON — The public outcry over airport scanners and TSA pat-downs has one Cambridge scientist shaking his head.

Thirty years ago, Martin Annis invented the backscatter X-ray technology in those full-body scanners. The company he founded — American Science & Engineering, now in Billerica — supplies airports with some of today’s machines.

There’s one thing Annis has in common with the folks who plan to protest airport security Wednesday. The 88-year-old — who’s so thin he has to cinch his green corduroys tight to stay on his waist — he’s not a fan of pat-downs.

“I wouldn’t want to do that, would you? Have someone put his hands all over your body?” he asks.

Annis doesn’t understand why anyone would even get to that point. Pat-downs are mainly for people who decline going through the invention he developed, the full-body scanner.

“The pat-down is unbelievably more obnoxious than the technology in these machines,” he says.

When Annis first developed the technology known as backscatter X-ray three decades ago, the whole idea was to reduce radiation exposure, to show just enough of what’s on your body, rather than have the X-rays penetrate to see inside. But Annis had a clue some people might be weirded out by it.

“The pat-down is unbelievably more obnoxious than the technology in these machines.”
– Martin Annis

“When I first invented the system, people would say, ‘Well, what would a woman look like?’ And everybody has not good motives in this,” Annis says.

He asked a relative of his to test it — a pretty, young woman. He says it made her less attractive.

“You don’t see the woman’s nipple. They look a little bit like Barbie dolls. So in fact, it’s not very sexual,” he says.

Annis says the machine’s images are not flattering to anyone. You know how the camera puts on 10 pounds? Well, so does the full-body scanner.

“Well, you don’t look very nice, even if you think you’re in fairly good shape,” he says, laughing. “Most people don’t think they have love handles, but they do.”

For years, Annis knew he had a good technology. He says you get hundreds of times more radiation just flying on a plane than you do from one of his backscatter X-ray machines.

“It’s truly ridiculously small,” Annis says.

But the machines weren’t catching on. His company sold a few to prisons, secure places like that. It wasn’t until Sept. 11 that airports were finally interested.

Annis doesn’t want another plane to go down for people to see the need. So the public push-back today disappoints him. He thinks the people organizing Wednesday’s airport security opt-out are doing it for the attention, or they don’t trust the science. But Annis is old enough to be amused by the whole thing, too.

“That guy who got all this publicity: ‘Don’t touch my junk,’” he says, laughing. “You know, it is what it is, isn’t it?”

Annis has never been scanned by one of the airport machines. But the Cambridge resident will be flying next week. And he’s hoping he’ll be selected.

He’ll spend a minute walking through, knowing TSA workers will see the contours of his skinny-legged body, and he’ll be more than OK with it.

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  • John

    It is not an X-ray machine. It does not use X-rays, but uses Terrahertz frequency radiation. This is the other end of the electromagnetic spectrum. X-rays have a wavelength of about 1.5×10^-10 meters, shorter than visible light. Terrahertz radiation has a wavelength of about 1×10^-4 meters, much longer than visible light. Thus each photon has an energy that is a million times less energetic. It cannot break chemical bonds like X-rays can. This article is quite misleading due to its reference to a backscatter of X-rays. It is a backscatter of terrahertz radiation. Visible wavelength radiation (6×10^-10 meters wavelenth) has much higher photon energies that terrahertz radiation. If you think that standing in the sun is ok, then you should not fear the terrahertz “radiation”.

  • C. Citizen

    NPR has aired this story and another one from a representative of the TSA, that seem aimed at dismissing people’s concerns about their rights, their health, and yes, safety.

    This one sided account from Mr. Annis had no challenging questions or dissenting opinions from other experts who question the long term health effects of wide-spread backscatter X-ray machine use. Is anyone really OK with frequent exposure to “ridiculously small” amounts of any harmful substance? It’s no laughing matter Mr. Annis. Want some guy staring at naked photos of your wife, daughter, husband, son, grandmother? How about the fact that someone with explosives crammed up a body cavity will not likely be detected?

    It’s well and good to be respectful to an intelligent 88 year old man, however, he likely won’t be around to see if his assumptions are correct. Many people thought asbestos was safe too.

    NPR, please exercise a bit of journalistic effort on this topic and explore both sides. It’s not just ‘uppity protesters’ that disagree with the either-or option of naked X-ray vs. invasive pat down. A lot of informative stuff is being written about other better security techniques, and the profit motive behind these X-ray peddlers who lobby hard in Washington.

    “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin

    http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=12563

    http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/strip-or-grope-vs-risk-management/

    http://blogs.discovery.com/good_idea/2009/05/is-this-a-good-idea-fullbody-scans-at-airports.html

    http://aclum.org/tsa/kyo_airport.php

  • Cam

    Interesting that he’s never been scanned by one of his machines. What does that say about his faith in its safety? What of the potential dangers if it begins to malfunction–are TSA people likely to recognize that and take action, or just keep going and burning people, perhaps?

    For safety issues, which he did not acknowledge, see

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2010/11/12/131275949/protests-mount-over-safety-and-privacy-of-airport-scanners

    and

    http://www.npr.org/assets/news/2010/05/17/concern.pdf

    Surely these concerns should not be dismissed.

  • http://www.wbur.org/people/cnickisch Curt Nickisch

    Cam, Annis says he’s been scanned by backscatter x-ray many times. He’s just never been through one at an airport since the machines have been installed there.

  • Hardy Kornfeld

    People will complain about the scanners and the pat-downs until they’re done away with, then they’ll complain about the lack of airport security next time there’s a hijacking or bombing.

  • Stephen Carpenter

    >If you think that standing in the sun is ok, then you should not
    > fear the terrahertz “radiation”.

    Right but… if you think standing in the sun is ok, you should not fear terrorists blowing up your plane either. In fact, you should not get in a car.

    In fact, if you do fear terrorists, you should probably, A) avoid the sun. B) Not allow your children in a car, or near a road C) Have a panic room in your house D) Wear a tin foil hat to prevent the russian satellites from reading your brain waves.

    -Steve

    • JointhePeopleordie

      just for your information, the Russians don’t need satellites to know what we’re thinking. The U.S. military now allows their troops to participate in our tactical training exercises

  • shurtleff

    there are two types of scanners. one uses backscatter x-ray radiation. it is as martin annis describes it. the second type uses microwave, and is as john describes it. in the microwave case, there is absolutely no possibility of any bad effects of the inspection. [see robert park, who writes the what's new column formerly for the american physical society, http://www.bobpark.org/ ] in the case of backscattered x-rays, the dose is so low that the effects of ionizing radiation are negligible, even for pilots and flight attendants who would have to go through these systems hundreds of times per year.

  • Micheal

    I used to work for American science & engineering when Martin Annis invented the Back Scatter X-Ray technique and then applied it to a full-body scanner. As he says, the idea was to allow less-intrusive inspections. e.g. prisoners in prisons would be given the option of taking the x-ray scan test or submitting to an obviously much more intrusive “cavity inspection”. and, contrary to a previous comment, Dr. Annis has been through his machines many times. In fact, an image of him was on the front cover of AS&E’s annual report back in the early 90s (love handles and all!)

  • dan

    Has anyone here actually been through one of those scanners? Nobody actually sees you naked. All they see is a screen with a “scan” button and a “reset” button. Hardly invasive.

    And anyone who is afraid of the radiation is quite misinformed, terahertz is right between the millimeter spectrum (that your phone uses) and visible light, both of which nearly everyone is exposed to every day with no ill effects.

    So why the fear? Well probably a mix of the tinfoil hat people, and the everything-Obama-supports-is-automatically-wrong people. Also, since we’ve forgotten about the killer bees, the bird flu, the swine flu, SARS, anthrax, and the vast assortment of other things that were supposed to kill everyone, people just needed to find something to be afraid of.

    • JointhePeopleordie

      so dan, you’re one of those submissive kind of guys that just goes with the flow. I cannot respect you because the only thing you should stand for is the Constitution and the government has been bending that for years. If they stand for our rights like i do then why do i have police knocking on my door at midnight “just to make sure I’m safe” and joint military(foreign troops included) as well as local police departments practicing full scale urban home invasion and civilian disarmament on my home turf? That’s really just a rhetorical question because I can reasonably conclude that you are too ill-informed to explain that.

  • JointhePeopleordie

    if you want to see these full-body scanners then you’re marketing to the right people. The T.S.A. is nothing more than a group of terrorists trying to get the American people used to having their basic human rights and dignity obliterated one step at a time. Thank you fuckin asshole for distributing more “weapons of mass destruction” to the New World Order. I hope you die for your ignorance and greed. You used your creativity to invent something but you were too blind to realize that you were selling to the strongest militaristic government in the world. I hate to be trite but fuck you!

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