How does an Airport scanner detect drugs?

Gone are the days when people would fill up a bag of narcotics and go from country to country supplying drugs effortlessly.

That and thousands of similar attempts of smuggling drugs and illegal items led TSA to install hundreds of whole body scanners because people were hiding drugs not only in their luggage bags but also under their clothes and some even inside the body like in the bum or stomach.

How does an Airport scanner detect drugs?

Airport scanners cannot see drugs, which means they cannot see inside the body. Still, they are smart enough to detect illegal items hidden under the clothes or even inside the body, whether it’s a tampon or a pouch of drugs in any of your body parts. They can also highlight that part that will help agents further investigate and inspect.

How does an Airport scanner detect drugs?

Thanks to the smugglers of illegal items ( weapons, narcotics, and explosives ), airport security is getting tighter, strict, and brighter.

Significantly, the use of body scanners has brought a revolution in fool-proofing and outsmarting the smugglers that now is almost impossible to get anything illegal onboard ( This includes modern airlines of tier 1 countries like America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and the United Kingdom).

Brief History of Body Scanners

Dr. Steven W Smith developed the first ultra-low-dose backscatter X-ray and millimeter wave scanner in 1992 to detect implanted explosives and illegal items hidden inside the human body.

Surprisingly, these scanners were smart enough to penetrate the human body and quickly show what’s under the skin, like shin bones, but not ribs or internal organs.

Dr. Steven then sold these scanners with the patents to Rapiscan systems; later, these scanners were assessed by different government bodies like the Food and Drug Administration, the National Council of Radiation Protection and Measurement, and other independent sources that these scanners would be legalized for use.   

Similarly, back in 2000, someone known as Dr. Vladimir V. Linev patented a system for whole body scanners, an X-ray-based scanner known as the CONPASS body scanner.

In 2009, a Nigerian citizen Umer Farouk Abdulmutallab, hid the explosives in his underwear and tried to explode the Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight but remained unsuccessful and is now serving life sentence.

That was when Airport security became a severe issue, and in 2010, TSA ordered 500 whole-body scanners and deployed all those scanners across the Airports in the US.

These scanners received a lot of criticism because they were invasive enough that the TSO looking at the screens would clearly see the naked body of the passengers and then look them in the eyes.

Plus, some nasty TSA agents would take photos of those scanned images and share them with others as well.

Although TSA kept saying they never stored the data of passengers, after an incident of 31,000 leaked passenger photos, TSA undeployed the “nudie scanners” from all across the US airports and replaced them with less invasive airports.

But, that raised other concerns, as people could easily conceal things like metal, plastic, ceramics, chemicals, and explosives under their clothes.

So, TSA implemented a strategy in which they altered the algorithm of the scanners, and now the scanner would not show naked images; instead, it would replace those images with cartoon-like avatars hiding genitals and other parts of the body.

You can see the image of a man and woman with explicit representation of a firearm and knife. But, TSA no longer uses these scanners. Instead, they have started using “Automated Target Recognition” software that replaces human images with avatars or cartoons so agents cannot see the passengers’ private parts.

Body Scanners and Their Types

Body scanners are not to be frightened or annoyed. Instead, they ensure the safety of everyone onboard a plane. So, rather than being scared, follow protocols and take care of everything in advance so you can get through this process smoothly before boarding the plane.

Gone are the days when TSA agents would see your naked body on the screens during your screening process. These days, whole-body scanners are safe, and scanned images are not stored and cannot be retrieved later, although this topic has been controversial.

Similarly, passengers afraid of the health risks associated do not need to worry as the scanners are safe for pregnant ladies and cancer patients; even specialized scanners can deted some types of concerns and alert the passenger to handle the situation earlier.

With the help of these scanners, TSA agents can now easily capture smugglers wearing or carrying illegal contents on or inside the body. Thankfully, now they can identify metallic ( like knives ) and non-metallic ( like explosives ) contents and other dangerous items like chemical powders to protect the lives of others.

Passengers with other medical conditions like anxiety, depression, or sexual assault survivors can feel slightly uncomfortable submitting to a body search, but that can be handled efficiently if requested politely.

Moving on, body scanners can trigger alarms due to several reasons like hip and knee implants, pacemakers, bobby pins in hair, body piercing, body jewelry, prosthetic limbs, defibrillators, different thicknesses of clothing, underwire bras, sweaty armpits, or even higher-than-normal moisture can trigger false alarms and can get you flagged.

Therefore, passengers are required to put their belongings like keys, chains, rings, jewelry, liquids, aerosols, gels, hair bands, watches, wallets, smartphones, or anything that requires separate screening is put in a separate tray for individual screening. Because if body scanners are triggered due to anything, you may be asked for a thorough inspection, and agents may take you on a side or do a pat-down search.

Let’s now discuss the type of scanners used at Airports for security purposes without further ado.

There are two types of scanners luggage scanners and whole-body scanners.

Luggage Scanners

Luggage scanners or baggage scanners are different and more innovative than body scanners. The complex technology behind these scanners helps the agents see the contents inside the briefcase or the suitcase.

Luggage scanners are designed to use x-rays to scan luggage contents and calculate the mass and density of contents to establish what the object is.

With the help of X-rays, the luggage scanner shapes different items in different colors depending on the composition; TSOs then interpret the produced images for inspection to see if there are drugs contrabands inside the baggage.

Nothing can hide from luggage scanners like metallic, non-metallic, gold, or organic materials like paper, food, cocaine, and items are differentiated by color. For cocaine, the scanner shows orange color, which can raise the suspicion of agents.

Backscatter scanners

These are the original body scanners that contain ionizing radiation but emit low doses of radiation, which makes them safe for passengers. However, there were several lawsuits against TSA for cancer diagnosis among passengers due to scanners.

Other than that, the backscatter scanner would reveal many intimate details and represent a passenger virtually naked in front of the TSOs, which is why the machines have now been sacked because the images were too explicit Agents were even sharing those images with others.

So if you are worried about the highly detailed rendering of your body, then worry not, as the scanners used now are not over-revealing but can still detect everything illegal and protect us from threats.

Millimeter wave AIT scanners:

Millimeter wave scanners use microwaves for scanning and do not use non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation because of their high frequency. The microwaves are far less than utilized by cellular data transmitters; Thee diagram shows the electromagnetic spectrum; the left side shows microwaves, and the right side shows x-rays that pose health risks.

Millimeter wave scanners are based on Whole Body Image ( WBI ) technology that shows mysterious genderless figures of the passengers hiding their private parts/genitals and showing only suspicious aspects of the body with a yellow box around that area.

Millimeter wave scanners are not harmless to the the human body and do not invade your privacy, making the ideal fit for Airport security checkpoints.

Now you can feel relaxed while going through the screening process as the Millimeter scanner can detect threats or contrabands with the help of Advanced Imaging Technology. At the same time, you are showing a silhouette of the human body without kinky bits and marks or suspicious parts of the body, keeping your privacy intact.

By the way, the difference between these scanners is that the backscatter scanner takes two pictures; one from the front and one from the back. At the same time, the millimeter wave scanner produces only a single image, producing less energy and being the safest.

Spectrum of waves

Hand-held metal detector

This is a simple type of scanner used to search an infant held by a parent, followed by a pat-down search.

Transmission scanners

A transmission scanner is a type of powerful scanner known by the name RadPRO SecurePA. This is far more powerful than the backscatter scanner because it uses a high radiation rate. Surprisingly, agents found several men hiding illegal drugs in their bum, stomach, and rectum that this scanner identified; even one person was sent to the hospital after his kidney stones were placed.

For this scanner, TSA won’t get public acceptance because they are already stuck with privacy controversies and passengers’ health.

Infra-red thermal conductivity scanners

The infrared thermal conductivity scanners are not popular but capable of detecting objects in different temperatures and do not use electromagnetic radiation, which makes these scanners far safer.

Detecting drugs

These days, scanners are smart enough to detect abnormal items without having to undress people or make any physical contact.

The body scanners are the first and last line of defense for the safety of passengers and crew, and that’s why you must pass through the scanner. If you don’t let the agent scan you, you won’t be able to board the plane ( Not in the US, just in the UK ).

Drugs hidden in the body

Drugs hidden inside the body are an extraordinarily disgusting and bizarre thing, but still, many narcos attempt to hide drugs inside their body cavities. Unfortunately, they cannot succeed with these methods now, thanks to the advanced technologies used in whole-body scanners.

Drugs under Clothing

Drugs concealed under clothes are also not a big deal for these scanners. You can quickly get flagged for hiding something under your clothes, whether a pack of cocaine or just tampons.

Drugs in Luggage

A luggage scanner is the most advanced type that will show everything visibly hidden inside the baggage, even if it’s several inside layers. Things hidden inside lead won’t be visible as x-rays cannot pass through information, but that will raise suspicion, and you will be pulled aside to open your bag.

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens when a Security agent finds drugs?

Depending on the country, you will be treated differently when found with drugs.

If you or your luggage raises suspiciousness, an agent will do a tap-down search that can also lead to a personal body search in a room where you may be strip-naked, or you may have to open your bag for the confirmation of drugs or other illegal items.

Although detecting drugs is not the priority of the security agents, they will confiscate the contents if they do find drugs. They will hand you over to the local law enforcement authorities, and you will be charged for drug possession according to local laws.

Are some drugs more accessible to detect than others?

None of the drugs ( pure cocaine, crack, synthetic, pink, black, fish scale, yellow, brown) is harder to detect.

So don’t think the detectors or sniff dogs can detect one type of drug, not the others. If your or your luggage contents seep suspicious, you will be subjected to a detailed investigation and handed over to narcotics police for possession of weed or drugs.

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