What you should know about physical inspections at security checkpoints

What takes place during screening methods such as body scanning and pat-downs? Who conducts them and what is their purpose? What options do travelers have?

Where and how are TSA body cavity searches conducted?

The TSA's officials have the authority to conduct body cavity searches at international borders and at airports. A cavity search consists of the traveler's body cavities, such as anus, mouth and other orifices, being physically probed in order to search for contraband, weaponry and illegal substances. These searches are part of the U.S. government's anti-terrorism and anti-drug trafficking programs. They take place largely at major international travel destinations, such as JFK International Airport in New York City, and target individuals whom the government has reason to suspect of attempting to smuggle illegal materials into the country.

Screening and scanning

Most screenings, however, do not involve body cavity searches. The TSA is increasingly relying on full-body screening at airport checkpoints to detect illegal substances, weapons and sundry other unsafe or potentially unsafe materials. The agency considers these scanners to be more effective than simple metal detectors. For example, a metal detector could miss any number of weapons or substances concealed on the body. Also, the TSA argues that this type of scanning moves the passengers along at a much faster rate than other methods, saving time for everyone. If an object is spotted in the scan, such as a belt buckle or an article of jewelry, the TSA officer can perform a quick pat-down to confirm what the object is and send the passenger on his way.

Patting and poking

Some travelers have concerns about the health aspects of full-body scans, in particular the amount of radioactivity emitted. In such cases the passenger can opt out of the full-body scan and request an alternative method of inspection. A TSA officer of the same gender must comply with this request and will conduct a standard pat-down. The traveler also has the right to request a private place for the pat-down and for a family member or companion to be present, along with a second TSA officer of the same gender to watch for irregularities. A pat-down consists of the officer patting the traveler in order to confirm that there is nothing hidden beneath his or her clothing. Although various body parts may be touched, a pat-down stops far short of a body cavity search.

Even if passengers do not opt out of the full-body screening, they still may be subject to a pat-down if they are wearing especially dense clothing that the scanner cannot penetrate. They have the same rights as those who voluntarily opt out of the scanning method.

U.S. Customs Border and Protection procedures

Travelers may be subject to screening by U.S. Customs Border and Protection officials when returning from a foreign country. They can be detained even though they present identification documents. Also, CBP officials can question travelers regarding their immigration status in order to determine whether or not they can enter the U.S. They also may stop travelers based on citizenship status or travel itinerary.

The rights of travelers

Government policy in these uncertain and unpredictable times can change abruptly and without prior notice. Still, no matter what changes are made, it is a basic tenet of U.S. policy to not conduct searches based solely on the race, national origin, religion, sex or ethnicity of the traveler.