Does an Airport Scanner Affect Laptops?
By Aaron Charles
If you fly with your laptop domestically, you'll be one of the 1.8 million passengers screened by the Transportation Security Administration each day as of March 2013. If you fly internationally into the U.S., you'll be among the some 300 million persons scrutinized by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. Regardless of who's doing the checking, though, if your laptop is subjected to X-ray screening, you really don't need to fear damage from the X-rays themselves. However, there's reason to be cautious about other kinds of potential damage during such inspections.
Regardless of what size your laptop is, it's going to be scanned by an X-ray machine if you carry it on the plane. If your laptop is 11 inches or smaller, however, the TSA doesn't obligate you to take it out of your laptop bag. Such a provision doesn't block any kind of radiation from reaching your laptop, but it does protect your laptop somewhat more from any physical damage that could potentially happen as it sits and moves on the scanner conveyor belt.
Based on known evidence up to this point, a laptop's exposure to X-rays won't do any damage to it. There's just no data to support that idea, in spite of the fact that a handful of passengers have claimed their laptops started acting funny after having gone through the X-ray scanners. However, the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the X-ray machines evidently isn't powerful enough to affect laptops or any other digital equipment while passing through airport X-ray scanners.
A device that could affect your laptop, though, is a metal detector. This device, also used by the TSA and other agencies in the form of a walk-through or wand-like detector, creates an electromagnetic field that could damage your laptop, according to the British newspaper "The Telegraph" and other sources. Generally, though, metal detectors at the airport are used primarily to screen persons and not belongings like laptops.
One of the bigger threats to your laptop when putting it through the X-ray scanner is the risk that someone will steal it. For this reason, always keep your eye on your scanner after it leaves your hands. Even if TSA agents pull you aside for more scrutinized screening of yourself, do all you can to keep your laptop and other valuables within your line of sight. After you've passed through screening and so has your laptop, collect it as quickly as possible.
- Transportation Security Administration: What Is TSA?
- U.S. Customs and Border Patrol: About CBP
- The TSA Blog: Why Do Laptops Have to Be Removed When Tablets Can Stay In the Bag?
- The TSA Blog: Can TSA Copy Your Laptop Hard Drive and Search Your Files?
- The Telegraph: How Do I Stop Laptop Memory Failure?
- ComputerHope: Do Airport X-rays Damage Flash Media, Floppy Diskettes, or Laptop Computers?
- AirSafe: How to Protect Your Laptop Computer When You Fly
- Erickson Living: Traveling With Electronics
Aaron Charles began writing about "pragmatic art" in 2006 for an online arts journal based in Minneapolis, Minn. After working for telecom giant Comcast and traveling to Oregon, he's written business and technology articles for both online and print publications, including Salon.com and "The Portland Upside."