Airports trading pat downs, wands for ‘body scanner’

Please enter the portal, put your hands in the air and pause for scanning — it is the wave of the future.

While outdated methods require travelers to be physically pat down, unbutton their pants or lift their T-shirts to show they are not carrying a weapon, a new X-ray device at some airports will be able to look through a passenger’s clothes, creating a clear image of their body underneath.

The Transportation Security Administration recently unveiled a device that uses “millimeter waves” to create an image of a passenger’s body under their clothing. The machine parallels MRI technology, where energy is rotated around the body at high speeds and reflected back to create a three-dimensional image.

While the image is sharp enough to clearly display a person’s surgery scars, colostomy bags or genitals, the TSA stated that the person’s face is blurred to avoid the screener from identifying which passenger they are looking at. As for the screener, they are partitioned from the general public and view the passenger images from behind closed doors.

Passengers can be confident that the images will not be taken, saved or distributed by any TSA representative with a cell phone camera because “to ensure privacy, the passenger imaging technology has zero storage capability and images will not be printed, stored or transmitted.” Furthermore, they are immediately deleted after the passenger walks through.

A TSA study found that 79 percent of passengers who had the option of using the scanner instead of the traditional pat down, chose to enter the imaging portal. The technology is also equipped with a “modesty filter,” the TSA stated in a review of the product, to avoid embarrassment for scanned passengers including the elderly, adults and small children.

In 2007 the scanners were being tested at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, but they have now been installed in some of the countries’ major airports located in Washington, D.C., New York City, Baltimore, Albuquerque, Denver and Los Angeles.

According to a representative from the TSA at Southwest International Airport, “it is supposed to come into every airport, that is part of the checkpoint evolution plan.”

The TSA’s plans for future airport security were designed to coincide with terrorists advancing their own methods and include the installation of the new body scanners, as well as new uniforms for TSA personnel, badges, mood lights and smooth music to ease traveling stresses.

“The future plans include scanners in Miami, Las Vegas and Dallas-Fort Worth. We are in a pilot mode because we are in data collection,” said Sari Koshetz, spokesperson for the TSA.

Koshetz said she could not speculate as to whether every airport would be outfitted with the scanners, but she said that “as threats evolve and technology evolves, we need to evolve.” Koshetz added that privacy issues have been addressed between the TSA and various privacy groups.

“TSA does see the millimeter wave machines as a vital component of our technology,” she said.

While Southwest Florida International Airport is currently not utilizing the scanners, summer travelers leaving Fort Myers for other destinations will certainly be exposed to the technology in one of the larger airport hubs such as the John F. Kennedy International Airport or Miami International Airport.

“If someone chooses not to step into the machine, they can get the alternative which is a pat down and ‘wanding.’ I can’t speculate on whether the screen will be mandatory in future,” she said. “It is an alternative for the pat down. At this point it is not mandatory.”

Advocate organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union have spoken out against the scanners as an invasion of privacy.

“This technology produces graphic images of passenger’s bodies, and those images not only reveal private parts but intimate medical details such as colostomy bags, and for some people this imaging could be very humiliating,” said John Szymonik with the Lee County Chapter of the ACLU.

According to Szymonik, it is “the equivalent of making passenger’s parade naked through a separate room with a bag on their head.”

The ACLU is questioning whether the security value of the scanners are proportional to the cost of passenger dignity and the privacy of people who fly.

Another issue could be that passengers may not understand what is occurring in the scan, Szymonik explained. Airports such as Tampa International have portals that blow air onto passengers to check for explosive residue. Since these closely resemble the new body scanning portals, there may be some confusion for passengers.

“We question the assumption that people who consent to this body scan really understand what they are consenting to,” Szymonik said.

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