Baring your all for BWI security

April 29, 2008
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Digg Facebook Fark Google Newsvine Reddit Yahoo Print Reprints Post comment Text size: The bad news: You still have to take off your shoes.

The worse news: You're exposing more than that hole in your sock.

Yesterday, BWI unveiled a new security system, and, well, let's just say unveiled is the right word -- those love handles that defy any number of oblique crunches, that birthmark that only your mother and your spouse should know about and, yes, what the Brits call the naughty bits.

They've already taken away our water bottles, our contact lens juice, our anything-beyond-3-ounces of toothpaste, hair gel and deodorant. Why leave us anything, including modesty, at this point?

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Checking out devices for BWI check-ins
You don't have to believe that taking someone's picture is akin to stealing his or her soul to be a little unnerved by this new imaging device, which the Transportation Security Administration began using at BWI this weekend and will be rolling out nationwide this year.

The whole-body scanner is a cylindrical module that you step into, allowing low-frequency radio waves to scan for any objects hidden under your clothes, even nonmetallic ones that would get past the current metal detectors. A black-and-white image of your naked self -- your face obscured -- is transmitted to a monitor behind closed doors for viewing by a security agent.

And only that agent.

"You can't print, store or transmit it," Sterling Payne, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, assured us during a media show-and-tell of the new device at the airport yesterday.

Thank God for small mercies in a YouTube age.

The body scanner is part of a series of security improvements that travelers will begin seeing at airports this year that work on two levels -- the atmospheric and the technological. The goal is to lower the stress level of the security process at airports -- the better to spot those stressed because they're trying to smuggle explosives onto the plane -- while heightening the surveillance.

Terminal B at BWI is the first to debut the new system -- a credit to its proximity to the Homeland Security headquarters in Washington. The area where you snake through security lines has been reconfigured into a more soothing space -- the roped-off lanes are wider, blue lights glow from several panels and, although the sound system was turned off during yesterday's event, New Age-y music will play. "Like at a spa" is how Payne characterized it.

There is a purpose for all this, beyond the kindness of TSA's heart. By calming down the merely annoyed -- those stuck in line behind the family with multiple strollers or the guy with the complicated laced-up and buckled-down boots -- security officers will better be able to "identify those who are anxious, stressed for nefarious reasons," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.

Yesterday, with the crush of reporters and Homeland Security and TSA officials and their entourages, wasn't particularly relaxing, especially for the actual passengers trying to make it onto a flight rather than the evening news. Still, anything has to be better than the current cattle-en-route-to-slaughter atmosphere of most airport security lines, with the forboding taped announcements and signs that pile on rule after rule about gels and laptops and jokes being taken seriously and jackets having to come off.

Once you get to the conveyer belts, though, the drill doesn't change too much -- although a new conveyer belt system continually shuttles bins from one end to the other, and advanced X-ray technology allows for sharper images of carry-ons, meaning security oficers can hand-search fewer bags. You still have to take your shoes off, remove your laptop from your carry-on bag and have your liquids in 3-ounce or smaller containers, in a quart-sized Ziploc-type bag.

"The two things people always mention are the shoes and the baggies," TSA chief Kip Hawley said. Eventually, new technology will eliminate those twin annoyances, but "unfortunately that won't be in 2008," he said. "It's doing well in laboratories, then we have to see how it works in the real world."

After you walk through the metal detector, that nosy body imager looms. Not everyone has to go through it, only those selected -- randomly or otherwise -- for extra screening. You can refuse to be scanned, but then you have to submit to a pat-down instead. Ninety percent of passengers in the Phoenix airport, where the scanners were tested earlier, opted for the machine, Chertoff said.

We reporters initially thought we'd get to see ourselves after being scanned, and were a bit peeved when TSA officials ruled that we could see only the image of a TSA security officer who volunteered to model. And here I'd sucked in my stomach, straightened my back and raised my arms -- you have to make an overhead "O" -- ever so gracefully. Would I look like a ballerina, or Wild Bill Hagy starting the O-R-I-O-L-E-S cheer?

But then, as we clustered around a monitor and saw -- really saw -- the TSA agent, I thought: Some questions are best left unanswered.

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