At long last, an alternative to the pat-down.
Miami International Airport will begin using full-body scanners at security checkpoints this summer that can produce a clear three-dimensional image of passengers beneath their clothing. The scanners will be used for both domestic and international flights.
Miami International is one of several high-volume airports in the country selected as part of a pilot program by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration to test the millimeter-wave whole-body-imaging technology.
"MIA is always very willing to participate in any pilot programs that are sponsored by the federal government that can enhance security," said Lauren Stover, assistant director for the Miami-Dade Aviation Department. "Any next-generation technology puts us on the cutting edge of security solutions and MIA certainly wants to be a player in raising the bar."
About 200 of the "faster, clearer X-ray machines" have been installed at US airports such as Phoenix, Washington-Dulles, Washington-Reagan, Denver and Baltimore, according to a Transportation Security Administration release.
Other machines are being installed at Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas and Detroit airports.
At Miami International, one body scanner has been delivered to Concourse J and five more are to be placed at other security checkpoints throughout the airport, said Sari Koshetz, spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration.
All six scanners are expected to be up and running by early fall, she said.
Passengers selected by an airline or the Transportation Security Administration for a secondary screening will be asked to stand inside the machine, which looks like a big glass box, while a three-dimensional image of their bodies is generated.
The radio-wave technology allows airport security to detect prohibited items — weapons, explosives and other metal and non-metal objects — concealed under layers of clothing without physical contact, Ms. Koshetz said.
"Some people object to being touched, so therefore this is an alternative to the physical pat-down without physical contact," she said.
Passengers who aren't so thrilled with an X-ray that reveals all will still be able to opt for a pat-down, Ms. Koshetz said.
However, some question how voluntary the procedure will be — and whether those consenting really know what they're getting in to.
"We really question how voluntary this test it is, no matter what the TSA says," said Charlene Sawyer, president of the Greater Miami American Civil Liberties Union. "The TSA may say these scanners will be used only for secondary screeningÖ but these scanners will be used as a primary search for random selectees."
The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the use to the scanners as part of a routine scanning procedure, she said. It's only OK when there is probable cause, although what that means is also up for debate, Ms. Sawyer said.
To protect passenger privacy, the black-and-white images will be viewed at a remote location by separate personnel.
In the image, the person's face will be blurred and the picture will be deleted after inspection. The machines have zero storage capabilities, the Administration said.
Yet Ms. Sawyer said the American Civil Liberties Union doesn't feel assured that these measures will adequately protect passenger privacy.
For passengers, she said, the X-rays are "the technological equivalent of parading around naked with a bag on their head.
"Just as easily as they can blur your face they can un-blur your face," Ms. Sawyer said. "You don't have any assurances. No assurances at all that these images aren't going to end up on the Internet.
"As usual with almost all surveillance practices that they have put into place," Ms. Sawyer said of the Transportation Security Administration, "there are really no policies that govern the retention of these images."
Ms. Sawyer said one of her organization's greatest concerns was that the machines reveal medical devices, which could breach rights to medical-records privacy.
"That degree of examination is pretty significant and for some people it is humiliating," Ms. Sawyer said. "Private medical records are private and this just puts it out there for whoever's in the next room to see."
The Civil Liberties Union hopes to see "strong, independent and legally binding assurances" that the privacy policies regarding the new technology will be enforced, Ms. Sawyer said.
The scanners are proven technology, but the Transportation Security Administration hopes that by gathering data on staffing, operation and passenger flow of the machines, it can optimize security's performance and the passenger's experience before the machines become an airport norm, Ms. Koshetz said.
"We do anticipate using them more broadly," she said.
The American Civil Liberties Union's Ms. Sawyer's response: Hold your horses.
"What does that mean?" Ms. Sawyer asked of the "proven technology" statement.
In both internal and external studies, the great majority of explosives and weapons were not identified in the whole-body images, she said.
"So obviously they're not looking at this the right way.
"We just think that the TSA has still not addressed many of the basic problems with transportation security," Ms. Sawyer said, "and they're spending large amounts of money on these invasive devices."