8:55 PM EDT, April 17, 2008
A new body scanner installed Thursday at Kennedy Airport allows security screeners to look beneath travelers' clothing for concealed weapons.
Officials from the Transportation Security Administration, which is gradually introducing the machines at airports nationwide, said use of the new machine is strictly voluntary. Passengers flagged for a secondary screening can choose either to walk into the revolving-door-sized machine or agree to a physical pat-down.
Each machine presents a fuzzy, three-dimensional image of a person's body, exposing some curves. Some present an image of passengers in their undergarments or even naked.
Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Lara Uselding said the images are too fuzzy to expose details of the anatomy.
The scan is visible only to an officer in a separate room who never interacts with the passenger, she said. Faces are automatically blurred to ensure privacy and images are never saved -- even if a weapon is detected, Uselding said.
A single machine was installed at one checkpoint in Terminal 8, which serves American Airlines, American Eagle, Finnair, Jet Airways and Malev.
"We waited to roll this technology out to address some privacy concerns," Uselding said.
Jay Stanley, a privacy expert with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the agency is concerned nonetheless.
"These things often are introduced very gingerly with all the protections, but over the years they're stripped away," he said. "How long are they going to be voluntary? How much assurance can we really have that images are not going to end up on the Internet?"
Uselding said the agency has purchased 30 more machines, each costing about $150,000, and plans to install those at other airports nationwide over the next year. She was unable to specify which airports or whether other New York-area airports would be included.
A similar scanner was unveiled yesterday at Los Angeles International Airport. Another was installed at Phoenix Sky-Harbor International Airport in October.
Each scan takes about 15 seconds after passengers step in and lift their arms. Uselding said the machines pose no health risk and emit about 10,000 times less energy than a cell phone.
Called "millimeter wave scanners," the machines are being used on a trial basis while the TSA evaluates their effectiveness. They also are in limited use at international airports in seven countries, as well as a handful of courthouses across the nation.