New security scan at DFW Airport has privacy advocates worried

By SUZANNE MARTA / The Dallas Morning News
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Transportation Security Administration officials are getting a more detailed picture of some passengers at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport these days.

The D/FW security officers have been quietly testing two "millimeter wave whole body imaging" machines – elevator-sized screening devices that reveal, within seconds, what's underneath travelers' clothes.

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TSA officials have said that the machines could speed up the screening process while allowing them to prevent prohibited items from getting past security – whether they're metal or not – without having to physically search passengers.

The magnetometer that passengers currently walk through detects only metal objects.

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Image from millimeter wave whole body imaging machine
View larger More photos Photo store But both the millimeter wave and the so-called "backscatter" X-ray machines being tested at airports in Phoenix and Los Angeles generated outcries from privacy advocates who say the images are too revealing.

"These are virtual strip-searches," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Project for the American Civil Liberties Union. "American passengers should not have to parade naked in front of security screeners in order to board the plane."

He said the technology should be "used as a last resort, not a first resort."

The TSA has added a modesty filter on the machines to make the images appear less graphic and have added additional safeguards, said spokeswoman Andrea McCauley. And passengers may decline to go through the millimeter wave machine and receive a pat-down by a security officer instead.

"Our first responsibility is to preserve privacy and the protection of passengers," Ms. McCauley said. She said the millimeter wave images would be "hands-free and user-friendly."

Darren Johnson, a Salt Lake City resident, said he didn’t realize he was using some new technology when TSA officials asked him to step into the body-imaging machine on Thursday.

He said the additional scanning appeared to be unnecessary.

“It seems like metal detectors catch everything they’re worried about anyway,” said Mr. Johnson, who was catching a connecting flight as he returned from Cancun.

Rusty Haggard, of Kyle, said he didn’t realize at the time that the screening was optional for travelers.

“They need to be clearer that you have an option,” he said.

Mr. Haggard, who was preparing to board a flight to Austin, said the screening was “intrusive. It’s too bad it’s come to this.”

Mr. Johnson agreed that the technology was intrusive, but added: “I’d be more weirded out if the one in there was my wife or daughters.”

The millimeter wave machine uses two antennas that project electromagnetic waves over a person's body to construct a 3-dimensional image within 2 seconds. It takes about 10 to 12 seconds for a TSA officer – who is located in a remote office – to review the image and communicate via headset with colleagues at the checkpoint whether a passenger is okay to go.

Travelers' faces on the images are blurred, and the files will be deleted immediately after being reviewed. The machines do not have the capacity to store or send files, Ms. McCauley said.

Ms. McCauley said airports are implementing the machines in different ways. Some are using them as much as capacity allows; others are using them only if a passenger sets off an alarm or is selected for secondary screening.

At D/FW Airport, the millimeter wave machines are in international Terminal D, at the south end near Gate D18 and in the central part of the terminal near Gate D22.

The D/FW installation is part of a larger pilot of the technology. The TSA has purchased 38 of the $170,000 machines made by New York-based L-3 Communications Holdings Inc., and is adding them to airports based on size and available space.

The machines are already in use at airports in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Albuquerque, N.M., New York (John F. Kennedy), Denver and Washington D.C. (Reagan National). They'll be added to airports in Miami, Detroit and Las Vegas later this summer.

Installations at other D/FW terminals and other airports, including Dallas Love Field, have not been announced.

The imaging technology is also being used in a handful of U.S. courthouses and correctional facilities, and in international airports in Britain, Spain, Japan, Australia, Mexico, Thailand and The Netherlands.

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