Travelers accept body scanners as 'wave' of future

W.J. Hennigan (Contact)
Sunday, June 22, 2008
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Judging from the reaction of travelers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, a new device that enables security screeners to peek through their clothing is likely to become a permanent fixture at airports across the United States.

The image of a TSA-supplied model who has gone through the millimeter wave portal screening machine at Reagan National Airport on Tuesday, June 17, 2008 is seen on the computer monitor in the viewing room, which is located away from the machines. The person's face is also always blurred out for added privacy. (Barbara L. Salisbury / The Washington Times)

While civil libertarians and privacy advocates complain the new millimeter wave scanner conducts a "virtual strip search," travelers told The Washington Times during an informal survey that the phone-booth-sized machine has saved them time and reinforced their sense of security.

"It was quick," said Charlene Cerzear of Prince Frederick, Va., as she gathered her belongings to catch a recent flight. "I travel all the time in my job, so anything that cuts down on time works for me."

"I hope they do it more often, because I'll feel more secure when I get on a plane," said Stephanie Scaglione of Seminole, Fla., as she joined her husband and daughter on the way to their terminal.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recently installed the device at Reagan Airport as part of a pilot program to test the machine's efficacy - and the public's reaction to it. The machine is being used to examine passengers at major airports in Baltimore, Phoenix, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Detroit, Denver, Dallas/Fort Worth and Albuquerque, N.M.

In coming months, the scanner could be employed at dozens of other airports, TSA spokeswoman Lauren Wolf said.

"We're still looking at it in the pilot phase, and it's difficult to predict where it will be placed," Ms. Wolf said. "But we see it is important technology, a great layer of security, and it is certainly very promising in its protection capabilities."

The millimeter wave scanner bounces radio waves off passengers' bodies to "see" under their clothes and produces near-nude images of travelers to detect weapons, explosives and other contraband.

"The technology is far more intrusive than people understand," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a nonprofit public-interest research group. "The real issue is that the machines essentially act as digital cameras, and these images can be stored and distributed."

However, the TSA, which operates the scanner, says its policy is to delete a photo as soon as it is cleared by a security screener.

Travelers are selected for scanning on a "random and continuous basis" and must first clear the metal detectors before they are ushered into the machine, the TSA said. Passengers who are leery of the technology - or who object in favor of modesty - can decline the scan and opt for a pat-down search instead.

TSA has posted signs leading up to the checkpoints stating that the images "are not saved or stored" and all "facial features are blurred."

Inside the scanner, travelers are directed to raise their arms and told to stand in two different positions as radio waves are beamed at them, generating a three-dimensional "photo" in real time. The picture is sent immediately to a security screener who sits in a separate room and reviews the image.

The entire process takes about 10 seconds.

"Personally, I'd rather walk through a machine than get a pat-down," said 1st Lt. Carpaccio Owens, a member of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, N.C. "If it makes for a safer environment and makes people feel safer, then why not?"

The TSA conducted a trial run of the scanner for The Times this week - and the results left little to the imagination.

A TSA employee walked through the machine and appeared as a black-and-white image on the security screener's computer. Her face was blurred, but her bra underwire and underwear were clearly visible. When an item was placed in her pants pocket, it was readily apparent.

Because of the graphic nature of the photos, the American Civil Liberties Union has decried the process a "virtual strip search," and EPIC has called it an outright invasion of privacy.

"I just hope [the images] don't show up on the Internet one day," EPIC's Mr. Rotenberg said. "Congress needs to make a more careful evaluation regarding this technology."

PHOTOGRAPHS BY BARBARA L. SALISBURY/THE WASHINGTON TIMES Left: TSA officer Lanita Stewart waits Tuesday while the millimeter wave portal scans passenger Amanda Crowe, of Jacksonville, Fla., at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport . The device uses radio waves that bounce off passengers' bodies to "see" under clothing to detect weapons, explosives and other contraband. Right: A traveler's image is seen on a TSA monitor in a viewing room, located away from the machines for added privacy.

Rebutting such criticisms, Ms. Wolf said the full-body scan is voluntary. She added that security screeners are alone in a locked room operating a computer that does not have Internet access or the capability to store or print images.

"The goal is to ensure security," she said. "And we're not forcing anybody to do anything they're not willing to do. I think the passenger acceptance speaks for itself."

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