TSA Ramps Up Virtual 'Strip Searches'

July 17, 2008—

The Transportation Security Administration announced this week that security checkpoints at 21 of the nation's busiest airports will be getting scanners that take near-naked photos of passengers.

After placing embarrassing liquids in see-through baggies and exposing unsightly bare feet, what's a little more humiliation in the name of safety in the skies?

According to some people, it's a violation of your rights.

"It's a virtual strip search," American Civil Liberties Union director of technology and liberty Barry Steinhardt said. "If Playboy published these pictures, there would be members of Congress calling them pornography."

Within just a few seconds of stepping inside, the portal uses millimeter wave technology to generate a graphic 3-D image that outlines the nude contours of passengers' bodies. In doing so, it also detects any explosives, metallic or non-metallic weapons, and other objects carried anywhere on the body. Click here to learn more about the technology from TSA.

According to TSA spokeswoman Lara Uselding, the new technology in the L3 portals represents the "first huge advancement" over the ubiquitous metal detectors first deployed in the 1970s. She said that checks are in place to ensure passengers' privacy.

Privacy Violation?
Multiple procedures, including the blurring of the face and automatic deletion of images, protect passengers' privacy, Uselding said.

Most importantly, she added, "the officer who directs you into the portal never sees the image." Instead, a second officer who is "off in a remote location" reads the image and "never makes eye contact" with the scanned passenger, she said.

The L3 portals have been tested for the past few months in 10 airports across the country, where they were used as an alternative to a personal pat-down search, as a secondary screening procedure. According to Uselding, 96 percent of the passengers at John F. Kennedy and Los Angeles airports who were given the option, chose the portal over the pat-down.

The privacy procedures are not good enough for Steinhardt, however, who called TSA's new rollout "security theater."

"Almost no passengers know that once you go through this portal, they're displaying their body," he said. He wants the TSA to show passengers an example of what the image looks like before they get scanned, which they currently do not do.

"TSA does what it can to screen the modesty of passengers going through. People can complain, but this is the world we live in now. Like it or not, it has to be done," said Aviation Week writer Benet Wilson.

Security or for Show?
Like Wilson, many passengers say anything is worth it for safety, and millimeter wave technology portals have already proved effective in several courtrooms across the country, and at diamond mines worldwide, where they are used to scan employees for concealed stones.

"This major step-up in technology, coupled with our enhanced security training for our officers, will elevate security across the board ... [and] will greatly enhance our ability to find small IED components made of common items, which remain the greatest threat," TSA administrator Kip Hawley said.

The expansion of wave technology portals comes along with a rollout of advanced technology X-ray machines to screen baggage, which Steinhardt said should be the greater priority.

"It's high time that TSA actually screens luggage, and I hope that this works," he said.

"The dirty little secret here is that this is mostly for show," Steinhardt added. "TSA already did the single most important thing in terms of aircraft safety, and that was ordering that the cockpit doors be secured. ... Most of what has gone on since has been security theater, rather than real security."

Wilson expressed relief, though, that TSA was finally stepping up technology, with both the passenger imaging portals and the new X-ray machines.

"I think they need to start rolling them out," she said. "I would like to see them in more airports."

For better or worse, the new portals are also expected to cut down on wait time in security lines, by trimming the time officers spend on manual pat-downs. For some people, that just might be worth the indecent exposure.

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