Airport Security Enlists Full Body Scanners

The Transportation Security Administration is taking a more technologically sophisticated route in detecting potential security threats with whole-body scanners, machines meant to replace the magnetometer metal detectors, which have been in place since the 70’s.

The advanced imaging technology (AIT) takes images of passengers’ bodies and has been aggressively pursued in the wake of the December terror attempt, where explosives devoid of metallic material slipped past metal detectors.

According to the most recent numbers on the T.S.A. web Site, 450 AIT units began deployment in March, which were added to the 142 units already in place.

“The FY 2011 budget request includes $573 million to purchase 500 Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) units and to operationally staff, operate and maintain 1,000 units, which includes the 500 units we are deploying now.”

This budget request is on track to replace three-fourths of the magnetic scanners at all 2,200 security checkpoints in the 450 commercial airports within the U.S. by the end of 2011.

There are two types of AIT’s currently used by the T.S.A., the backscatter and the millimeter wave. The millimeter wave uses electromagnetic waves to create black-and-white, three dimensional images of the passenger’s body. The backscatter units project X-ray beams over the passenger’s body to generate reflections of the body on a monitor.

(Click here to view the millimeter wave unit image. Click here to view the backscatter image.)

The images, which delve beneath the clothes and produce ghost-like yet detailed negatives of passengers’ naked bodies, are viewed by screeners located in rooms out of sight of the security lines. The officers who view the pictures never see the passengers in real-life, according to the T.S.A.

T.S.A. claims to further protect passengers’ privacy by blurring his or her face as it appears on the image and by rendering the technology unable to store, print, transmit or save the image—though at least one detailed report has countermanded this statement.

The report, conducted by Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), says, among other things, that the machines can save images and that the privacy settings can be scaled up and down among 10 different privacy settings.

Also of note, passengers can opt for a pat-down instead of the screening.

Other concerns arise with the radiation emitted by the backscatter machine. Critics of the machine say airports should employ only the millimeter wave technology, which has been found to be harmless. However, T.S.A. maintains that flyers subjected to a backscatter scan receive radiation exposure equivalent to that of riding on a routine plane flight for two minutes.

Despite the privacy and radiation concerns, most polls reveal passenger approval rates of AIT’s between 74 – and 81 percent.

Gallup, for example, found that 78 percent of air travelers approved airports’ use of AIT’s.

According to the T.S.A., the machines have already been instrumental in detecting items such as pocket knives, small bags of drugs and syringes, which until now may have been too small for detection.