Body-revealing scanners now widely used at U.S. airports


Backscatter X-ray and millimeter-wave imaging technologies that give Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers the ability to see through passengers' clothing and look for prohibited objects hidden next to their bodies are being used at an increasing number of U.S. airports.

Voluntary use of the technologies by travelers reportedly has been high, even though the new technologies allow security screeners to see intimate details of passengers' bodies and personal medical items.

A traditional X-ray machine detects hard and soft materials by the variation in radiation passing through an object. Backscatter X-ray units detect the radiation coming back from the person or item being scanned, so in effect they work much more like radar scanners rather than traditional X-ray machines.

"Millimeter Wave technology, another form of body-imaging technology, uses non-ionizing electromagnetic waves to generate an image based on the energy reflected from the body," the TSA says on its website.

Pilot program expands

In February 2007, the TSA began a backscatter X-ray passenger screening pilot program at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (PHX). The program was expanded in May to Los Angeles International Airport and last month to New York John F Kennedy International Airport.

Backscatter screening machines generate a narrow, low-intensity X-ray beam that scans a passenger at high speed. The amount of radiation during the scan is equal to 15 minutes of exposure to natural background radiation on a sunny day.

The system "creates an image that looks like a chalk outline of the passenger with threats outlined, but does not reveal facial features," according to Billerica, Mass-based American Science and Engineering (ASE), manufacturer of the SmartCheck Z Backscatter Personnel Screening System used by the TSA. Additionally, "the SmartCheck systems installed at JFK, LAX and Phoenix Sky Harbor cannot store, export, print or transmit images."

Backscatter X-ray imaging stops at flesh and is used for secondary screening as an alternative to pat-down searches , and passengers are given the option, explained TSA spokeswoman Lauren Wolf.

"To date, approximately 90 percent of passengers have opted for screening using SmartCheck rather than undergoing a pat-down," ASE said in May.

Millimeter-wave scanners

In October 2007, L-3 Communications announced that TSA had begun testing its L-3 ProVision millimeter-wave body-screening portals at PHX.

"L-3's millimeter-wave technology pinpoints objects made of any material, including liquids, rubber, wire, plastic, and metal, to quickly and easily locate weapons, contraband, and other threats concealed under an individual's clothing," the company said. "The portals detect concealed and hidden objects such as metallic and non-metallic weapons and virtually all known explosives , and other contraband in seconds."

"The images generated through millimeter wave are lower-resolution than that of x-ray backscatter, and as a result, privacy may be less of a concern for the traveling public," the TSA said.

According to Farran Technologies, an Irish manufacturer of millimeter-wave scanners, the technology exists to extend the screening area to approximately 160 feet. Given this capability, people in airports could be scanned by security personnel without their knowledge.

Wolf said there are now 38 millimeter-wave scanners in use at U.S. airports, with an additional 82 units to be deployed by the end of next year.

Privacy concerns

Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Program of the American Civil Liberties Union, met with TSA Administrator Kip Hawley in October 2007 to discuss passenger-imaging technologies such as active millimeter wave. Steinhardt subsequently expressed his concerns in a public statement.

"First, this technology produces strikingly graphic images of passengers' bodies. Those images reveal not only our private body parts, but also intimate medical details like colostomy bags. That degree of examination amounts to a significant - and for some people humiliating - assault on the essential dignity of passengers that citizens in a free nation should not have to tolerate," Steinhardt said

"Second, we question the supposed voluntary nature of this scan - TSA's assumption that the people who "consent" to this body scan really understand what they're consenting to, and that it will long remain something over which passengers will be allowed to exercise any choice at all," he continued.

"Third, we are skeptical of the privacy safeguards that the TSA is touting," said Steinhardt. "They say that they are obscuring faces, but that is just a software fix that can be undone as easily as it is applied. And obscuring faces does not hide the fact that rest of the body will be vividly displayed."


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" equal to 15 minutes of exposure to natural background radiation on a sunny day."

The sun isn't "natural background radiation". Did they mean to say "15 minutes of exposure to natural background radiation" (negligible) or "15 minutes of exposure to the sun" (a lot).

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well let's let the American's be the test gerbils and in 10 years time when there is enough time to do a full case study to make proper data available then it might be worth considering.

Meanwhile I will continue to decline all unnecessary X-rays like this and the annual medical check. When I had my first check up here they could not believe that I had never had a chest x-ray in 38 years

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In this age of terror, and an impending cold war on the horizon, we must be prepared to accept these new technologies that will save us from attack.

The Government wants to protect us and make us safe, we have to accept new measures, as they are in our best interest.

Let`s keep our skys and nation safe. Great technology.

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^^^ Hogwash. Your government wants to start killing you all off slowly with radiation poisoning. It's ok, you will maintain your right to hang a pair of bear arms.

back on topic... No thanks.I don't wish to be scanned in one of these. Americans can have it. had my fair share of scans with ultrasounds.. will avoid any unnecessary scanning.

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Look at all the non Americans complaining, yawn....

We are doing this for your own safety folks, that is all, nothing sinister behind this.

The US would not use a device that would harm anyone, they have tests that must be paseed before a product is approved.

It`s a bit like the GM food debate, the uneducated Europeans call the "FRankenstein food", where as we have grown them for years, amde great profuts and suffered no ill health.

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righttobeararms -

The terror is in giving the apperance that there is impending terror - and that at any cost we should strip away freedoms that were fought for and a dear price paid. This may be a good technology, but it is in no way justified on the basis of potential terrorist activities.

Let's hope they use the data to create standard clothing sizes, estimate body weight for the airlines, give the pervs a peak, etc. - something useful.

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It's only a matter of time before embarrassing scans of celebrities and politicians make their way to the net.

As for me, the fat-ass TSA agent is going to have to do it the hard way.

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Good looking ladies and Lads will be thoroughly checked by the male and female workers.

Nice prince Albert on your Johnson sir :p

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"In this age of terror"

"We are doing this for your own safety"

And I thought the Chinese were supposed to be the ones with abuses of civil liberties (Olympic quotes and all that) ? And it's really patronising when we get these homeland security preachings about doing things for our own safety and this age of terror. The truth of the matter is that this world would be a far safer place without the superpowers ideas of peacekeeping. Just look at their usernames, Right To Bear Arms ? Colonel America ?

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Yeah, look at the non-Americans complaining..? Whoever they may be...

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The US would not use a device that would harm anyone, they have tests that must be paseed before a product is approved.

The US would not use a device that would harm anyone? Well, you mean aside from their weapons of mass destruction used to great effect in Afghanistan and Iraq. And thalidomide which passed many tests before it was approved.

Also, the wattage of those x-ray machines we walk through a buzz everytime we have a couple of coins in our pocket? The wattage (or whatever it is called) has gone down, down, down for decades because the original strength was too much. It is still not as low as Russia's. Why? Because Russia has had some experience in how much x-rays the human body should be exposed to.

Trust your government if you want to; just be careful.

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Nice prince Albert on your Johnson sir :p

Assuming the security screeners can tell a Prince Albert from an ampallang....

This would seem to be a security measure too far. By all means, claim the right to arm bears if you want, but I don't want the authorities and their designated drones to be able to see my La Perla and beyond.

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