Friday, January 8, 2010
The attempted bombing of an airplane on Christmas Day could lead to more widespread use of whole-body imaging scanners. Some airports have started using the devices, but critics are worried that the machines invade passengers' privacy. Some in Congress even want to limit their use.
But experts say full-body scanners are much more effective than the metal detectors commonly in use at airports, which have no capacity to detect explosives. And they say a lot of the privacy issues have been solved.
A company called American Science and Engineering Inc. manufactures body-scanning machines that have been used in pilot tests at a few airports in the U.S. The scanner it makes is about the size of a tall refrigerator. Passengers stand in front of the machine with their arms lifted from their sides. The scan itself takes less than 10 seconds and produces an image that looks similar to a charcoal outline.
The system is configured with privacy software that blurs the passenger's face.
Joe Reiss is the vice president of marketing at American Science and Engineering. He argues that the machines aren't really revealing at all.
"We're not showing any detail of the person themselves really; [it's] just confined to the outline ... almost silhouette-ish in nature," Reiss says.
At airports where similar scanners are in use, the people who view the images are in a separate room, away from the passengers, so they don't know who they're looking at.
Reiss says he thinks the privacy concerns with body scanners have been addressed, and airports should be using the technology more.
"The threat is real," Reiss says. "We saw it with Flight 253. ... It's unfortunate, but it's the world we live in."
Still, some lawmakers remain concerned. Jason Chaffetz is a Republican congressman from Utah who co-authored a bill to block wider use of whole-body scans. He helped write the legislation after seeing other types of scans that he says were more anatomically revealing.
"Do we really need to take nude pictures of Grandma or my 8-year-old daughter in order to be able to secure an airplane?" Chaffetz says. "I have a hard time with that."
Chaffetz says that as the privacy software gets better, he might end up supporting the technology. But he's clearly uncomfortable with it. And he says there are other options, including placing more bomb-sniffing dogs in airports.
Douglas Laird, former head of security for Northwest Airlines, is in favor of the technology. He says he doesn't like the current policy that allows passengers to choose a pat-down instead of a body scan, calling the option to opt out "nonsensical and ill-advised."
He says even at the few airports that currently have whole-body imaging scanners, the one person who actually might have a bomb in his pants could avoid getting scanned. And because security screeners tend to be reluctant to really touch people during a pat-down, it's difficult to detect explosives by that method.
"If you want to keep bombs off airplanes," Laird says, "it's a gap that really needs filling."
The TSA says it is planning to deploy 300 more full-body scanning machines at airports. Meanwhile, the issue is on the agenda at congressional hearings later this month.