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"Backscatter X-ray: Let's kick these tires, OK?"
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Let's kick these tires, OK?
The Arizona Republic
X-ray Specs, glasses that supposedly looked right through people's clothes,
used to be confined to comic book ads and novelty catalogs.
Now, the real thing is getting a tryout at Phoenix's Sky Harbor
International Airport. And you don't need a pair of X-ray Specs to see that
there are potential issues with this technology.
Privacy, of course.
But there are other less obvious questions, including whether this is the
best use of limited resources for security, that also need thorough
discussion before this project should take off into general use.
Sky Harbor will be the Transportation Security Administration's first test
of a screening device that searches for hidden weapons and explosives by
showing a person's nude body. The trial will be expanded in early 2007 in a
nationwide pilot program.
The goal is to catch items that elude the metal detector.
The machine, which uses an X-ray process known as "backscatter," will be
offered as an alternative to pat-downs for travelers selected for additional
screening after the standard security check.
Critics call it a "virtual strip search" at the airport. The technology can
focus with a clarity that rivals Superman. But the agency says it has taken
many steps to answer privacy concerns.
Those steps include reducing the resolution so that bodies only appear as
rough outlines and transmitting the images to a remote location to be
viewed. The pictures won't be stored after the initial screening.
But it's conceivable that there would a push to use sharper imagery over
time, a temptation for employees to somehow pilfer photos and pressure to
keep a database.
All of this is just in the testing stages, the agency emphasizes. A
spokesman wouldn't comment on long-term plans for deploying the backscatter
Past news reports indicate that if the process can be made rapid enough, the
X-ray machines would be adopted for general screening.
No one wants to cut corners on security. But how much protection does this
project really add? Many of the most crucial steps in airport security, such
as hardening cockpit doors, have been adopted. Nor will the X-rays pick up
everything: Water and liquids of similar density, for instance, wouldn't be
spotted, according to one scientist.
The radiation from the X-ray machine is negligible. The security agency says
it's less than a passenger gets from flying at high altitudes. But some
experts are calling for a better analysis of the risks.
Meanwhile, there are lots of holes in our safety net that need attention.
The United States still lacks an effective way of checking the thousands of
containers that come through our ports every day. Nuclear material remains a
nightmare; efforts to keep such supplies secure, especially in the former
Soviet Union, should be stepped up.
The TSA notes that the cost of the machine at Sky Harbor is $100,000 to
$120,000, and the manufacturer is footing the costs of the trial run. The
fact that a company has a vested interest in promoting this product is one
more reason to be wary.
This is like a test drive in a new car. The fact that it runs well is not
the only reason to whip out your checkbook.
You also need to make sure that it really meets your needs.
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