Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Starting this week at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, passengers selected for additional security screening will have a choice. They can submit to a pat-down search (common practice since 9/11), or spend 20 seconds getting scanned by an X-ray device designed to reveal weapons metal detectors can't spot.
The device — known as a "backscatter" machine — uses low-intensity radiation to peer through clothing for contraband such as plastic explosives, knives or guns. In the process, it reveals love handles, beer bellies and other, more sensitive, body areas.
(Photo -- Actual image: What screeners see with new machines. /
American Science and Engineering, Inc.)
It is yet another of the indignities that have made flying unpleasant in the age of terrorism. Privacy groups call it intolerable. But a closer look suggests that the technology has been toned down enough that it represents a reasonable compromise between safety and privacy, one that many fliers will find preferable to being touched by screeners:
The technology is already being used abroad. Since last year, more than 2 million passengers at London's Heathrow Airport selected for extra screening have undergone the scans, using equipment that's far more revealing than that used in the TSA program.
After being shown a sample image of what the machine produces — including identifiable outlines of breasts and genitalia — 94% at Heathrow opted for the scan instead of a pat-down, says Peter Kant, a vice president at Rapiscan Systems, a California company that makes the devices used in London.
In the USA, the technology has been used for years at prisons and by officials searching for illegal drugs at border crossings. Depending on how things go in the pilot program at Sky Harbor and another yet-to-be-determined airport, the machines could be installed in airports across the nation.
Yes, it's sad that this is what air travel has come to. But weapons that can't be picked up by metal detectors represent a major opportunity for terrorists and a threat to air travelers. As long as that threat exists, modesty will have to take a back seat to security.
Body scanners are a virtual strip-search that Americans should not be subjected to. They offer very little security value in return for the cost to our dignity and privacy.
Let's be clear: The body scanners — known as "backscatter" — are X-ray devices that expose us to radiation. And the government has not carefully studied what long-term effects that radiation will have on frequent fliers, or even casual ones.
But of more immediate concern, they create incredibly graphic images of our naked bodies. Those images will reveal not only our private body parts, but also intimate medical details such as colostomy bags or the effects of a mastectomy.
The government is now touting its ability to hide these revealing images. The problem is that masking the revealing images is likely to degrade the very pictures of weapons and explosives that the X-rays are supposed to find. In other words, to have any potential security value, they are going to need to be graphic. How long will it be before the TSA succumbs to the pressure to go back to exposing the full image?
And the inconvenient truth is that the government has a very poor track record of keeping Americans' personal information private. It is sadly predictable that the body image of a famous person, or even ordinary people, will be sold for profit or perverse amusement. Even a few such incidents will make us all feel more exposed and could have a devastating effect on our very fragile airline industry.
I have no doubt we would be marginally safer if we were all forced to fly naked. But that's just not something that Americans would accept — and neither should they accept this machine.
There are less intrusive technologies for detecting explosives. One example is explosive detection portals, which blow air on passengers and look for molecules of explosives. That kind of a technology is where the government should be focusing its resources and public relations efforts.
We don't need to fly naked to be safe.
Barry Steinhardt is director of the American Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty project.