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"Sky Harbor delays start of controversial backscatter X-ray"


 
Sunday, December 24, 2006

Airport delays start of controversial scanner 
By Ginger D. Richardson
The Arizona Republic


A controversial anti-terrorism tool that was supposed to be up and running
at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport before the holidays will not be
operational until early next year.

The Transportation Security Administration has backed off of plans to
introduce the new technology, called backscatter, because of a technical
glitch. The agency also said it decided that it was not a good idea to try
to test the machine during the busy holiday travel season, when security
lines are longer than usual.

"The last thing we wanted to do was start this during one of the busiest
travel times of the year," said Nico Melendez, an agency spokesman.

Phoenix Sky Harbor would still be the first airport in the country to test
the equipment, which uses X-ray technology to "see through" clothing and
take exceptionally clear pictures of the human body in an effort to find
explosives and other weapons. 

Melendez wouldn't be specific about when the machine will be up and running
but said it is still expected to be in place at one of Terminal 4's security
checkpoints within the next couple of months. The agency will test the
machines at a handful of the country's other airports during 2007 as part of
a nationwide pilot program.

The agency said it was not delaying the launch of the equipment because of
privacy concerns or health issues. The backscatter has been likened to a
virtual strip search by the American Civil Liberties Union, and because it
is an X-ray, it has raised fears that it could expose passengers to
potentially harmful radiation.

The Transportation Security Administration maintains that both concerns are
unfounded. The agency said it has found a way to refine the machine's images
so that the normally graphic pictures can be blurred in certain areas while
still being effective in detecting threats.

Agency officials also said the machine's X-rays are much different from the
X-rays found in a doctor's office, which are designed to penetrate the skin.
The backscatter is designed only to "see through" clothing. As a result,
Melendez said, the level of radiation is much lower, making it safe for even
frequent fliers. The agency said the backscatter produces the same level of
radiation exposure that a passenger would experience on a flight between
Phoenix and Las Vegas. 

The agency was forced to push back the backscatter launch because the system
requires the X-ray images to be viewed by a security agent in a remote
location - away from the checkpoints - for privacy reasons. But the agency
was having trouble setting up the equipment so that it would work properly
with the airport's wireless connections.

During the pilot program, the X-ray machine will be used only as a secondary
screening measure, meaning that passengers who fail the standard screening
process will be able to choose between the backscatter or a traditional
pat-down search.

Information on the backscatter device: www.tsa.gov

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