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"TSA modifies backscatter X-ray"
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
TSA modifies screening machines
By Thomas Frank
A new airport screening machine that peers through travelers' clothing has
been modified so it won't show intimate body parts when it's tested at a
U.S. airport for the first time starting next month.
The modification to the controversial backscatter X-ray machine seeks to
quiet critics who have helped block its use in airports by saying the vivid
images shown to security screeners invade passenger privacy.
The new, altered images will show only cartoon-like black-and-white outlines
of each passenger.
But now the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is facing new
questions from experts who say the agency has weakened the effectiveness of
the low-intensity X-rays by fuzzing them up.
"You don't see fine detail," said Robert Gould, a radiology professor at the
University of California, San Francisco. "It's conceivable to me that (the
modified machines) would miss plastic explosives."
Plastic explosives are a major threat against airplanes because they evade
checkpoint metal detectors and a small amount could blow apart a jet.
"I would bet that I could take some plastic explosives, put them on my upper
thigh, and the blurring would let me get the stuff on board," said Andrew
Karam, a physicist and fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, a
national-security think tank.
Backscatter X-rays will debut at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport,
with a few other airports to follow. The TSA has lab-tested the machines and
will use covert agents to test them in airports before any broader roll-out.
"We aren't endorsing this particular technology, we're testing it," TSA
spokeswoman Ellen Howe said.
Manufacturer American Science and Engineering of suburban Boston got
$722,000 from the TSA to program its backscatter machine so body parts
wouldn't be visible to security screeners viewing images in separate rooms
The machines will be used only on passengers who require extra screening
beyond a metal detector and who opt for the X-ray over a customary pat-down.
American Science Vice President Joe Rice said the $100,000 SmartCheck
machine finds ceramic weapons and small metal objects that metal detectors
can miss. Can it find plastic explosives?
"I'm sure there are ways to defeat this technology," Rice said. "But this
type of technology is a dramatic leap forward from what is available today."
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