Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Body scanners replace metal detectors in tryout at Tulsa airport

For the first time, some airline passengers will skip metal detectors and instead be screened by body scanning machines that look through clothing for hidden weapons, the Transportation Security Administration said Tuesday.

An experimental program that begins today at Tulsa International Airport will test whether the $170,000 body scanners could replace $10,000 metal detectors that have screened airline passengers since 1973. Airports in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami, Albuquerque and Salt Lake City will join the test in the next two months, TSA spokesman Christopher White said.

The scanners aim to close a loophole by finding non-metallic weapons such as plastic and liquid explosives, which the TSA considers a major threat. The machines raise privacy concerns because their images reveal outlines of private body parts.

"We're getting closer and closer to a required strip-search to board an airplane," said Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Privacy advocate Melissa Ngo fears that passengers won't understand that the scanners take vivid images that screeners view.

White said each scanner has explanatory signs on how the machines work and posters showing the image they create.

Passengers at the test airports will be instructed to go through the new scanners. Anyone who doesn't want to go through will be allowed to refuse and instead go through a metal detector and receive a pat-down, White said.

People in the scanner will stand with their arms raised and their face will be blurred out in the metallic-looking image on a nearby screen. TSA screeners view the images from inside a closed room near a checkpoint and immediately delete them.

"We've struck a very good balance between security and privacy," White said.

Christopher Bidwell, security chief at the Airports Council International trade group, said the scanner "really does not reveal as much as some people might think."

The scanners aim to address problems exposed by government probes in which covert agents got liquid explosives and detonators through airport checkpoints. A 2005 Homeland Security report urged better checkpoint technology.

Security analyst Bruce Schneier, a frequent critic of the TSA, said the scanners should improve security but warned that they take longer than metal detectors — 30 seconds vs. about 15 seconds per passenger. "There will be pressure to do the screening faster, which will be sloppier," Schneier said.

The scanners bounce harmless "millimeter waves" off passengers' bodies and use no radiation.

The TSA has done preliminary tests of the scanner on passengers who had just passed through metal detectors. Those tests found that the machines excel at finding hidden objects, White said.

Based on the results of the latest test, the TSA will decide at an undetermined date whether to use more body scanners in place of metal detectors.

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