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August 1, 2009 at 12:38 pm #77000
July 31, 2009, 10:36PM
By SHANNON BUGGS
Airport tests scanners detecting more than threats
Devices offer travelers a chance to save time at the price of modesty
Bruce Brenneman removes his shoes, belt and every item in his pants pockets and still he sets off the alarms at airport security.
“I have two metal hips and I have to go through security, so I know it's going to take me longer,” said the Phoenix resident before entering the security check-in line at Bush Intercontinental Airport on Friday.
Sure enough, he set off the alarms and had to submit to a search with a metal-detecting wand followed by a pat down of his arms, chest, stomach, hips and legs.
As Brenneman stood with his arms over his head with his fingers laced, then straight out and shoulder high, he could see the two machines that could rescue him from such searches in the future — at the immodest price of a virtual look under his clothes.
On Friday the Transportation Security Administration began a 60-day test in Intercontinental's Terminal E of two types of updated imaging technology machines that scan for metallic and nonmetallic security threats without physical contact with travelers.
Both of the machines —the millimeter wave and the backscatter X-ray —have drawn criticism because their image scans reveal anatomical details, as if a camera looked underneath each person's clothes to take a blurry picture of every bump and bulge on the body.
“Both are being used in primary screening, so it's in lieu of the metal detector screening,” said TSA spokeswoman Andrea McCauley. “but it is 100 percent voluntary, so if passengers don't want to go through it they don't have to.”
Passengers who refuse to go through the imaging machines will be required to go through a metal detector and submit to a wand search and a pat down like Brenneman endured.
“I think those machines are wonderful, when they work right and are staffed,” said Brenneman, who used one in the Phoenix airport whenever it was operational, which he said wasn't often.
An X-ray or a pat down
Lynda Anderson, an airline gate agent working at Intercontinental, doesn't like either choice.
“It takes too long to get a pat down, but those imaging machines are very intimidating,” she said. “It makes me nervous to have everyone watching me and I'm thinking what can they see and what can't they see.”
The images are visible only to a single screener, who cannot directly see the person being scanned. Other passengers cannot see the images.
The original backscatter machines installed in 2007 produced images so vivid that they prompted a political effort to ban the devices. The TSA pulled them out of all airports.
“We've put a lot of privacy filters into place,” McCauley said. “The machines can't store any images. Once the image is cleared, it's cleared forever.”
The second-generation machines that now are being tested at the Burbank, Calif. airport and at Intercontinental blur the faces on the scanned images. But the cloud-colored images still show anatomically correct chalky outlines of people's figures and body parts.
The first-generation millimeter wave machines didn't draw as much uproar about their images, and are now in 19 airports across the country.
The second iteration machines, now being tested in Houston, Cleveland and Rochester, N.Y., produce black-and white renderings with stark lines showing the edges of clothing that appears transparent in the images.
2 systems tested here
Houston's Intercontinental is the only U.S. airport testing both systems simultaneously. The TSA has not purchased any of the equipment, which is on loan from the manufacturers.
“We'll gather the results and make determinations based on the results,” McCauley said. “We're testing a lot of things—the speed of the technology and passenger acceptance are things we will take into consideration.”
Brenneman offered to be the first passenger to go through either of the new machines on Friday during a media demonstration, but it turned out he was a few hours too early to be checked by the screeners trained on the new equipment.
“Figures,” he said before going through his three-minute security search and boarding his early afternoon flight home.
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