High-tech airport scans work — too well, say opponents

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 29, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253 last week has revived a battle in Congress over the use of whole-body imaging technology to screen airline passengers.

Some legislators argue that the machines, which cost about $170,000 each and are in use at 19 U.S. airports, could have detected the explosive powder the 23-year-old Nigerian was carrying and should be approved for widespread use. Abdulmutallab didn't go through the whole-body scanner at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport before he boarded the Northwest flight to Detroit.

Others, however, call a whole-body scan a "virtual strip search" that should be used only if there's probable cause to assume that someone might be carrying explosives.

In June, the House of Representatives voted 310-118 to prohibit the widespread use of whole-body imaging technology as a primary tool for airport screening, a measure introduced by Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah.

Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican who co-sponsored the legislation however, called the scanning "a virtual strip search" and said security officials can use less invasive methods such as bomb-sniffing dogs to detect explosives.

"It is precisely the same as being pulled into a side room and being ordered to remove your clothes physically," he said. "In either event, your nude image is being inspected by several security guards."

However, another California Republican, Rep. Dan Lungren, who's been promoting the technology for four years, said the Christmas Day incident should help support his cause when Congress reconvenes in January.

"This is a specific example of what can happen," he said.

Lungren said he was screened by one of the machines at Washington Reagan National airport.

"They said to me as I'm standing there, 'So you have an artificial hip, and it's your right hip,' " Lungren said. "And I said, 'Yes, that's right.' And they said, 'Oh, it looks like you left some change in your pocket.' "

Lungren said the machines are less invasive than being patted down by a security guard.

"I would much prefer this. . . . I would rather not have hands on me frankly," he said.

The technology picked up a key endorsement over the weekend from Sen. Joe Lieberman, the head of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

"Those privacy concerns, which are frankly mild, have to fall in the face of the ability of these machines to detect material like this explosive on this individual," the Connecticut independent said in an interview on "Fox News Sunday."

As testing of the technology continues, the Transportation Security Administration said the machines are being used for primary screening at six U.S. airports: San Francisco, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Miami, Albuquerque, N.M., and Tulsa, Okla. Thirteen other airports are using them for secondary screening: Los Angeles, Phoenix, Ronald Reagan Washington National, Atlanta, Baltimore-Washington, Denver, Detroit, Dallas-Fort Worth, Jacksonville, Fla., Tampa, Fla., Indianapolis, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and Richmond, Va.

The conservative McClintock said the Christmas Day incident raises questions of why a person on a terrorist watch list had been allowed to enter the country and why U.S. authorities hadn't revoked his visa, which British officials did.

"I think we need to make a distinction between an 81-year-old grandmother ... and a 23-year-old Nigerian national who's already on the terrorist watch list and who's already had his visa revoked by Great Britain," he said.

McClintock has an unlikely ally: the American Civil Liberties Union.

In a background paper, the ACLU said that government officials are "essentially taking a naked picture of air passengers" and that air travelers shouldn't be required to display personal details of their bodies as a prerequisite to boarding a plane.

"Those images reveal not only our private body parts, but also intimate medical details like colostomy bags," the ACLU said. "That degree of examination amounts to a significant — and for some people humiliating — assault on the essential dignity of passengers that citizens in a free nation should not have to tolerate."

Lungren, who's been working on the issue since he headed a homeland security subcommittee, said that the screening must show private parts to make sure that explosives are not hidden there. The Nigerian suspect was found carrying the explosive material in his underwear.

Advocates of the screening say they've incorporated safeguards to assure privacy. For example, faces are blurred, and the security officer who views the image never sees the passenger because he's viewing a monitor in a nearby room.

U.S. airports using whole-body imaging

Albuquerque International Sunport Airport

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport

Denver International Airport

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport

Detroit Metro Airport

Indianapolis International Airport

Jacksonville International Airport

Las Vegas McCarran International Airport

Los Angeles International Airport

Miami International Airport

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport

Raleigh-Durham International Airport

Richmond International Airport

San Francisco International Airport

Salt Lake City International Airport

Tampa International Airport

Tulsa International Airport

ON THE WEB

The Transportation Security Administration has a video demonstrating how advanced imaging technology works

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