TSA tries to assuage privacy concerns about full-body scans

Many experts say the full-body scanners would have detected the explosives carried aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day, but the machines have also raised privacy concerns over the detailed body image that is displayed as part of the screening.
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 4, 2010

It has come to this.

Already shoeless, beltless and waterless, more beleaguered air passengers will be holding their legs apart, raising their arms and effectively baring it all as they pass through U.S. airport security checkpoints.

Add the "full-body scan" to the list of indignities that some travelers are confronting in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, era of vigilance.

Federal authorities, working to close security gaps exposed by the thwarted Christmas Day terrorist attack on a Detroit-bound airliner, are multiplying the number of imaging machines at the nation's biggest airports. The devices scan passengers' bodies and produce X-ray-like images that can reveal objects concealed beneath clothes.

Forty units are in use at 19 airports, including Reagan National and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall airports. The Transportation Security Administration said it has ordered 150 more scanners to be installed early this year and has secured funding for an additional 300.

Passengers selected for a full-body scan can decline, but if they do, they must submit to full-body pat-downs by a TSA officer. The technology was introduced a couple of years ago, but U.S. airports have been slow to install the machines, partly because of privacy concerns raised by some members of Congress and civil liberties groups.

Seeing passengers beset by years of an ever-evolving airport drill -- at first handing over belts, cellphones and laptops for screening, then shoes, and later, dealing with restrictions on gels and liquids -- some activists and experts are asking how much compliance is too much in the name of homeland security.

"The price of liberty is too high," said Kate Hanni, who as founder of FlyersRights.org, an advocacy organization for air passengers, shuttles regularly between her California home and Washington to lobby Congress. Hanni said many of her group's 25,000 members are concerned that "the full-body scanners may not catch the criminals and will subject the rest of us to intrusive and virtual strip searches."

To others, however, the scans are not so bad, and the reason is simple: They're virtual. Passengers walk through the machines fully clothed; the resulting image appears on a monitor in a separate room and conceals passengers' faces and sensitive areas.

"It covers up the dirty bits," said James Carafano, a homeland security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

"I don't think it's any different than if you go to the beach and put on a bikini," said Brandon Macsata, who started the Association for Airline Passenger Rights.

Critics talk as if the machines produce images that are "Playboy-centerfold quality," said Jon Adler, head of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company