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TSA tries to assuage privacy concerns about full-body scans

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 4, 2010; A03

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.

"I don't consider the full-body scanners an invasion of privacy," Adler said. "I think a bomb detonating on a plane is the biggest invasion of privacy a person can experience."

Dutch security officials have said that full-body scanners could have detected the explosives that suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly concealed in his underwear when boarding a Northwest Airlines flight in Amsterdam. But although the city's Schiphol Airport operates more than a dozen such scanners, none was used to check the Nigerian.

The Netherlands has since announced that it will require all U.S.-bound passengers to pass through full-body screenings before boarding flights.

And Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Sunday that full-body scanners will be introduced in Britain's airports.

Last week, the TSA launched a public relations offensive to convince passengers that its latest checkpoint innovation will make airports more secure. "It's a promising technology," spokeswoman Kristen Lee said. "It's designed to detect anomalies."

The issue is almost certain to be the subject of debate when Congress reconvenes this month. The House approved a bill in the summer limiting the use of full-body scanners, but the Senate has yet to take up the matter.

Critics say expanding the use of the machines is something of a knee-jerk reaction.

And, experts say, explosives can go undetected even in a full-body screening if potential terrorists conceal them in body cavities.

"It's definitely not a silver bullet," Carafano said. "There's a way to beat it. It's called a 'booty bomb,' where you actually insert the explosive inside the human being and then you detonate the explosive with a cellphone."

The TSA has tried to assuage privacy concerns by saying that the digital images produced by the machines would be deleted after passengers clear checkpoints. But critics are not reassured.

"TSA has said, 'Trust us, we've put the switch to the "off" position,' " said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "But it's not difficult to imagine a scenario where they might decide to put the switch to the 'on' position."

Such concerns are spreading quickly among networks of frequent fliers. Hanni said many of her group's members, particularly women, are "frantic" about the devices.

Some women do not want the shape of their naked bodies seen by others. As for Hanni, she said: "I don't mind."

"I'm from California. I grew up in a family that doesn't have any particular issues with nudity, so I really don't care if anybody sees the outline of my body," Hanni said. "I've got nothing to hide."

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