A reporter faces the naked truth about full-body airport scanners

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 7, 2010

A real inspector would have focused on the powdered substance hiding in my bra, the box cutter tucked into my tights and the plastic-explosive material snuggling inside my dress pocket. But because I was too close to the subject under scrutiny, I fixated on the position of my bellybutton: How strange that it sits so high up on my torso.

Get over yourself, honey: The full-body scanning machines at airport security checkpoints weren't created to point out corporeal flaws but to detect suspicious objects lurking beneath airline passengers' clothing. The advanced imaging technology identifies forms that aren't traditionally part of the human physique, such as an oval mound on the hip that could be a potential bomb, or a pen shape near the ankle that might be a knife. Since I hadn't harbored any contraband in my navel, there was no cause for alarm.

Yet in a broader context, plenty of people are alarmed. The machines have sparked an electric storm of controversy that touches on such knotty issues as the U.S. government's anti-terrorist strategies and an individual's privacy rights. Compared with body scanning, removing our shoes is as benign as trying on footwear at Payless.

To understand the debate from all angles, I decided to undergo a scan, experiencing technology's prying eyes firsthand. Standing before a bank of uncovered windows in a second-floor office in Rosslyn, I bared almost all.

* * *

If you've ever walked into a boothlike apparatus, stepped on colored footprints and moved your arms like a clumsy cheerleader, you've been body-scanned. The Transportation Security Administration piloted the new technology in 2007 and rolled out 40 of the machines in 19 airports. Last fall, the agency bought 150 imaging machines, and it has since procured funding for 300 more. If all goes according to plan, the TSA will have installed 490 scanners by year's end.

"This enables the officers to identify without any physical contact something concealed under clothing," said Jonathan Allen, a TSA spokesman. "We need to have as many different layers of security as we can. When we put them all together, it's more formidable."

The au courant technology addresses a gap in security that garnered critical attention after the failed bombing of a Christmas Day flight to Detroit. X-ray machines catch only metal objects, and explosives trace detectors, such as the sneezelike puffers, collect only the residue of hazardous material. With pat-downs, searchers can detect foreign objects stashed on a person's figure, but private areas, such as the underwear zone of the recent terrorist, are off-limits.

"Unless it's a grope, we never would have found that device," said Brian Jenkins, a homeland security expert and senior adviser to the president of Rand Corp. "We can increase the restrictions, or we can deploy another array of hardware."

For now, the TSA has chosen the latter, adding another machine to its already gadget-laden process. "Since Americans are enamored with technology, we tend to look for a silver bullet," Jenkins said. "Will the body scanner add to the security? Yes. Will it solve the problem and prevent all future terrorist attacks? No."

The TSA has approved two types of imaging machines that utilize different technologies but share the same purpose: peeling back a passenger's clothing to reveal suspect objects on the body. With the millimeter-wave model, radio waves bounce off the skin, lighting on foreign substances; the emission is equal to one ten-thousandth of the energy released by a cellphone. The backscatter uses low-level X-rays -- about what you'd be exposed to during a two-minute plane ride -- that seek out energy discrepancies. While the passenger is being scanned, a security official in a remote location studies the captured image for strange shapes and anomalies. The whole procedure takes 15 seconds or less.

The millimeter wave transmits a black-and-white 2-D hologram that resembles an overexposed photo of an X-Man gone soft. The backscatter image looks like a body sketch by an amateur artist, unrefined and not worth hanging on the fridge door.

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