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Inside airport scanner maker Rapiscan, and a very close-up view of one of its execs

By Annie Lowery
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 4:56 PM

Of all the inventive names enraged and unamused people have conjured for airport backscatter X-ray scanning machines, "genital visualizer" is the one that comes to mind as I assess the curves and folds of Peter Kant. Kant is an executive vice president at Rapiscan, which makes such machines, and we're standing in a room in Rapiscan's offices in Arlington County. He is demonstrating for me - nothing to be afraid of, he says, without saying so - the Rapiscan Secure 1000, in use in about 70 U.S. airports. Two industrial-blue boxes, the size of voting booths, are separated by a rubber mat with yellow crime-scene-type footprints. Kant gamely hops in and takes the stick-'em-up pose.

When the image pops up, a whir and about 10 seconds later, I can easily see where his belt cinches his stomach. I note the pronation of his knees. These are details otherwise obscured by his loose suit. The picture is not so clear that I can make out nipples. It is not a photograph. Nevertheless, there are other appendages clearly visible. I hope Rapiscan is paying him extra for this.

If we were in an airport, Kant notes, the image would appear for only a few seconds, so long as the scanning software did not flag anything suspect. The machines have no capacity to save or store images, he says. (The case where marshals in a courthouse in Florida saved 35,000 images from a scanner? Those were not agents of the Transportation Security Administration, and that was not a Rapiscan machine.)

Nevertheless, the recent furor over the TSA screening process has meant furor over the graphic images. And furor over the graphic images has meant grief for Rapiscan - three syllables, by the way, with a short "a" as in "sat." Of late, everyone from the stolidly apolitical to hippie parents to civil libertarians, from the Huffington Post to the Drudge Report, has taken aim at it.

Rapiscan's response to this controversy? First, it says, it just makes the scanners - it does not tell its clients how to use them, and it has nothing to do with TSA's aggressive new pat-down procedures. Second, Rapiscan says, it can make better scanners. It is aware of the controversy and at pains to show everyone how it is working on ways to make the security process easier on air travelers.

Recent "Don't touch my junk!" furor aside, times have been good for Rapiscan. Terrorism and war are good for security contractors, and the previous decade has seen a lot of both. "People scanning," in industry lingo, makes up a minority of Rapiscan's business. The company also makes luggage and cargo scanners, mail scanners and scanners for shipping containers. But the people-scanning business is growing. About a year ago, the firm won $173 million in TSA contracts to produce Secure 1000s for airports. (L-3 Communications, a competitor, won a similar-size deal.) About 1,000 machines will be in place by the end of next year.

Investors in Rapiscan's parent, OSI Systems, seem mostly unperturbed by the media blitz, and the company's stock recently started rising again after dipping a bit.

Some publications and pundits have questioned the company's lobbying and ties to government, noting that its chief executive, Deepak Chopra (not that Deepak Chopra) accompanied President Obama on part of his trip to Asia and that Michael Chertoff, former Department of Homeland Security chief, has lobbied for the company. But the company notes that there are no real allegations of impropriety on its part. Of course Rapiscan has close ties to and lobbies the government: It is a government contractor.

Rapiscan is confident that scanning - specifically, more-automated scanning - is the future of airport security. And its argument isn't just about safety. It's about efficiency. "For this newest airport model, the precision of the data is very high," Kant says. "We have very low false-alarm rates, meaning fewer people need to go through secondary pat-downs."

In the meantime, Rapiscan is building a software patch so that the TSA screener looking at the X-ray image sees nothing but a plain, test-dummy-type body, with any anomalies flagged. It is also creating new sensitivities and add-ons. Soon, Kant says, Rapiscan machines will have more advanced threat-recognition systems, sensitive to liquids, ceramics, guns, sharp metal objects and any number of other possible weapons or illegal items. The machines will automatically flag contraband, removing the need for a TSA representative to review most of the X-rays. (The government would like that, too, because it would cut down on personnel costs.)

In the longer term, Rapiscan is working on ways to make the airport security process less unpleasant as well. (The TSA says much the same thing.) It is working on integrating a shoe scanner into its machines so passengers don't have to take theirs off, and on dynamic scanners, so that people can walk through machines without stopping. Kant notes that, as far as the hassle of airport security is concerned, "bag clutter" is actually a bigger challenge for Rapiscan than "people clutter." It's easier to see whether there is something dangerous tucked into a bra or a pocket than to see whether one item out of 100 packed into a crowded carry-on is dangerous.

Kant also says the company's polling shows that 99 percent of passengers would rather go through the Rapiscan machine than be patted down. In London's Heathrow Airport, where Rapiscan machines are in use, 95 percent of passengers opt for a X-ray rather than a pat-down, it says. Independently collected data back Rapiscan up. And a recent CBS News poll found that more than 80 percent of Americans approve of the use of the machines in airports.

One thing Rapiscan may have going for it is that when it comes to airline security - unlike, say, toll-free customer service lines - most people would prefer to deal with a machine than with a person.

Annie Lowrey reports on economics and business for Slate.

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