New airport security devices "see" through clothing
Potentially embarrassing "graphic" full-body scans to begin in the fall at O'Hare
By Jon Hilkevitch
Chicago Tribune reporter
10:24 PM CDT, July 19, 2008
Air travelers in Chicago will soon be literally exposed to a revealing full-body scan before boarding planes.
The new procedure, which is sure to make some passengers blush and others burn in anger over what critics call a virtual reality strip-search, is part of a "security evolution" at airport passenger checkpoints around the country.
It comes amid continuing concerns that Al Qaeda-trained suicide bombers are potentially only one plane ticket away from a U.S. attack, according to the nation's top transportation security official.
"If despite all our best efforts we fail to keep a [would-be] terrorist off an airplane, at least we must make sure that suicide bombers cannot smuggle the explosives they need to cause a catastrophe past the airport checkpoint and onto the aircraft," said Kip Hawley, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, which is responsible for security at the nation's airports.
Accompanying stepped-up efforts to counter that threat, authorities said they think passengers will prefer a no-touch alternative to a physical pat-down by airport workers searching for concealed weapons, explosives and other prohibited items.
Small but powerful bombs that could be attached to a terrorist's body or camouflaged in ordinary travel gear represent the No. 1 threat to airport security, Hawley said last week in an interview at O'Hare International Airport.
The new full-body imaging machines that will arrive at O'Hare this fall look through clothing to create an explicit silhouette of the traveler—showing shapes, folds of fat and other anatomical characteristics—to identify possible hidden objects.
Even though facial features are blurred to protect privacy, the images reveal breasts, buttocks and other private parts, prompting some civil liberties groups to call the machines an unacceptable intrusion.
"This technology literally demands that one go through a virtual strip-search and that all sorts of private information, such as medical situations like a mastectomy or a colostomy, be looked at by a screener for the privilege of being able to get on an airplane," said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. "That goes too far."
The high-tech scanners have been tested at up to a dozen airports on passengers who were selected for more intensive scrutiny or set off alarms while going through traditional security measures.
But with the expansion of the program to O'Hare and eight other airports, all passengers have a chance of being randomly picked. Travelers who object could opt instead for an old-fashioned frisk.
"Why they would want a picture like that of me is beyond me," said Mike Glidewell, 62, a Kansas man who was going through security last week at O'Hare. "But anything they want to do to keep me alive is fine with me."
Not all passengers are so nonchalant, likening the new security to spying on someone who is taking a shower.
Passengers who agree to the scan will stand inside a phone booth-size compartment, raise their hands over their head and place both feet, legs spread apart, on markings on the floor. The process takes seconds.
Weapons or other banned items appear on a screen as darker than skin.
The imaging equipment is part of a new security arsenal that includes advanced technology X-ray machines for screening carry-on items as well as scanners that analyze bottled liquids, authorities said.
The deployment of the more advanced passenger-screening equipment will begin to replace outmoded X-ray technology that hasn't changed significantly since the 1970s, Hawley said.
The full-body imaging pictures are formed by one of two ways—bouncing beams of radio frequency energy off the skin or conducting a low-dose X-ray of an individual.
The scanners coming to O'Hare will be set up initially in terminals served by United Airlines and American Airlines as well as in the international terminal, said Kathleen Petrowsky, the federal security director at O'Hare.
Last week Jean Momplaisir was flying with his family from O'Hare back home to New York after visiting family in Chicago. His eyes widened in an expression of disbelief when told about the full-body scan.
"I don't think it's right," he said. "It's your body, and it's one thing if you are naked home alone in your bedroom or in the shower. But this is an airport."
Arabelle Ruscitti of Buffalo Grove at first expressed support for the body scan, but her attitude shifted on learning that the images leave little to the imagination and the screeners viewing them are not necessarily the same sex as the passenger being observed.
"Oooh," Ruscitti said. "For security purposes I think it's good, but personally I don't want anybody looking at my body. It wouldn't be as bad, I guess, if it were another woman."
Federal security officials said screeners will view images of both male and female passengers. But only screeners of the same sex conduct physical pat-downs.
"But nobody likes the groin pat-down, not the passenger and certainly not the transportation security officer who has to do it," Hawley said. Safeguards are in place to protect passengers' rights and conduct the body imaging in a "clinical X-ray-type environment," he said.
In addition to blocking out the person's face, the screening officers checking the images for possible weapons or contraband are located away from the security checkpoint and do not come into contact with passengers. Images also are deleted after viewing, officials said.
Even so, opponents remain unconvinced.
"It's still like you are filmed walking naked with a bag over your head," Yohnka said. "This is an overreach of what is necessary to guarantee the safety of passengers."
A better option, Yohnka said, would be for the TSA to expand its use of "puffer" machines that detect traces of explosive chemicals by shooting blasts of air on travelers and analyzing the particles that are flushed out.
Those machines have been in use at Midway Airport since 2006.
Previously, federal security officials claimed the images produced by the full-body imaging machines were fuzzy and lacked detail, but Hawley acknowledged that is not the case.
"The image has to be graphic," he said. "You want it to be because the clever terrorist has no objection to hiding whatever they are hiding wherever they want to hide it."