A new technology known as full-body scanning, which can reveal objects hidden under clothing without physical contact, is already in use at some airport checkpoints. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) plans to place many more scanners in U.S. airports soon. Might this sort of scanner have detected the hidden packet of explosive chemicals that the would-be terrorist carried onboard Flight 253 on Christmas Day? The technology has been called an intrusive “virtual strip search” by privacy advocates, who oppose its use. The intense debate touches on constitutional questions of whether individual privacy concerns must yield to government’s responsibility to ensure safety and security.
The scanners construct a 3D image on a computer screen that reveals every contour of the body and thus can show up foreign objects. They are an apparent improvement on metal detectors and on “pat-down” searches, which some security analysts say are useless, not to mention humiliating. Privacy advocates say there are better ways to meet the safety/security challenges facing travelers, and they warn that personal images could be misused. Critics call for a focus on investigation and intelligence gathering, not expensive gadgetry.
Nineteen U.S. airports currently use the technology, mostly as a secondary screening method. TSA announced plans to buy 300 additional machines and to rely on them for primary screening. A recent poll shows three-fourths of Americans approve of full-body scanners. However, recently proposed federal legislation would limit body-scanning technology to secondary screening and provide punishments for copying or sharing the scanned images. The ACLU has protested that widespread use of full-body scanners would amount to “capturing the naked photographs of millions of American air travelers suspected of no wrongdoing.” TSA has established some privacy safeguards: the scanned image blurs the face of the individual, and says the machines are incapable of storing the images. TSA employees who review the images are removed from the passengers being scanned, and agents dealing directly with passengers do not view the scans.
- Body Scanners Not “Magic Technology” against Terror
This CNN article explains the context of the use of full-body scanning devices in aviation security; includes a video demonstrating the new millimeter-wave and backscatter X-ray technologies.
(Source: CNN, December 31, 2009)
- Video: ACLU Opposes Full Body Scans
Mike German, legal spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), outlines the objections to the widespread use of full body-scan technology for airport screening.
(Source: www.mefeedia.com, December 30, 2009)
- Airport Body Scanners: Security or Invasion of Privacy?
This illustrated PBS article explores the safety/security versus privacy issues related to airport screening.
(Source: Public Broadcasting System, January 12, 2010)
- ACLU Backgrounder on Body Scanners and “Virtual Strip Searches”
This opinion piece also supplies background on the use of “whole body imaging” machines in airport security.
(Source: American Civil Liberties Union, January 8, 2010)