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New airport scanners take a peek beneath your clothes

A worker of the company that makes the ProVision scanners demonstrates what security screeners will see thanks to the devices. Civil liberties advocates equate the scans to electronic strip searches. Others disagree.

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A worker of the company that makes the ProVision scanners demonstrates what security screeners will see thanks to the devices. Civil liberties advocates equate the scans to electronic strip searches. Others disagree.

Airport security officers might examine an image of everything under your clothes — or nearly everything — in the not-too-distant future.

Tampa International Airport will receive four new whole-body imaging machines from the Transportation Security Administration in the next 30 days. TSA officers should begin scanning travelers for hidden weapons and explosives within the next few months, said John Van Dyke, a spokesman for the agency in Tampa. "Our goal is to be proficient with them before the Super Bowl," in Tampa in February, he said.

Ten airports nationwide are testing the body scans on randomly chosen travelers or those who don't pass an initial screening. One hundred twenty machines, manufactured by L-3 Communications in St. Petersburg under the brand name ProVision, will be deployed in 24 U.S. airports by year end.

TSA officials say the technology is a good alternative to physically patting down travelers. The machine also catches plastic and ceramic weapons that pass through metal detectors.

"Passenger imaging technologies enable TSA to screen quickly and unobtrusively for prohibited items including weapons, explosives and other metallic and nonmetallic objects … without physical contact," said TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz.

Civil liberties advocates call the scanners "an electronic strip search" and worry their use will spread to other public venues.

"You don't use the most intrusive equipment as your first line of defense," said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

ProVision machines, which sell for $150,000 each, bounce harmless radio frequency signals off travelers standing in a booth as they raise their hands. A TSA officer in another room or a booth examines the image. If a suspicious object appears, the officer calls a colleague to physically search the passenger.

The TSA says its procedures protect people's privacy. Faces are blurred on images. Neither officers looking at the image nor the subjects see each other. Images are deleted after viewing, and officers can't "save, store, print or transmit" them, said TSA spokesman Christopher White.

He describes the images as robotic, like someone in a tight-fitting leotard. "You can see detail, but it's not a naked picture," White said.

Attorney Chris Calabrese with the American Civil Liberties Union in New York disagrees. "It reveals explicit details of people's bodies and medical details like colostomy bags," he said. He doubts the TSA can protect images from those seeking to sell pictures of celebrities or people with odd body shapes.

Those who refuse to go through the scanners must submit to pat-down searches.

One benefit might play well in Florida. It's a way to confirm that travelers who say their artificial hips set off the metal detectors aren't telling a fib, White said.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

New airport scanners take a peek beneath your clothes 08/07/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 13, 2008 8:11pm]
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