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Privacy coalition protests body scanners as airports test them as primary screening

The security officer at Reagan Washington National Airport waved me over to the big, white booth. I handed him my wallet, stepped inside and held out my arms as scanners whirred around for 10 seconds or so.

In a booth somewhere nearby, another officer looked over a blurry 3-D image of me naked. Or maybe in my boxers. We never met, so I'll never know. The whole transaction left me feeling … a little weird.

This was my first real-life encounter with airport security screening technology called "whole-body imaging." Privacy advocates use another name: the electronic strip search. They're pushing to rein in the Transportation Security Administrations's use of the machines. The agency, on the other hand, is testing their use for all travelers.

An eclectic alliance of more than 40 organizations — from the Nation Rifle Association and Eagle Forum to the Transgender Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union — wants regulations that guarantee privacy rights and assure that travelers are informed about how the machines work.

"This is like the post office reading your mail or the (Federal Communications Commission) listening to your phone calls," says Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and coordinator of the Privacy Coalition. "It's a lot of power under their own discretion."

TSA officials insist safeguards are already in place. The officer operating the machine never sees the image, which pops up on a computer screen behind a locked door. The officer who examines the image never sees the subject.

Faces are blurred out, and the picture looks like a fuzzy X-ray. Machines can't store images, which are deleted once the examiner clears them, the TSA says. Passengers who object can choose a hands-on pat-down from an officer. More than 99 percent pick the scan, the agency says.

Here's the rub: The TSA initially ran people through the scanners only if they first set off a metal detector or were selected for additional screening. That's how it works at Tampa International and most of the other 18 major airports that have the $170,000 machines.

But earlier this year, the TSA began a test of running all travelers through the scanners at six airports: Miami, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Tulsa, Okla., Salt Lake City and Albuquerque, N.M. It will decide whether to use the "millimeter wave" scanners as primary security check option at other airports when the tests conclude, TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz said.

"The millimeter wave is proven technology," she said. "These pilot programs allow us to look at operations, staffing and passenger flows to optimize the use of them."

That decision set off alarms on Capitol Hill. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, got an amendment added to the House version of the TSA Authorization Act this month that would prohibit using the whole-body imagers for primary screening.

The bill would also require officers to give travelers details about images the machines produce and inform them of their right to choose a pat-down.

"Nobody needs to see my wife and kids naked to secure an airplane," Chaffetz said. The bill passed 310 to 118.

The images I've seen aren't too embarrassing — kind of like someone wearing tight-fitting, metallic underwear. But nobody at the Washington airport mentioned I had another option. It's always polite to ask before getting intimate with a stranger.

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

Privacy coalition protests body scanners as airports test them as primary screening 06/16/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 16, 2009 9:07pm]
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