Make us your home page

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 [email protected] 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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. City Council approves $5 million for Clearwater Marine Aquarium expansion


    CLEARWATER — The City Council on Thursday approved contributing $5 million to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for its massive expansion project.

    Clearwater has agreed to contributed $5 million to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium 
's $66 million expansion project.. [ Clearwater Marine Aquarium] 

  2. Trigaux: Florida, Tampa Bay lagging in growth of their startups

    Economic Development

    The annual assessment of how entrepreneurs are doing across the country is out from the Kauffman Foundation — among the best watchers of the nation's startup scene. How do Florida and Tampa Bay fare?

    Lured by financial incentives, startup GeniusCentral relocated from Manatee County in 2015 to St. Petersburg, promising to creatye 40 new jobs. It took downtown space in an appropriately creative workpace for entrepreneurs. It did not last there, later moving back to less expensive space in Manatee. A new Kauffman Index report on entrepreneurship found that Florida is a good place to launch startups but a tougher place to grow them.
  3. Pleasant dreams: sleep travel site gives high marks to Tampa airport


    TAMPA — Traveling might be considered closer to a nightmare than a dream for many. But that might be different for those who travel through Tampa International Airport. It was ranked the No. 3 overall best airport in North America by Sleeping in Airports, a travel site that tracks the best airports to catch some …

    Tampa International Airport was ranked as the No. 3 best overall airport by travel site Sleeping in Airports. | [Times file photo]
  4. Google parent leads $1B Lyft investment, deepening Uber rift


    SAN FRANCISCO — Google's parent company is throwing its financial support behind ride-hailing service Lyft, deepening its rift with market leader Uber.

    This  file photo shows a smartphone displaying the Lyft app.Google's parent company, Alphabet Inc., is throwing its financial support behind ride-hailing service Lyft, deepening its rift with market leader Uber. [Associated Press, 2016]
  5. ReliaQuest opens storefront in mock city of JA Biztown

    Economic Development

    TAMPA — ReliaQuest, a Tampa-based cybersecurity company, opened a "storefront" Wednesday at JA Biztown. The storefront is part of a mock city where students learn economic concepts and run businesses. About 20 real-life Tampa Bay companies sponsor storefronts that local students get to run for a day as part of a …

    ReliaQuest, a Tampa-based cybersecurity company, opened a "storefront" Wednesday at JA Biztown, a mock city where students learn to run businesses. | [MALENA CAROLLO, Times]