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Body scanners take priority at Tampa International Airport

Chances are good your next airplane trip will begin like this.

Step into a booth, hold your hands up and take a wide stance. Then wait a few seconds while some anonymous officer examines a picture of what's under your clothes.

Federal authorities have used airport body scanners to check travelers for hidden weapons at security checkpoints for three years. At Tampa International Airport, the Transportation Security Administration installed four machines at the end of 2008, as "secondary" screening devices.

By early next month, they'll become the first screening option.

Partly because of privacy concerns, the agency slowly rolled out the machines it called "whole-body imagers.''

Then came the Christmas Day bombing attempt on a jet approaching Detroit. Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded the Northwest Airlines flight in Amsterdam, Netherlands, with powdered explosive in his underwear after walking through a metal detector.

Ever since, federal authorities have pushed to buy hundreds more airport body scanners (now dubbed "advanced imaging technology'') that are designed to identify nonmetallic weapons such as explosives and ceramic knives.

There are now 63 units at 25 airports. The TSA plans to put 450 more scanners into airports by the end of the year. President Barack Obama's fiscal 2011 budget calls for an additional 500.

At Tampa International and elsewhere, the TSA is making changes to move more passengers through the body scanners.

The machines had generally been classified as "secondary'' screening devices, used when lines for metal detectors were too long or a passenger needed additional scrutiny. Making them the first screening option shouldn't slow down checkpoint lines, TSA officials say, because officers can steer passengers to other queues with metal detectors.

Civil liberties groups and some members of Congress are alarmed by the government's rush to look under travelers' clothes. Many call the technology an electronic strip search.

They question how much intrusion an airline passenger must endure to fly. One model of TSA scanner was initially used in prisons and at border checkpoints, says Lillie Coney of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"This is for people who had committed a crime or were a security risk because of the populations they're in," she said.

The TSA describes scanner images as looking like a fuzzy photo negative or chalk etching, depending on the machine model. Passengers' faces are obscured. Officers view images in a room away from the scanners. They can't save images and are prohibited from having cameras or cell phones while working.

The TSA's professional image took a hit this month when a screener in Miami was charged with beating up a co-worker with a police baton.

Rolando Negrin told police his private body parts were observed by co-workers as they trained on body screening machines at Miami International. Negrin finally snapped, he told police, after daily jokes by colleagues about the size of his genitalia.

Air travelers don't seem to mind the technology. In a USA Today/Gallup poll, 78 percent of respondents said they approved of using the scanners, and 67 percent were comfortable being examined by one.

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

The TSA says scanner images look like a fuzzy photo negative or chalk etching, depending on the machine in use. Here is the rear view of a female would-be passenger.

TSA

The TSA says scanner images look like a fuzzy photo negative or chalk etching, depending on the machine in use. Here is the rear view of a female would-be passenger.

Body scanners take priority at Tampa International Airport 05/18/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 19, 2010 7:54pm]
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