Officials' actions at TIA raise tough questions as body scanner use widens.
Published July 18, 2010|Updated July 19, 2010

There's been lots of talk lately about body scanners - the new airport security tool that allows screeners to see through clothes. People are concerned about privacy, delayed flights, health effects.

Now there's another concern. What about kids? Do they have to go through this, too? And what are parents' rights?

A Baltimore family is raising the issue after their 12-year-old daughter was pulled out of line in Tampa and subjected to what they say was an embarrassing and unhealthy scan. The girl was traveling with an adult friend of the family, not her parents.

"Our daughter was scared and didn't understand what was happening," said Michelle Nemphos, the mother of the girl. She declined to give her daughter's name. "In essence they conducted a strip search on a 12-year-old girl without her parents present to advocate for her."

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The girl told her story in a phone interview:

Okay, I was coming home to Baltimore, Md., from Siesta Key, Fla., and I was with my friend and her parents and I was going to this airport security check.

I put my bag through, and they pulled me aside and told me to go over here. I thought it was some high-tech scan and I walked right through it and this lady said '"Hold on, you can't just walk through this thing. Put your feet on the yellow footsteps and make a triangle above your head." I guess it was so they could see my whole body.

I heard a beep and she said, "Okay you can leave."

I heard one of the guards say "affirmative on the female," and I knew they were talking about me. And that made me worried.

I couldn't see my friend and her dad, and I was really worried that I was separated from them. I was trying to look happy when I saw them but inside I was really scared.

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When the girl first got home to Baltimore, she didn't mention the beaches she'd visited or her trip to the aquarium. All she wanted to talk about was what happened at the airport.

"Why did they pick me?" the girl asked her mother.

Nemphos wasn't sure. She couldn't imagine the Transportation Security Administration needing to scan a 12-year-old girl for weapons.

Paul Susie, the parent who was with his daughter and Nemphos' in Tampa, said it all happened so fast.

"I didn't know it was optional," he said. "But I thought it was ridiculous that a 12-year-old girl got picked for that."

He said he was not notified she would be taken to the other line.

Sari Koshetz, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, said anyone can be selected from the line and given a body scan, even children, as long as they can hold their arms over their heads for five or more seconds.

But parents may opt out of the body scan for themselves or their children and receive a patdown by an officer instead. Koshetz said there are signs saying everyone has the option to reject the screening, though at TIA there is one sign per machine.

Koshetz said officers don't have time to ask everyone's permission on the way through.

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Today, there are 134 imaging technology units in use at 38 airports. But by next year and beyond, 1,000 of them will likely be deployed around the country.

At Tampa International Airport, four millimeter-wave machines were installed in 2008. Another seven to nine are expected by the end of the year, and they will become the primary form of passenger screening in the future, said Brenda Geoghagan, a spokeswoman for TIA.

The TIA machines use high-frequency radio waves that bounce off the passenger's body to create a black and white three-dimensional image. Passengers are pulled randomly and sent into the booth, where they must raise their hands and stand for the scan.

A screener in a closed room with no windows looks at the image to see if the passenger is carrying weapons. Passenger and screener never see each other.

"There are legitimate concerns about an adult viewing strikingly graphic images of a child's body," said Maria Kayanan, associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. "It's basically a nude picture."

In the United Kingdom, scans are not performed on anyone under 18 because they would violate child pornography laws.

Koshetz of the Transportation Security Administration said the faces and body parts on the images are blurry and never saved.

"There's no way to associate that fuzzy black and white image to a particular person," she said.

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Nemphos, 39, has talked to lawyers and spoken with her daughter's pediatrician about blood tests to determine potential health effects. Though Transportation Security Administration officials say cell phones emit 10,000 times more waves than the body scan, Nemphos remains unconvinced.

She said she tried to explain to her daughter why they were pursuing the issue. When her daughter learned about her parents' concerns with the body scanner, she started crying.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at or (727) 893-8640.