Tired of airport pat-downs? In late December, responding to hundreds of complaints particularly from women flyers the Transportation Security Administration restricted intensive frisking to cases where the metal detector goes off and made the area between women’s breasts a no-go zone for security personnel.
Yet, pat-downs are still a part of the security routine: “TSA continues to encounter large numbers of prohibited items,” says the agency’s spokesperson. “Two guns per day, for example. But the three main offenders are scissors, pocket knives and mace.”
Soon, however, TSA and other government agencies plan to deploy ingenious and sometimes controversial technologies intended to make American skies safer and frisking less necessary. High-tech security checkpoints, new passports, registered traveler programs and enhanced methods of passenger screening are among the efforts well under way.
In 2002 at Orlando International Airport, TSA began testing the Advanced Technology Security Checkpoint, a suite of new equipment by various manufacturers designed to apply the most advanced technology to the protection of American aircraft. The various machines comprising the ATSC give a glimpse into the future of aircraft security measures, since many of the components could be installed at most airports within a few years.
Perhaps most controversial of these devices is the “backscatter X-ray,” a new-generation security machine capable of seeing through people’s clothes to reveal weapons, explosives, contraband and a ghostly but quite clear picture of the human body.
“The backscatter technology is still in our technology lab,” says TSA’s spokesperson. “We are still looking at how to best deploy it around the nation. The concern is that it gives a revealing image of the body. We want to produce an image that shows if there are explosives on the body nothing more.”
The advantage of backscatter X-rays is their ability to detect threats and contraband other systems miss. Backscatter technology works by shooting X-rays at a subject and reading those that are reflected back as well as those that penetrate the subject, then converting X-rays into electrical currents proportional to the rays’ intensity. Areas with higher density appear lighter on the monitor, revealing things such as dynamite, ceramics, graphite fibers, plastic, composite weapons, bundled currency and drugs hidden in and under clothing.
But the revealing nature of backscatter X-ray images is sure to raise serious privacy issues with the flying public. “People have the expectation and the right to fly on planes without being subject to a strip search, including a virtual strip search,” says Jay Stanley, communications director for the Technology and Liberty Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The fact is, bored airport screeners aren’t going to abandon their sexuality when they show up to work.”
Stanley adds, “For some, the images are humiliating. In our society, people don’t appear nude to strangers that’s a custom. A family going to Disneyland, or a person headed off to a business meeting doesn’t expect to be subjected to a virtual strip search. In fact, some people don’t want to show a bare ankle, and they deserve to have control over that.”
In Orlando, where scrutiny by the $200,000 backscatter X-ray machine was voluntary, one quarter of passengers refused to participate after seeing a dummy image of a revealing scan.
TSA is reportedly working on an “electronic fig leaf” that will automatically pixilate passengers’ most sensitive parts, and authorities promise all images will be promptly deleted after proper review. Other measures meant to protect travelers’ modesty include screened-off areas where security personnel would be viewing the monitor but not looking at the passengers themselves as they pass through.