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September 23, 2004 - The Wall Street Journal (US)

New Airport Body X-Rays Reveal All

By Amy Schatz, Staff Reporter

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The government plans to soon begin testing a new security technology that could give airport screeners detailed images of a passenger's body through his or her clothing.

The Transportation Security Administration will launch a pilot program in several airports of "backscatter" X-ray machines, which use low-radiation X-rays to produce a black and white image that clearly shows the person's body and any metal, plastic or organic materials, such as marijuana, hidden beneath clothing.

The airports in the pilot project will be named in the near future.

The agency said the machines to be used will be modified to produce less explicit images and protect passengers' privacy.

"We are aggressively pursuing continued development of backscatter technology. Obviously, one of the major issues is the privacy of passengers," said TSA spokeswoman Yolanda Clark.

One way is to adjust the machines to produce fuzzy images. A less popular option is placing the screener in an enclosed booth so others couldn't see the graphic images of passengers.

TSA officials have long expressed interest in the technology, but have so far failed to adopt it for widespread testing or use in airports because of significant privacy issues. There is also concern many airports don't have enough space to host the giant machines.

But recent terrorist attacks that brought down two Russian passenger jets have raised concerns domestically about checking passengers more carefully for possible explosives. TSA now requires passengers remove jackets and can conduct full-body pat-downs to detect explosives.

"The biggest gap is a lack of technology to detect explosives and weapons," said Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee. "Only backscatter [technology] is going to provide you with the most accurate detection of both weapons and explosives. Period."

Privacy advocates say even with modifications the technology can be uncomfortably revealing for many people and would allow security screeners to find objects that aren't related to airport security, such as illegal drugs.

"It's like an electronic strip search," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty program. "You certainly have to worry about the possibility of voyeurism with these machines."

TSA's interest in using backscatter X-ray technology received a boost yesterday, when the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general recommended its adoption as part of a report critical of airport screener performance.

Covert testing by Homeland Security investigators from July 2003 through November 2003 at 15 airports revealed that screeners' ability to detect weapons hasn't improved since the government assumed responsibility for screening from the airlines and that screener performance was poor.

"It was easier to get guns, knives and improvised bombs on planes than it should have been," said Homeland Security Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin.

Details of how poorly screeners performed in the undercover tests weren't released. Similar tests by congressional investigators released earlier this year also found lapses.

TSA officials say security and screener performance has improved significantly since the tests were completed last year.

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