tampabay.com

X-ray vision for airport security

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published February 24, 2007


PHOENIX - X-ray vision has come to the airport checkpoint here, courtesy of federal aviation officials who have installed a new device that automatically peeks underneath passengers' clothing to search for guns, bombs, or liquid explosives.

The new body-scanning machine, which went into use on Friday at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and will be tested later in airports in Los Angeles and New York, will screen only volunteers, at least initially. Transportation Security Administration officials want to make sure the machine is reliable and fast enough to replace the traditional pat-down - and that it does not provoke too many protests.

Security officials examining the head-to-toe images work in a closed booth, hidden from public view, security agency officials said. Special "privacy" software intentionally blurs the image, creating a chalky outline of a body that is clear enough to see a collarbone, bellybutton, or weapon, but flattens revealing contours.

Kenneth Johnson, 64, of Mesa, was the first passenger screened on Friday in Phoenix. He said he had titanium implants in both shoulders and one knee that always set off alarms at checkpoint metal detectors.

"I've been all over the world; I've been strip-searched," Johnson, who was traveling to Florida, told an Associated Press reporter. "This was very easy."

Others found the scans objectionable.

"I think that is a violation of people's personal rights," said Kara Neal, 36, a mental health counselor on her way to Philadelphia. She was not asked to undergo the screening, but said she would have refused.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union have raised similar objections, calling the X-ray scan a "virtual strip-search," and have urged Congress to prohibit its use for routine screening.

The vending-machine-sized device, which costs about $110,000, will be used only when passengers are pulled aside for a more thorough check after passing through a metal detector, known as secondary screening.

While security agency officials say the machines, known as SmartCheck, pose no health hazards, some experts disagree. The machine, manufactured by American Science and Engineering Inc. of Billerica, Mass., generates about as much radiation as a passenger would get flying for about two minutes at about 30,000 feet, or in technical terms, fewer than 10 microRem per scan, according to security agency and company officials.

Dr. Albert J. Fornace Jr., an expert in molecular oncology at Georgetown University Medical Center, said such a low dose was inconsequential, even for pregnant women.