Naked truth: New airline passenger scanning device sets off privacy alarms

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When the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced today it will begin testing a body-scanning machine that could ultimately replace the metal detectors airline passengers walk through at airports, it set off some alarms - particularly at the ACLU.

The alarms are in response to tests - which are scheduled to begin today at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport - of a new screening system that uses radio waves, known as millimeter wave imaging technology to scan passengers and detect foreign objects hidden underneath clothing.

The millimeter wave technology creates a three-dimensional image of the passenger from two antennas that simultaneously rotate around the body. Once complete, the passenger will step through the opposite side of the millimeter wave portal. And here's the rub: to ensure privacy, security officers view images from a remote location. From this location, the security officer cannot ascertain the identity of the passenger, either visually or otherwise, but can communicate with a fellow officer at the checkpoint if the passenger presents a potential threat. A security algorithm will be applied to the image to mask the face of each passenger, further protecting privacy, TSA said. "Privacy is ensured through the anonymity of the image: it will never be stored, transmitted or printed, and it will be deleted immediately once viewed," said TSA Administrator Kip Hawley.

Despite such privacy precautions, the ACLU and others don't trust the TSA ‘s claims. "This technology produces strikingly graphic images of passengers' bodies. Those images reveal not only our private body parts, but also intimate medical details like colostomy bags. That degree of examination amounts to a significant - and for some people humiliating - assault on the essential dignity of passengers that citizens in a free nation should not have to tolerate," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program. "I continue to believe that these are virtual strip searches. If Playboy published them, there would be politicians out there saying they're pornographic."

On storing images Steinhardt went on to say that protection would certainly be a vital step for such a potentially invasive system, but given the irresistible pull that images created by this system will create on some employees (for example when a celebrity like George Clooney or someone with an unusual or "freakish" body goes through the system), our attitude is one of ‘trust but verify.' We would like to see strong independent and legally binding assurance that the policy will be enforced and unchanged, he said in a statement.

TSA says imaging technology provides a valuable alternative for travelers who would prefer not to submit to a more invasive physical pat-down during secondary screening. TSA began piloting another technology called backscatter, at Phoenix in February. To date, 79% of the public has opted to try backscatter over the traditional pat-down in secondary screening, TSA said. Backscatter has its own issues, namely concerns that it might harm users with the amount of X-rays it uses to gather information.

Ironically, the TSA this week pulled the plug on one of its other trial technologies - a shoe screener system capable of detecting explosives, either concealed in shoes or traces of explosives on passenger shoes or legs to a height of 18 inches from the floor without the passenger having to remove their shoes. Deployed in Orlando International Airport in January the ShoeScanner was shut down after the machine failed its latest test at finding explosives hidden in shoes.

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