Saturday, December 02, 2006

TSA's revealing X-ray screening raises privacy concerns

TSA's revealing X-ray screening raises privacy concerns
By Thomas Frank, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The federal government plans this month to launch the nation's first airport screening system that takes potentially revealing X-ray photos of travelers in an effort to find bombs and other weapons.

Transportation Security Administration screeners at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport will test a "backscatter" machine that could vastly improve weapons detection but has been labeled a "virtual strip search" by the American Civil Liberties Union. Backscatter can show clear images of nude bodies.

At Phoenix and another yet-to-be-decided test airport, the machines will blur or shade images to obscure body parts and medical devices. The TSA also will look at using the machines in subways.

"It's time to get them out and get feedback from [screeners] and the traveling public," said Randy Null, TSA assistant administrator. The TSA has been considering the machines since 2002 while struggling with privacy issues.

Null said the TSA is now "very comfortable" with privacy protections manufacturers have built into the machines, which scatter low-intensity X-rays to peer under clothing for hidden items.

Barry Steinhardt, head of the ACLU's technology and liberty program, said operating the backscatter machines at airports will pave the way for widespread use — and abuse. "As this technology becomes commonplace, you're going to start seeing those images all over the Internet," Steinhardt said. "These images are going to have high commercial value."

In the upcoming airport tests, the machines will be used only on travelers who require extra screening beyond a metal detector. Those passengers will be offered the option of being photographed from the front and back by the backscatter machine or undergoing the customary pat-down by a screener.

Null said the machines could some day replace metal detectors if they can operate faster than the 15-20 seconds backscatter takes to screen one passenger.

Backscatter machines, used in prisons and at Customs checkpoints to find drugs, have been touted as an improvement to metal detectors, which don't sound alarms for plastic or liquid explosives or ceramic knives. The Homeland Security Department inspector general singled out backscatters last year as a way to close a loophole at checkpoints.

The Phoenix airport, the nation's eighth busiest, will get a machine made by American Science and Engineering of Massachusetts. In a nod to privacy considerations, the machines will show only blurred outlines of travelers but will enable screeners to see weapons.

The blurred images "trade off detection for a level of privacy," said Richard Mastronardi, company vice president. The fuzzier photos "start to lose the ability to see … C4" plastic explosives, he said.

The TSA will test a similar machine that generates blurred images using electromagnetic waves. Using the machines on suspicious subway passengers is "a ways off," the TSA's Null said. The TSA could recommend but not require them in subways.