Airport X-Ray Peep Shows
According to the New York Times, the TSA is moving closer to deploying a new kind of X-ray machine at airports, one that sees through people’s clothing:
Among the most controversial technology being looked at by the Transportation Security Administration is the backscatter body scanner. The device – a boxy contraption that beams low-level X-rays through people’s clothing – has received a lot of attention because of the explicit images of passengers’ bodies it can produce.
This summer, for instance, Lori Borgman, a family humor columnist, wrote that such images were “bound to find their way to the break room, the Internet and the tabloids.” The American Civil Liberties Union has called the backscatter a “virtual strip search.”
As a result, the Transportation Security Administration has approached the deployment of the machines tentatively over the last several years. “I think that as we make the decision to roll out and go to pilot tests and move forward, we need to be sure we’re doing it in a responsible manner,” said the agency’s chief technology officer and assistant administrator, Clifford Wilke. “A person’s first experience with a new technology will determine their perception.”
But there are signs that the T.S.A. is preparing to make its move. The agency said it did not have a specific timeline, but statements made in early August by the two manufacturers of the technology – American Science and Engineering and Rapiscan Systems, a division of the OSI Systems electronics company – indicated that the plans could be made public within the next two months.
Does this technology establish the appropriate balance between privacy and security?
The TSA will be employing technology to minimize the extent that nudity can be viewed:
One reason the agency may be ready to go forward is that it has found what some see as a middle ground between security and privacy: “cloaking” software that turns the explicit images into something resembling a generic chalk outline of the body, identifying plastic, ceramic, biological and other nonmetallic and metallic objects on the body. American Science and Engineering said it felt its cloaking software – first introduced in July during testimony before a House of Representatives committee – adequately addressed privacy concerns.
“If you look at backscatter images in their raw form, they’re pretty explicit, no doubt about it,” said Bob Postle, American Science’s vice president of sales and marketing. But with the new software, he said, “it would be impossible to recognize from these images who we’re talking about here.”
There is little indication on how Americans would react to backscatter searches, either explicit or cloaked. There was a brief test in 2002 at Orlando International Airport, where backscatter was tried out along with several other emerging technologies, but the T.S.A. said the results were unavailable. According to Rapiscan, more than 90 percent of passengers searched while their machines have been being tried out at Heathrow Airport near London have chosen the backscatter over a pat-down.
Another issue is radiation exposure:
Radiation exposure is another concern for some. Both manufacturers’ machines fall well under voluntary standards put forth by the American National Standards Institute as well as limits outlined in a report by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements in 2002. But scientists like David J. Brenner, director of the Columbia University Radiological Research Accelerator Facility, who worked on the report, say there is no completely safe level of radiation.
“If you multiply that very small risk by, shall we say, 700 million, which is the number of people, roughly, who use airports in this country, then you’ve got a significant public health issue that one should be concerned about,” Mr. Brenner said. He cited particular concern for children – who he said can be up to 10 times more sensitive to radiation than adults – and for pregnant women.
Yet, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements report says the levels of radiation from backscatters fall well within the acceptable, lower limits for children and pregnant women.
Even if the exposure is small, would the accumulated exposure for frequent fliers pose a problem?
I wonder whether this new technology is worth the costs — both in terms of privacy and in terms of money. We already are providing tremendous security at the airport — more than any other mode of travel and more than almost all other potential terrorist targets. With recent news reports about how woefully unprepared we are for a potentail bird flu pandemic, I wonder whether we should be wasting our time and money on these X-ray machines. The greatest terrorist is Mother Nature, and her power makes human terrorists seem like gnats.
If you are interested in reading more about this issue, you should read The Naked Crowd by my colleague and friend, Jeffrey Rosen.