Fort Lauderdale Airport adds body screener option

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May 27--Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport has become the 28th airport in the country to install new security machines that screen passengers for dangerous objects concealed under their clothes.

The new machines across the country are "largely a result of Christmas Day" when a Nigerian man boarded a plane wearing explosives under his pants, said John Lenihan, of Homeland Security.

Miami International Airport already uses four machines, and 70 others are in place at 26 airports nationwide.

Over the next year, 450 machines -- called Advanced Imaging Technology -- will be installed in 28 additional airports.

When passengers walk through the machine, officers review an image of their body unclothed.

The screening machines drew attention recently after a high-profile incident earlier this month at MIA.

A TSA officer was charged with aggravated battery after attacking a co-worker who repeatedly made fun of his private area during training for the new machines.

TSA Federal Security Director Tim Lewis said he was well aware of what happened in Miami.

"There are trade-offs," he said. "Security pushes the envelope with what people like and don't like to do."

"The important thing is how much safer we are. Would this machine stop the Christmas Day bomber? This machine will see that kind of material."

The new machines are optional. Passengers can choose to be screened by the new machine or go through traditional methods.

The AIT machine resembles two giant stainless steel refrigerators with navy blue panels. Passengers are instructed to remove their shoes, belts, wallets, and cellphones. Then, they walk between the two contraptions and place their hands above their heads.

The device bounces electromagnetic waves off the human body.

"It's looking for items underneath clothing," Lenihan said. "It's not penetrating the skin like a medical X-ray."

The technology has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, he said.

To ensure privacy, an officer in a opaque glass viewing room some 30 feet away from the machine reviews a black and white image that looks like a photo negative or a chalk etching. A privacy filter blurs facial features.

If there are abnormalities, the officer notifies a second officer stationed by the machine. Once everything is resolved, the image is deleted. It cannot be stored, transmitted or printed.

No cellphones or cameras are allowed inside the viewing room. To guarantee anonymity, the officer is prohibited from leaving the room until the passenger is out of sight.

"I guess it's a little weird, but I think it's a good thing to be safer," said passenger Katie O'Conner, who was approaching the checkpoint.

Passenger Tamara Bell, who had just flown in from Charlotte, said it was an invasion of privacy.

"I understand the concern. However, I think it's going a little too far. I think the regular security is just as good," she said.

Lewis reassured the public Wednesday that no officer would view the image for any other purpose than security.

"If there are any lapses in human dignity," it will be dealt with immediately, he said.

"If they want to go see someone naked, they can go grab a magazine. It's an etching!"

Lewis said he hopes to eventually replace all security screening machines with the new technology, which costs between $130,000 and $170,000 per unit.

The two machines at FLL are being funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, of which $1 billion was allocated to TSA for security projects. FLL will be receiving an additional machine over the next few weeks to be placed at another checkpoint.

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