Starting this week at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, passengers selected for additional security screening will have a choice. They can submit to a pat-down search (common practice since 9/11), or spend 20 seconds getting scanned by an X-ray device designed to reveal weapons metal detectors can't spot.
The device -- known as a "backscatter" machine -- uses low-intensity radiation to peer through clothing for contraband such as plastic explosives, knives or guns. In the process, it reveals love handles, beer bellies and other, more sensitive, body areas. It is yet another of the indignities that have made flying unpleasant in the age of terrorism. Privacy groups call it intolerable. But a closer look suggests that the technology has been toned down enough that it represents a reasonable compromise between safety and privacy, one that many fliers will find preferable to being touched by screeners:
*When backscatter was first publicized in 2002, it produced very revealing images. Since then, software has been added to virtually eliminate images of body parts and medical devices, showing only what amounts to a chalk outline.
*Individuals cannot be identified by the outline. The image-analysis console is located out of sight of those being scanned, and the operator never sees the passenger. The agent performing the scan doesn't see the image but is immediately contacted if it reveals anything suspicious.
*The system isn't capable of storing or transmitting images, which are automatically deleted after they are reviewed.
*The scan is equivalent to the radiation a person receives from flying in an airplane for two minutes at 30,000 feet and is 100 times less than the background radiation we all experience each day. It's considered safe for children and pregnant women.
The technology is already being used abroad. Since last year, more than 2 million passengers at London's Heathrow Airport selected for extra screening have undergone the scans, using equipment that's far more revealing than that used in the TSA program.
After being shown a sample image of what the machine produces -- including identifiable outlines of breasts and genitalia -- 94% at Heathrow opted for the scan instead of a pat-down, says Peter Kant, a vice president at Rapiscan Systems, a California company that makes the devices used in London.
In the USA, the technology has been used for years at prisons and by officials searching for illegal drugs at border crossings. Depending on how things go in the pilot program at Sky Harbor and another yet-to-be-determined airport, the machines could be installed in airports across the nation.
Yes, it's sad that this is what air travel has come to. But weapons that can't be picked up by metal detectors represent a major opportunity for terrorists and a threat to air travelers. As long as that threat exists, modesty will have to take a back seat to security.
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