Lambert scanners pit security vs. privacy

St Louis Today

St. Louis air travelers will have one more thing to check on the way to the gate: their modesty.

The Transportation Security Administration went live today at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport with the first of two full-body imaging machines that have been set up inside Terminal 2, which houses Southwest and other airlines. The machine will be used on the overflow west-end checkpoint near Starbucks.

The second should be ready at the busier main checkpoint next week. The TSA hopes to install more machines at other checkpoints in coming months.

Despite assurances that privacy will be guarded and that the images won’t be revealing — or at least not too revealing — some passengers at Lambert on Friday expressed doubts about the scanning devices.

“I don’t like the idea of body scan,” said Pam Temm of St. Peters as she walked toward the TSA checkpoint. “I heard they give graphic pictures.”

Others, though, are willing to go through another layer of security in the struggle against terrorism.

“I will do whatever they want,” said Tammy Wahle of St. Louis. “Whatever I got on the inside of me they can look at.”

Some Friday were just hoping the new scanner would be faster, even if — perhaps especially if — others avoided them.

“This is hopefully a quicker way in and out,” said Ron Rolfes of St. Louis as he headed to the scanner.

The scanning machines have drawn complaints about privacy since the TSA started testing them in 2007.

Bill Switzer, the TSA’s federal security director in St. Louis, said the advanced imaging technology safely screens passengers for both metallic and nonmetallic threats, such as weapons and explosives.

Passengers going through security enter a portal and stand on a marked spot with hands raised. That increases the surface area of the image, said TSA spokesman James Fotenos.

A TSA officer views the passenger images in a secluded room. The ghostly, black-and-white image cannot be stored, printed or transmitted, Fotenos said. Facial features are blurred. Images, once viewed, are immediately deleted.

“Additionally, there is a privacy filter to blur all images,” Switzer said. “And I repeat — all images.”

Passengers who do not want to go through the full-body scanner can opt out and go through an alternative screening, likely a physical pat-down.

Lambert Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge said the full-body imaging machines represent the “most enhanced passenger screening that’s out there today.” There are now 259 of the units at 58 airports. There are plans to increase that total to 450 by the end of this year and then deploy another 500 next year.

The TSA stepped up its deployment of the scanning devices after the thwarted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. But a Government Accountability Office study in March concluded it was unclear whether full-body imaging would have detected the explosives the al-Qaida operative, 23, smuggled in his underwear.

“I believe this is overkill,” said Bruce McIndoe, president of iJET Intelligent Risk Systems, a travel risk management company based in Annapolis, Md. “They are jumping after this, and they are going to spend a ton of money, and the return is going to be questionable.”

McIndoe said it would probably make more sense to buy fewer of the machines and use them as a secondary screening device for some travelers.

In addition to addressing privacy complaints, TSA officials have downplayed worries about exposure to low-level X-rays. Experts at the University of California-San Francisco earlier this year wrote the White House about their concerns that the scanners could increase the risk of cancer and other ailments. Federal officials insist the concerns are misplaced.

Switzer said the X-ray screening units are safe and that the technology meets national health and safety standards. Each scan is equivalent to the exposure a passenger receives during two minutes of airplane flight, he added.

Travelers and privacy advocates are divided over the need for scanning devices and whether they go too far in the name of security.

“We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to protect ourselves,” passenger Donna Austin of Fenton said on Thursday. “They came in to our country. They came in and hit us, just like Pearl Harbor. So whatever we’ve got to do to keep ourselves safe I think is the best.”

But Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the full-body imaging machines “are a virtual strip search.”

“They reveal the most intimate details of people’s bodies,” he said. “You can zoom and look very closely with them.”

Calabrese added that the machines haven’t proven their security effectiveness and, despite the TSA’s pronouncements, there are no actual legal protections in law.

For her part, Chiarilli said she may someday see the need for the latest aviation security wrinkle.

As for now, she said, “I’m not quite sold.”

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