Fast Company

Work/Life: Whole-Body Scanners Aren't a Peep Show

Whole-body scanners will replace metal detectors, in a little-noticed policy shift at the TSA (Transportation Security Administration). This means that instead of walking through the familiar security portals that stand next to the conveyor belts where your carry-ons, coats, and shoes are scanned, you will now enter a 9-foot-tall glass booth.

The way it works is that an electronic glass door slides around the outside of the machine to create an image of your body. The whole-body scanners bounce "millimeter waves" (X-rays) off the occupant of the booth to create images of what you look like underneath your clothing. Yes, it reveals intimate body parts. To deal with the inevitable privacy concerns, the TSA blurs passenger faces (and private parts) and deletes images immediately after viewing. In fact, the current models of the scanner has no ability to store images. The scanner operator even sits in a separate room and doesn't see the people who enter the scanners - just their black-and-white X-ray images.

Personally, the idea of being strip-searched electronically doesn't faze me. Like every other passenger who goes through security, I already have to perform a strip-tease - removing belt, coat, contents of pockets, chains, shoes - so it seems that any technology which will allow me to stay dressed as I walk through the scanning process represents an improvement. Yes, I recognize that the whole-body probe is more invasive on the electronic level. But if you look at the scanning process in practical terms, the operator who's seeing you electronically naked isn't actually seeing you. The people who are seeing you disrobe today are the ones in the security line behind you.

Whole-body scanners replacing metal detectors, physical pat-downs, and disrobing make this body feel a whole lot more comfortable. If these new scanners are actually faster than the process of waiting for your neighbors in line to remove articles of clothing and place them in those gray security trays, then I would be both happy and comfortable.

In fact, "On the Road" columnist Joe Sharkey at The New York Times reports that Robin Kane, TSA's acting CTO, says results from a pilot program at 19 U.S. airports indicate that passengers are giving positive feedback.

Faster? Fewer clothes to take off in line? Sounds positive to me!

So to those who pose the question, Does the outcome warrant the personal invasiveness? - my answer is a resounding "Yes." The person monitoring the whole-body scanner is hardly seeing what my doctor would see. So while I am always concerned when we have to give up privacy in exchange for security, I think this is one instance where we are maybe gaining some privacy - and efficiency - in exchange for reassurance that nobody is getting through the line with a weapon.

The new X-ray technology used by the scanners also may be capable of detecting explosives. The upshot is that the TSA may be able to use these machines to red-flag such chemicals, meaning it could dispense with the current rule that restricts passengers from carrying on gels or liquids in containers holding 3.4 ounces or less packed in a single quart-size ziplock plastic bag. Wouldn't that be a change for the better?

The only real concern I have is that the whole-body scanners will replace, not just supplement, metal detectors. I don't want it to be just an add-on device, which it has been in the airports where it was being tested, advertised as an "extra level of security." We don't need any "extra levels"; what we need is something faster and more reliable.

I had read that the scanners cannot probe through plastic or rubber materials that resemble skin.?But that hurdle has apparently been overcome, as the TSA ramps up its plans to install the machines - which cost $100,000 to $170,000 - at all airports currently using the old metal detectors. The cost of the machines is somewhat surprising to me: when I first read about the technology several years ago, the cost estimates I recall seeing were $1 million-plus per machine, so evidently the technology has evolved very quickly.

Oh, and concerns about X-ray exposure appear to be overblown. The scanning process is said to be equivalent to "ambient radiation received in two minutes of airplane flight."

Fliers have asked for travel technology to get smarter, quicker, and more accurate. Far from being a peep show or physical examination, I think whole-body scanner technology is just what the doctor ordered.






Road Warrior • Miami • www.us.amadeus.com

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