Friday, March 19, 2010

Full-Body Scanner Debuts At O'Hare Airport

Some air travelers already uneasy about a range of security checks at the nation's second-busiest airport can add another potential anxiety: The first full-body scanner at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport made its debut this week.

The imaging technology, which effectively sees through clothes by scattering low-dose x-rays at a passenger's front and back, is one of 150 such scanners bought with federal stimulus money last year and now being deployed at major airports across the United States.

Civil libertarians, however, have complained that the new machines can violate a passenger's privacy.

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The Transportation Security Administration has been deploying the body-scanning technology in an effort to ensure that airports can detect hidden explosives and other weapons in the wake of an attempted bombing on Christmas Day. In that case, a Nigerian man is charged with trying to set off explosives that had been hidden in his underwear.

The first scanners paid for with stimulus money were deployed last week at Boston's Logan International Airport. Others go to airports in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; San Jose, Calif.; Columbus, Ohio; San Diego; Charlotte, N.C.; Cincinnati; Los Angeles; Oakland, Calif.; and Kansas City.

O'Hare's new scanner, consisting of two blue machines the size of phone booths set a few feet apart, is surprisingly unobtrusive. It stands in an existing security checkpoint amid older detectors and, unless they're looking for it, many passengers might not even notice it's there.

During this week's demonstration, several volunteers walked one at a time between the two units, stopped and raised their arms for several seconds while the machine scanned them, then walked out. The procedure took no more than 10 seconds per person.

There's no mistaking outlines of a human body in the resulting gray and white images, with folds of skin, and even breasts and buttocks visible. But the faces and genital areas are automatically obscured by the body scanner.

The American Civil Liberties Union has denounced the screening as a "virtual strip search." Aviation authorities said they have taken such concerns into account.

Images created by the body scanner at O'Hare can be seen only by a screener 20 feet away in a room fashioned from frosted-glass walls. Officials say the screeners can't see who has been scanned and have no way of saving pictures transmitted from the body scan to their monitors.

Passengers retain the right to opt out of a full-body scan for a more intense but traditional pat down.

The 150 machines paid for by stimulus cash join 40 already in use at around 20 airports nationwide. Hundreds more will be deployed at U.S. airports, including at least several more at O'Hare, in the coming months and years.

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