Remember last Christmas when the “underwear bomber” almost brought down a Delta jumbo-jet over Detroit?
That prompted the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to grab a big pile of federal stimulus money for about 150 more full body scanners– you know, the ones that produce images like the one you see below.
There are currently 97 of the so-called “advanced imaging units” in use at airports across the country but TSA says that number will soar to around 500 by the end of this year– with nearly 1000 in place by the end of 2011.
There are currently three full-body scanners in use at ATL. Two are located at the main terminal checkpoint and one is at the international arrivals checkpoint in Terminal E. When the additional machines are deployed there will be machines at all of the airport’s checkpoints.
Earlier this month, The TICKET was invited to San Jose Mineta International Airport to check out the first batch of four new “backscatter” scanners. These are different than the “millimeter wave” units you may have seen at ATL and elsewhere, but represent the latest technology. This means that you’ll see more backscatter machines appear at ATL and 28 other airports (see list) between now and the end of the year.
(See video for a look at the new generation units.)
Here’s what you need to know:
>WHAT DO THEY LOOK LIKE? The newer backscatter machines look like two big blue boxes with a small open alley down the middle. (Millimeter wave units are rounder looking with the passenger surrounded by Plexiglas for the scan.)
>HOW DO I GET SCANNED? You walk into the scanners, turn sideways, place feet in square boxes marked on the rubber floor, hold hands up and wait for the TSA agent to tell you to exit. The whole process takes about five seconds. (See video for a real-life walk through.)
>WHAT IS DIFFERENT? As usual, you must remove shoes and belts and place them with carry-on luggage in bins. But when getting a full body scan, you must also remove your wallet or any other non-metallic objects from pockets. (Wallet removal is not necessary with the standard magnetometers.)
>WHAT ABOUT RADIATION? The TSA says that the radiation emitted by these machines is equivalent to what you are exposed to during about two minutes aboard at aircraft at altitude, and far less than what the government permits for cell phones.
>WHAT DO SCANNERS SCAN? Body scanners only expose what’s between your skin and the clothes you are wearing. They are NOT like x-rays, which penetrate your skin and show internal organs and bone. (This is a plus for travelers with artificial joints or other metallic implants who’ve been slowed down and forced to submit to pat downs at traditional magnetometers.)
>WHO SEES MY PRIVATES? The TSA agent directing you into the full body scanner never sees your image. This officer is wearing an earpiece and is in radio contact with another TSA officer viewing your image in a remote area. Once your image has been checked, this officer then tells the attending officer to allow you to pass, or to subject you to secondary screening if he/she sees any anomalies. (See video for a behind the scenes look at the remote viewing room.)
>WHAT HAPPENS TO THE IMAGES? The TSA emphasizes that these images cannot be stored, saved or transmitted. In addition, they do no allow officers to bring cameras, cell phones or PDA’s in rooms where images are viewed. (Except for ours, of course, but that was just for the media…)
>WHAT ABOUT ADULT DIAPERS OR SANITARY PADS? Citing confidentiality, the TSA officer at San Jose Airport would not tell me how or if the machines can tell the difference between a sanitary pad and contraband placed in the crotch area.
>WHO IS PAYING FOR ALL THIS? You are. The units cost about $150,000 a pop, which means that the TSA spent nearly $75 million on this latest round of full body scanners. (Check out how the stock of OSI Systems, parent of scanner manufacturer Rapiscan, has soared since Christmas when this order was placed)
So, what do you think, folks? Is this an invasion of your privacy, or a necessary evil for safety’s sake?
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