The story started innocently enough: the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was unveiling state-of-the-art technology to beef up security at airport checkpoints. Often ridiculed for its inefficiency and incompetence, TSA finally had good news to report.
Then earlier this year, a "privacy vs. security" furor erupted and newspaper headlines screamed: "X-Rated X-Ray," "Naked Came the Passenger" and "Government: Don't Dare Scan My Body." The target of the alarm: a new high-tech body scanner, aka "the Peeper." When passengers walk through it, it uses radio waves to peep underneath their clothing - a digital strip search that reveals if someone is concealing anything suspicious, like a gun or a bomb.
Before rolling out the machines, TSA put in a lot of privacy safeguards. The images would not be visible anywhere at the checkpoint - not to passengers, or the TSA. The pictures would be examined by a lone TSA worker via computer in a separate location, and then immediately destroyed.
Nevertheless, the thought of "Big Brother" taking pictures of us naked was too irresistible for headline writers, and angered civil liberties groups as well. The ACLU claimed the images would reveal highly personal details, like a mastectomy or colostomy, as well as the size of breasts and penises.
Naturally, we asked TSA to show us the pictures.
We entered the locked, windowless room anticipating something that would make Hugh Hefner drool. But when the first picture popped up, it was hardly pornographic. The face was blurred, presumably so the operator doesn't know that she's looking at, say, Britney Spears. Yes, love handles and buxomness were very clear, but we saw no private parts, not even outlines. In fact, we could see the person's underwear. Kip Hawley, the head of TSA, was in the room with us and admitted the image is "a Power Ranger type of thing." (One manufacturer later told us that the machine is good at stripping off the first layer of clothing, not so good with the second.)
It made me wonder what the privacy uproar was all about especially since, in the dozen or so airports that have the body scanner so far, the great majority of passengers choose the "peeper" over enduring a physical pat-down by TSA screeners.
TSA has run into the "security vs. privacy" buzz saw before, when its screeners were criticized for overly aggressive pat-downs of women travelers. Now, with the bad publicity about the body scanners, TSA is cutting back on installing the machines. But security experts say TSA should take on the fight against critics of the "peeper."
If the agency backs down, they say, these $200,000 machines considered the best insurance against bombs getting on an airplane will be used only rarely.
Written by Karen Sughrue