TSA Begins Testing New Airport Scanners

Millimeter Wave airport scanning scanner security TSA transportation security administration CBS

The federal government is now testing a body-scanning machine that sees through travelers' clothing, as an alternative to hand searches by security officers.

Tests were scheduled to begin Thursday at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport with passengers pulled out of the security line for secondary screening. Passengers may request the full-body scan - which blurs faces so the person being screened cannot be recognized - instead of the traditional pat-down used across the country.

"This way, they won't have to have anyone touch them, and they can get through the process very quickly," said Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Ellen Howe.

The new machine uses radio waves to detect foreign objects.

Officials are trying to determine if the body-scan machines are a more effective search tool than a pat-down. Both types of machines check for explosives, metal, plastic and liquids - anything hidden on the body, said Mike Golden, the Transportation Security Administration's chief technology officer.

The new type of device being tested, called a "millimeter wave" machine, doesn't use radiation, Golden said Wednesday during a demonstration for reporters at the agency's headquarters in Arlington, Va. Instead, it uses electromagnetic waves to create an image based on energy reflected from the body.

A similar machine, which does use X-ray radiation, will soon be tested at airports in New York and Los Angeles, reports .

Since February, the Phoenix airport has been testing a machine that uses so-called backscatter radiation to scan the entire body. The backscatter uses a narrow, low-intensity X-ray beam that scans the entire body at a high speed. The amount of radiation used during this scan is equal to 15 minutes of exposure to natural background radiation such as the sun's rays.

The non-radiation millimeter wave machine works like this: A person walks into a large portal - nearly 9 feet tall and 6 feet wide - pauses and lifts his arms while the machine takes two scans using radio waves. The scans take 1.8 seconds, and it takes about a minute for the image to appear on a computer screen in a separate location.

"You don't have to worry about being patted down, they don't have to have somebody there to pat you down. It'll save time, I think, if anything," traveler Mark Bongiovi told CBS News.

"Any time they can improve the process, make it more efficient for travelers, it's a good thing," said another traveler, Wendy Gilpin.

To protect privacy, the image will be shown on screens in a completely different area than where the screening is taking place. The TSA officer doing the screening will never see the computer image, and images will not be saved, TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe said.

Reporters were only shown an example of a female body image, which was a three-dimensional image of a very fit woman in her brassiere and underwear. TSA describes this as similar to a "fuzzy photo negative."

Privacy advocates say the images are more graphic than that.

"If you want to see a naked body, this is a naked body," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's program on technology and liberty.

Steinhardt also received a demonstration of the new machine, which he says shows the same graphic image as the backscatters.

"I continue to believe that these are virtual strip searches," Steinhardt said. "If Playboy published them, there would be politicians out there saying they're pornographic."

Amsterdam Schiphol Airport and the Alexandria, Va., federal courthouse use the millimeter wave machines, TSA said.

TSA purchased eight of the millimeter wave machines, which cost between $100,000 and $120,000, and is considering deploying them at John F. Kennedy and Los Angeles international airports during the testing period. The results of the testing will determine whether to use these machines for primary screening, Howe said.
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