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Whole Body Imaging

June 1, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

Should the TSA be able to see your whole body, underneath your clothes, as a primary means of airport security?

That’s the question Congress will tackle later this week when they vote on an amendment to the TSA authorization bill that would ban the use of whole body imaging technology unless another method, such as a metal detector, shows that it is necessary.

In case you haven’t heard of this new technology, here’s how it works. Passengers walk into a machine that looks roughly like one of those puffer security machines, and beams of radio frequency energy are scanned over their body. The reflection of the energy beams is used to create a detailed 3-D image of of the passenger’s body (here’s an example), including any weapons or suspicious devices they may be carrying. According to the TSA, the images are so detailed that you can see things as small as beads of sweat. The images are viewed by a TSA officer located in a separate room close by to the checkpoint. Facial images are blurred out.

The machines are currently being used in 19 airports, 6 of which are using them as the primary means of scanning. According to the TSA, 98 percent of the public has opted to use the technology in airports where it has been deployed so far. Additional deployments are being planned. The TSA has said hat the machines are designed to be used as a last resort and as an alternatives to the pat-down, but the ACLU says that fits perfectly with patterns of creeping governmental privacy invasions. "The authorities make them as palatable as possible to get the public to swallow them (they’ll say it’s “voluntary,” or “applied only in certain cases,” and tell you it’s chock-full of privacy protections). Then once they’re accepted, they become more and more intrusive in all the ways the ACLU always warns against," Suzanne Ito wrote on the ACLU blog.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz [R, UT-3], who has proposed the Aircraft Passenger Whole-Body Imaging Limitations Act and is sponsoring the amendment to the TSA bill, says it goes too far. “I just think this is too invasive,” Chaffetz says in his cot-side chat video. “Nobody needs to see my kids … and see my wife naked in order to secure an airplane.”

Chaffetz’s amendment would restrict whole-body imaging technology as a primary means of screening, allow passengers that require a secondary screening to opt for a pat-down instead of the whole-body imaging, and prohibit the storage, transfer, sharing, or copying of the images.

The amendment is being co-sponsored by Rep. Carol Shea-Porter [D, NH-1] and is expected to be approved by a majority vote. The underlying bill, on the other hand, isn’t a sure bet. Republicans and Democrats have yet to resolve several conflicts in the bill, including whether former Guantanamo inmates should be placed on the no-fly list automatically, or at the discretion of the administration.

UPDATE: The amendment was approved by the House and added to the bill on a vote of 310-118.

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