Image: 'Backscatter
Brian Branch-Price  /  AP
In this file photo, Susan Hallowell holds up a side arm that was detected by the "backscatter" machine at the Transportation Security Administration in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. Experts say whole-body imagery systems — rather than standard metal detectors — could be an effective method of strengthening airport security.
updated 12/29/2009 6:06:44 PM ET 2009-12-29T23:06:44

High-tech security scanners that might have prevented the Christmas Day attempt to blow up a jetliner have been installed in only a small number of airports around the world, in large part because of privacy concerns over the way the machines see through clothing.

The technology is in place at 19 U.S. airports, while European officials have generally limited it to test runs.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian accused of trying to ignite explosives aboard a Northwest Airlines jet as it was coming in for a landing in Detroit, did not go through such a scan where his flight began, at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport.

The full-body scanner "could have been helpful in this case, absolutely," said Evert van Zwol, head of the Dutch Pilots Association.

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But the technology has raised significant concerns among privacy watchdogs because it can show the body's contours with embarrassing clarity. Those fears have slowed the introduction of the machines.

'Virtual strip searches'
Jay Stanley, public education director for the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology and Liberty Program, said the machines essentially perform "virtual strip searches that see through your clothing and reveal the size and shape of your body."

Abdulmutallab passed through a routine security check at the gate in Amsterdam before boarding, officials said. He is believed to have tucked into his trousers or underwear a small bag holding PETN explosive powder, and possibly a liquid detonator.

Video: U.S. too politically correct in screenings?

Because such items won't set off metal detectors, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, part of the Department of Homeland Security, has begun installing two types of advanced scanning machines that provide a more detailed picture.

These machines, which cost six figures each, screen airline passengers without physical contact. They can reveal plastic or chemical explosives and non-metallic weapons.

Such scanners "provide the best protection for the widest range of threats," said Joe Reiss, vice president of marketing for American Science & Engineering Inc. The company makes machines for prisons, military agencies, foreign customs patrols and other customers but does not have a contract with TSA.

TSA has deployed 40 "millimeter wave" machines, which use radio waves to produce a three-dimensional image based on energy reflected back from the body.

Machines used at few airports
Six of those machines, which are made by L-3 Communications Holdings Inc., are being used for what TSA calls "primary screenings" at six U.S. airports: Albuquerque, N.M.; Las Vegas; Miami; San Francisco; Salt Lake City; and Tulsa, Okla.

This means passengers go through the scans instead of a metal detector, although they can elect to receive a pat-down search from a security officer instead.

The remainder of the machines are being used at 13 U.S. airports for secondary screening of passengers who set off a metal detector: Atlanta; Baltimore/Washington; Denver; Dallas/Fort Worth; Indianapolis; Jacksonville and Tampa, Fla.; Los Angeles; Phoenix; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Richmond, Va.; Ronald Reagan Washington National; and Detroit. Travelers can opt for a pat-down instead in those instances as well.

The agency also has announced plans to buy 150 "backscatter" machines, which use low-level X-rays to create a two-dimensional image of the body, from Rapiscan Systems, a unit of OSI Systems Inc. Those machines, which cost $190,000 each, are being deployed in U.S. airports now.

"The machine gives a very accurate and very precise image of things on the body that are not the body," said Peter Kant, executive vice president of global government affairs for Rapiscan.

House votes to prohibit use
Last June, however, because of privacy concerns, the House voted 310-118 to prohibit the use of whole-body imaging for primary screening. The measure, still pending in the Senate, would limit the use of the devices to secondary screening.

"As a society, we're going to have to figure out the balance between personal privacy and the need to secure an aircraft," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who sponsored the measure. "And there is no easy answer."

Executives at the companies that make the machines insist there are ways to strike that balance.

Kant said the technology has evolved enough to produce body images that look like chalk outlines. In addition, privacy filters can blur faces, noted Colin McSeveny, communications manager for Smiths Detection, a British company that makes millimeter wave machines that are being tested in Europe and the U.S.

Privacy concerns downplayed
For its part, TSA said it safeguards privacy by ensuring that all full-body images are viewed in a walled-off location not visible to the public. In addition, the security officer assisting the passenger cannot view the image and the officer who views the image never sees the passenger. Also, the machines cannot store, print or transmit any images they produce.

After all, McSeveny said, "all they are looking for is something that shouldn't be there."

Because of the privacy questions, the European Union Parliament voted in October 2008 for more study before authorizing the machines' full deployment in European airports.

Amsterdam's airport has been running a test project with full-body scanners for three years, mainly for a few European flights. One machine being tested there for the past five weeks, made by L-3, is designed to enhance passengers' privacy by having software, rather than a human, analyze the image generated by the scanner. If the software detects an anomaly — something strapped to a leg, for instance — it alerts a human screener to look at the person's leg directly.

"So nobody sees any images," said Ron Louwerse, the airport's chief of security. "The results are very, very good. I'm very confident about it."

In May, TSA abandoned "puffer machines" made by General Electric Co. and Smiths Detection, which blew air onto passengers to dislodge trace amounts of explosives. The government said the machines cost too much to maintain and regularly broke down when exposed to dirt or humidity. There are still 18 puffer machines deployed at U.S. airports.

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Video: Minding the security gap

  1. Closed captioning of: Minding the security gap

    >>> "nightly news" begins now.

    >>> good evening. the failed bombing of a commercial jetliner over detroit on christmas day continues to ripple across the skies, across the country, and now throughout the u.s. government . the president today called it a systemic failure. he has ordered a top to bottom review that is due in two days. investigators have learned more about the plot and the would be bomber and for the millions of people who have to fly this week, it continues to be a challenge. a maze of different rules, changing rules, and hours of delays for security screening in some cases. we begin our coverage here tonight with our justice correspondent pete williams in our washington bureau. pete, good evening.

    >> reporter: brian, investigators tonight say they're learning more about what umar farouk abdulmutallab the man charged with the attempted bombing was doing in yemen during the past few months. they now say he was communicating with a radical muslim cleric there, anwar al alaki, the same man also in touch with the army doctor accused of last month's fatal shooting at ft. hood, texas. and they say they're filling in the gaps of abdulmutallab's contacts. the close call in detroit has also stirred up a new debate about how this could happen in the first place. the mission to tighten airline security has suffered dozens of setbacks, take the high end walk-through puffer machines designed to sniff out explosives hidden on passengers. in theory, they might have been able to detect the powerful explosive powder that federal agents say umar farouk abdulmutallab concealed under his clothes. five years ago, the government rushed to deploy them after terrorists were blamed for bombing two russian passenger planes. they worked fine in the lab, but once cranked up in the polluted setting of airports, they proved unreliable. 130 of them are sitting in warehouses, some made by nbc's parent company, ge. now there is a renewed push for another kind of technology, full body scanners. able to penetrate clothing and show what's hidden underneath. but they're very effectiveness has slowed their deployment. ask tom blank, a former tsa official.

    >> it is not been smooth sailing.

    >> reporter: privacy advocates complain the devoess show an explicit image of a passenger's body, even worried about a public revolt.

    >> whether x-raying pregnant women is something that would be acceptable in the name of security. these are considerations and these are issues that our political leaders , tsa leaders, take into consideration on a routine basis.

    >> reporter: members of congress slowed deployment too. this past june the house voted 3-1 to allow them only for secondary screening for selected passengers.

    >> congress at times has been an obstacle to the deployment of more advanced technology because of what may be legitimate privacy concerns.

    >> reporter: a former security official for israel state airline el al says technology alone is not the answer.

    >> we must make sure that we get information about every passenger that is coming to take the flight from the moment that he buys a ticket, until the moment that he comes to the airport.

    >> reporter: while tsa has deployed more people to watch for suspicious behavior at airports, this latest scare has also prompted renewed calls for more profiling, giving extra scrutiny to travelers from the middle east , for example, or to young men from countries that harbor terrorism, some argue, simply makes sense. but some security experts point to last year's arrests in a plot to attack u.s. targets in germany to argue that terrorists come from diverse backgrounds. and tonight government officials say more security changes may be on the way. one possibility is requiring additional screening for passengers who buy one way tickets with cash. brian?

    >> pete williams who remains on the story in our washington newsroom. pete, thanks.

    >>> president obama has now devoted

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