An X-ray security scanner that can see through clothing was put into its first operational use Friday at Sky Harbor International Airport and could be rolled out to two other major airports by year's end.
The so-called "backscatter" technology has been controversial, with critics saying the high-resolution images are too invasive. But the Transportation Security Administration adjusted the machine's images so the normally graphic pictures can be blurred in certain areas while still being effective at detecting concealed weapons or other threats.
"I think the work we've done with the industry to address the privacy concerns has really done well," said Nico Melendez, an agency spokesman.
Passengers selected for secondary screening by the device are asked to stand in set spots in front of the closet-sized X-ray unit with hands palms out, then turn around for a second screening from the back. The entire operation takes about a minute.
The machine will be tested for up to 90 days at a single checkpoint at Sky Harbor's largest terminal, which hosts US Airways and Southwest Airlines, two of the airlines with the most flights in and out of Phoenix. The technology could be left in place after the trial period, and Melendez said the agency hopes to also roll out the technology at Los Angeles International Airport and New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport by year's end.
During the pilot program, the machine will be used only as a secondary screening measure; passengers who fail the standard screening process will be able to choose between the new device or a typical pat-down search.
"It's 100 percent voluntary, so if the passenger doesn't feel comfortable with it the passenger doesn't have to go through it," Melendez said.
Melendez declined to discuss the TSA's method for determining which passengers are selected for secondary screening.
The TSA said that the security officer who works with the passenger going through the screening will never see the image the machine produces. The images will be viewed by another officer who will be about 50 feet away and won't see the passenger.
The machine can't store the image or transmit them. "Once we're done screening the passenger, the image is gone forever," Melendez said.
The device being used at Sky Harbor costs about $100,000 but is being loaned free from the manufacturer, AS&E of Boston, said Melendez.
Melendez said the TSA is confident in the technology's safety and efficiency.
He said a person who goes through the process will receive about the same amount of radiation as a person flying for two minutes at an altitude of 30,000 feet.
Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., viewed the machine in use at the airport Friday and said privacy concerns have been addressed because the screening is voluntary.
"It does provide a higher level of security," Mitchell said. "Hopefully it will speed the process up. The fact is that we want to be efficient.