Scanners That Likely Would Have Thwarted Attack Earlier Stir Debate

Airport Security

December 30, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,

At Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, four cutting-edge scanners can literally look inside passengers' clothes and detect the kind of explosive that almost brought down a Northwest Airlines jetliner approaching Detroit on Christmas Day.

Relatively few passengers go through these Advanced Imaging Technology devices, however. That's because the machines are employed only for "secondary" screening of a select few chosen at random or because something didn't look right in the primary screening by metal detecting devices.

The technology, which produces a revealing image of the contours of the human body, has been criticized by privacy advocates and civil libertarians. But a sampling of opinion among BWI passengers Tuesday found that almost all would support widespread use of the technology if it would make them safer.

Deloris Allen of Port Arthur, Texas, said she was "skeptical" about the notion of having her body image being displayed on a screen. But in light of recent events, she said she wouldn't mind.

"If it's going to stop the problem that happened, I'm all for it," the 66-year-old said. "I don't want to be blown up in the air. I really don't."

The federal Transportation Security Administration has deployed 40 of the high-tech scanners in 19 airports around the United States, including BWI and Washington's Reagan National Airport. The agency recently announced that it has bought 150 more and that it plans to acquire another 300 next year.

According to TSA spokeswoman Lauren Gaches, nobody is now being required to pass through such screeners. Whether selected for secondary screening at an airport such as BWI or passing through one of the six airports that use the "millimeter wave" machines as their primary scanning devices, passengers have the option of choosing more traditional methods such as wand screenings or pat-down searches.

Other countries have been even slower to adopt such technology. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian Muslim who is accused of attempting to detonate a device using the non-metallic explosive powder PETN aboard Northwest Flight 253, apparently passed through nothing more sophisticated than a standard magnetometer - useful for detecting metals but not PETN - on his flight from Lagos, Nigeria, through Amsterdam to Detroit.

Keith Franz, a Baltimore lawyer who represented loved ones of passengers who died during the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, said the near-disaster on Northwest 253 was the result of security failures at every level starting from the time Abdulmutallab bought his ticket.

"If anyone had done their job, this would never have occurred," he said. "It's Nigeria, it's the Netherlands, it's the airline, it's the United States."

Franz, who specializes in transportation-related litigation, said the advanced screening technology available at BWI would have almost certainly detected the PETN that the suspect had apparently concealed in his underwear. He said he believes that the more intrusive technology will win wider acceptance.

"Ultimately, that's probably the way we're going to go," he said. "I don't believe the public would be offended by that."

But a broader use of the advanced screening technology, which can reveal such details as the shape of a woman's breasts or the outline of male genitalia, is unlikely to occur without a struggle. Groups such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center have denounced the approach as a "virtual strip search" of all airline passengers.

"For all practical purposes, this X-ray machine would compel millions of airline travelers to submit themselves to a level of bodily exposure that almost everyone would consider indecent and many might find religiously or ethically offensive," the group said in a 2005 article, shortly after TSA began introducing the scanners. The American Civil Liberties Union has also expressed reservations about the technology.

Responding to privacy concerns in June, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to limit the use of the technology to secondary screening. The measure is now before the Senate, where its prospects may be clouded by the Detroit incident.

Passengers interviewed at BWI expressed few reservations about the imaging technology - especially when told about the safeguards the TSA employs to disconnect the image from the identity of fliers. Among other things, the TSA said the scanners blur the image of the passenger's face, and the human screener is located off-site rather than at the security checkpoint. Once a passenger has cleared security, the image is not retained, according to the TSA.

Stephanie Sininger of Arizona found the safeguard reassuring. The 31-year-old said she's all in favor of the use of the technology "as long as it wasn't going up on a visual screen."

Her views were shared by at least four other Sininger family members - mother Vicki, 54; brother Steven, 21; and sisters Amy, 20; and Angela, 25 - who were traveling Tuesday through BWI.

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