More BWI passengers to go through imaging machines

New process will direct most travelers to security screening technology that reveals nearly all

June 07, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

The chances that the government will ask to see through your clothing before you board a plane at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport will be a lot higher starting Tuesday.

Advanced imaging technology, which until now has been used only as a backup security method, will become the primary tool for screening passengers at BWI beginning this week, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

The move comes despite opposition from privacy advocates, who have challenged the TSA in both Congress and the courts. Even with the controversy, many other airports around the country have already made the transition to using whole-body imaging as the main screening.

At BWI, the difference will be subtle at first. A TSA spokeswoman, Lauren Gaches, said the four advanced screening machines now deployed at the airport would each be moved about five feet forward at their security checkpoints.

Instead of a limited number of passengers being pulled from the herd at random and asked to go through the machines as a secondary screening, the imaging will now be the primary method.

"It will be the first technology for the passengers that they encounter," said Gaches, who could not give an estimate of the percentage of passengers who will be directed to the machines but said it would be higher than current numbers.

The move is part of a gradual shift toward making the more revealing technology, which the government considers superior for its ability to detect non-metallic and well as metallic "threat items," the gold standard of security screening at U.S. airports.

There are now about 80 of the advanced imaging machines deployed at U.S. airports. While some have questioned the cost of the machines, estimated at $170,000 per unit, the TSA expects to have about 450 by the end of the year. And BWI is expected to get its share of that increase.

As of now, passengers will not be required to go through the machines if they object. Those who don't want to be screened that way can say no, but they can expect to receive a pat-down search as well as metal detector screening. That isn't a change from current procedure for those who decline, but more passengers will be confronted with the choice of what critics have called an "electronic strip search" or a manual exploration by a TSA officer.

According to the TSA, 98 percent of passengers offered the choice agree to advanced imaging.

"If it works to do what they want it to do, then it's fine," said Nanette Ackerman of Coconut Creek, Fla., who was randomly selected to go through the imaging machine at BWI on Monday.

Tara Adlesic of Ellicott City went through whole-body screening for the first time and said it didn't bother her.

"It's probably less intrusive than to have somebody pat you down," she said.

Those who choose the machine will have images of their bodies transmitted to a computer screen in a small, stark, windowless room off the checkpoint where a TSA officer will view the shadowy images with facial features blurred over.

At a screening demonstration on Monday at BWI, a TSA volunteer passed through an imaging machine at Pier B, at the Southwest Airlines terminal. The machine, like the others at BWI, uses millimeter-wave technology.

Looking at the image, it was possible to determine the gender and general shape of the female volunteer, as well as the suspicious item strapped to her waist, but there was nothing titillating about the display. It resembled a full-body X-ray, though the millimeter wave technology uses radio waves rather than penetrating radiation.

According to Gaches, the TSA officer in the room never sees the passenger passing through the machine, and the officers dealing with the passengers never see the images of those they encounter face-to-face. She said the radiation from the millimeter wave machines amounts to about one-10,000th of that emitted by a cell phone. The images are permanently deleted once the screening is over, Gaches said.

Despite the TSA's precautions, the use of the technology has drawn criticism from privacy advocates and others since it was first introduced in 2007. The Electronic Privacy Information Center and Ralph Nader have urged Congress to suspend the practice, contending that the technology is ineffective, too costly and unnecessarily intrusive. EPIC is suing the department in an effort to gain access to documents concerning the scanners.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC, said the original images of people's bodies before privacy filters are applied are much more revealing than the public understands. He said that while the TSA has said it will not retain images, its equipment comes with the capability to do so.

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