Full-image body scanner arrives at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport; more high-tech gear on way

By Amy Forliti, AP
Thursday, September 23, 2010

Full-body scanner arrives at Minneapolis airport

MINNEAPOLIS — Security officials at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport began using a new, high-tech body scanner at one of its checkpoints Wednesday, saying the full-image technology is a critical tool to help head off potential threats.

The full-imaging scanner — the first in Minneapolis — screens passengers for metallic and nonmetallic items, including plastic or chemical explosives and weapons that could be hidden under clothes.

Civil rights groups have expressed concern that the machines, which produce a blurry outline of a person’s body, are too revealing. But security officials say they’ve taken steps to protect privacy.

“Passenger privacy is paramount,” said Tom Connors, the Transportation Security Administration’s federal security director in Minneapolis.

TSA has 224 imaging technology units at 56 airports, with plans to double that number by the end of the year. Minneapolis installed its first at Checkpoint 10, a lower-traffic spot that connects parking ramps to concourses and is used primarily by business travelers and crew. The airport expects to get more of the machines this fall.

Minneapolis will use the “millimeter wave” technology, one of two types of scanners used by the TSA. It bounces radio waves off a person’s body to produce a black-and-white image. Connors said the machine is safe, and the energy emitted is less than what is permitted for a cell phone.

A volunteer demonstrated how the machine works. Just like a metal detector, he had to remove his shoes before entering. He also had to take everything out of his pockets including paper and tissues, not just metal items. He walked into the machine and stood sideways with his arms over his head while it scanned his body. It took a few seconds.

In another room, a security officer views the image. The security officer who looks at the image is in a closed-off area not accessible to the public. The officer also won’t see the passenger, and the officer who guides the passenger through the machine won’t see the image.

The image can’t be stored, printed or transmitted elsewhere, and once it is viewed, it is immediately deleted. If there is an anomaly on the image, the officer at the checkpoint is notified and the traveler will be screened further.

Reporters were brought into the viewing area to see an image of a female volunteer. The black-and-white image showed a front and back view of the woman, and a fuzzy, shadowy outline of her curves and body contours. It did not show her clothing or genitals, but her underwear lines were visible. Her face was blurred to protect privacy.

Travelers can opt to skip the machine and get a patdown instead.

“If you refuse the scan, then you’ll get a patdown,” Connors said. The same goes for travelers who refuse to go through the standard metal detectors.

Someone with wrong intentions could try to avoid a scan by looking for alternative checkpoints that only have metal detectors. When asked about that possibility, Connors said there are layers in TSA’s security measures, such as behavior detection, to stop those threats.

“You could go elsewhere, but you could run into (another security measure) elsewhere that’s random,” he said.

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