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See-through scanner sets off alarms

'Virtual strip search' testing provokes outcries

The screen of a Rapiscan Secure 1000 displays the front- and rear-view image of a test subject's body outlines.
The screen of a Rapiscan Secure 1000 displays the front- and rear-view image of a test subject's body outlines.  

(CNN) -- It takes no special equipment to detect the controversy kicked up by a prototypic airport security device that civil-liberties advocates have labeled a "virtual strip search."

The Rapiscan Secure 1000 is among several instruments being tested by the nonprofit National Safe Skies Alliance for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at Florida's Orlando International Airport. Of six systems being tested, three are used for passenger-checkpoint searches and the others are for screening checked baggage and cargo.

The reason the Rapiscan is drawing outcries from civil-liberties activists is that it deploys a low-level X-ray technology to scan a person's body through clothing. Rapiscan Security Products is a subsidiary of OSI Systems, a developer of optoelectronics based in Hawthorne, California.

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"There are a number of different technologies" at the Orlando testing site, says Barry Steinhardt, an associate director with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "We don't oppose all of them. But we certainly do oppose widespread use of what I call -- I think accurately enough -- a 'virtual strip search.' It's a very graphic picture of the naked body."

In test demonstrations and promotional material, the Secure 1000's screen clearly displays a front- and rear-view image of the subject's body outlines. Metal objects, including guns, are easily spotted.

In a demonstration for reporters last week in Orlando, a plastic knife hidden in a Rapiscan company member's shirt pocket was easily seen on the machine's screen.

The ACLU's objection is not to screening on principle, Steinhardt says, but to the invasive quality of such a see-through approach.

"We don't need to use this technology," Steinhardt says. "In fact, we don't even need to test it. We know it works, it works too well. There are other technologies, which are being tested, which will allow us to detect, for example, the presence of plastic explosives. We don't oppose those."

Mica: 'New kind of terrorist'

Rep. John Mica, Republican of Florida and member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, points out that the equipment currently is only in a test phase and completely voluntary.

Passengers in Orlando aren't required at this point to subject themselves to a Rapiscan search. And even in a scenario in which such screenings became mandatory, "We can separate people out, male and female," says Mica, in which case female monitors would view the screen when female passengers were scanned, and men would view it when male passengers went through such a checkpoint.

Rep. John Mica, Republican of Florida:
Rep. John Mica, Republican of Florida: "We can separate out, male and female. ... I'm hoping that the equipment is sophisticated enough that we don't even need a human monitor."  

"Our goal," Mica says, "is to try to find the most effective equipment that can do the job and move people along through the long lines you see now at our most of our airports -- but be certain that they've been screened and don't have explosives or weapons or other dangerous materials on them."

"But this kind of virtual strip search?" counters Steinhardt. "Those of us who fly a lot know this won't remain voluntary for very long. This will become mandatory. People will be embarrassed."

What's more, Steinhardt says, use of such equipment will exacerbate the discomfort of "all those flight attendants out there who are complaining now of being harassed at airports by male guards."

Mica maintains that testing of new devices is necessary because of the gravity of the security challenges facing commercial aviation since September 11.

"We're facing a new type of terrorist," Mica says. "We've found they're willing to blow themselves up and they can conceal explosives even within body cavities. So we're going to have to have equipment that will detect those explosives if we want people to be able to fly with security and safety."

"I'm hoping," Mica adds, "that the equipment is sophisticated enough that we don't even need a human monitor -- that we can have an alarm go off and those people (flagged by an alarm) can be subject to further searching."

At this point, however, images captured by a Rapiscan unit must be read by human monitors.

Steinhardt: 'Already pretty distracted'

Barry Steinhardt, ACLU:
Barry Steinhardt, ACLU: "This kind of virtual strip search? Those of us who fly a lot know this won't remain voluntary for very long."  

Another secondary issue associated with the testing in Orlando involves a "sniffing" device that can read the air around a passenger for signs of both explosives and drugs. The ACLU's Steinhardt questions the wisdom of having airport security people and equipment set up to assist in drug interdiction.

"I fly a lot," says Steinhardt, "and one of the things I've noticed is that security personnel are already pretty distracted at the airports.

"We don't want them distracted, we don't want to turn them into the drug police, that's not what they're trained for. They're there to provide security for us on the plane. That's what they ought to be looking at. We shouldn't be turning these people into the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration)."

Mica says some electronic screening technology already is in place for drug scans at certain customs checkpoints. And he cautions that objections like those of the ACLU can hinder efforts to move technology forward.

"One of the problems we have is these folks who always want us to be so politically correct," Mica says, "both in security and intelligence matters.

"They can do a lot of damage not only to the traveling public, left in these long lines, but also to the advancement of technology. We can get to the next stage but those folks can't always be saying no, no, no."


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