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February 11, 1997
Web posted: 3:40 p.m. EST

(CNN) -- ... and it's got some people worried about whether the new technology is too intrusive.

Metal detectors, installed in U.S. airports after a series of skyjackings in the 1960s and early '70s, have become a familiar and routine part of air travel.

But they don't sound an alarm over organic materials, like drugs or plastic explosives. It was Semtex, a type of plastic explosive, that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 269 people. The bombing prompted a call for improved air security.

Technology is already available to stop a passenger carrying any type of contraband, according to the National Security Council, but public acceptance of it is another matter.

One controversial solution being looked at by the Federal Aviation Administration is Body Search, an imaging device that uses low-level radiation to X-ray a suspect. The scanner renders clothing transparent, laying bare what's underneath.

Peter Harris of American Science and Engineering, the firm that developed the device, said it's already in use in Mexican airports.

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"This system was designed for use where security officials had already determined that there was sufficient cause for a strip search," Harris said.

But Lyle Malotky of the FAA said that if the agency sees sufficient threat posed by people carrying weapons that today's metal detectors can't detect, body-scanning -- the high-tech equivalent of a strip search -- may become commonplace.

And that worries some people, especially because of the explicitness of the image it renders on the computer screen.

The American Civil Liberties Union says strip searches are rare in U.S. airports and that less intrusive technologies are available.

Industry officials, acknowledging the need to balance privacy and protection, are looking to tone down the body-scanners of the future so they'll produce less graphic images.

But for now, as passengers' baggage come under increasing scrutiny in the future, so might their bodies.

Correspondant Mary Ann McGann contributed to this report.


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