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No more virtual strip searches at Sea-Tac by June

Post by John Gillie / The News Tribune on Jan. 18, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
January 18, 2013 2:27 pm

Say goodbye to the virtual strip search at Washington’s two largest airports.

The refrigerator-sized backscatter scanners that populate the security checkpoints both at Seattle-Tacoma and Spokane international airports will be replaced by phone-booth-like millimeter wave body scanners by June, says the Transportation Security Administration.

The existing backscatter scanners use low-power x-rays to create a chalky but life-like unclothed body image of passengers passing through the machines. Those images are reviewed by TSA security personnel in a remote room who check those images for weapons or other prohibited items concealed on the person being screened.

The backscatter machines have raised concerns by passengers who say the devices invade their privacy by showing images of their naked body contours including their outlines of their genitals. The TSA says the naked images generated by the backscatter devices can’t be printed or stored, and the screener reviewing those images never sees the actual person being scanned.

The millimeter wave scanners display a generic outline of a human body with potentially hazardous weapons or contraband highlighted by yellow alert boxes on that image in the location where the suspect items are located. Those images are visibly to security personnel at the scanner. The millimeter wave devices use a low-powered electromagnetic signal to scan for weapons.

Millimeter wave image

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The backscatter scanners are being replaced at the two Washington airports are among 174 nationwide that don’t meet Congressional standards for privacy protection. The TSA has cancelled its contract with OSI Systems Inc., the company that built those scanners, because the company couldn’t provide software that obscured the details of individual bodies while alerting security personnel to suspicious items. The deadline for creating and providing that software is June.
The company said it can’t produce such software until next year.

A TSA statement said the millimeter wave machines will likely speed up the searches because the TSA personnel operating the scanner doesn’t have to wait for a response from the employees in the distant location.                                                      

Sea-Tac has 14 of the backscatter machines.

The federal security agency declined to say when the replacement process will take place other than it will be accomplished by the June deadline.

The TSA says both scanning methods are safe. The backscatter x-rays are a fraction as powerful as those used for a normal chest x-ray. A traveler would have to undergo more than 1,000 security scans with a backscatter machine to be exposed to the equivalent radiation they receive from a medical x-ray.

The signals used by the millimeter wave machines are comparable to those emitted by an average cell phone.

Airline passengers with reservations about being scanned can request a manual patdown instead.

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