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'Down to the Skin' Security

By Lloyd Jojola
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          The images it produces look sort of like photo negatives of people standing, arms up.
        But what the Transportation Security Administration rolled forward Friday is the latest in "whole-body imaging."
        The technology is being used at the Albuquerque International Sunport to search travelers for weapons, bombs or other threats without having to lay hands on them.
        "This right here will give us that extra level of security," said George Andler, TSA federal security director at the airport. "Everybody talks about the day will come when we see the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, what he went through (in the Martian sci-fi film "Total Recall"). It's here. Of course, it's not a skeletal figure, but here you have an image of a body figure, where we can see pretty much down to the skin anything that's on your body."
        The Sunport is the second airport in the county to start using "millimeter wave" technology for primary passenger screening at its central security checkpoint. Tulsa's airport was the first.
        While the machine has been in place at the Sunport since last year, federal officials said it was used as a secondary screening device. The Sunport is among six airports — San Francisco, Miami, Salt Lake City, Tulsa and Las Vegas being the others — that will test the operational efficiency of the technology.
        "It's still in the pilot phase, but it is something we are very enthusiastic about and aggressively pursuing," said Andrea McCauley, TSA regional spokeswoman.
        In only one line at the Sunport checkpoint, the whole-body imaging machine will take the place of a metal detector.
        As the TSA explains it, millimeter wave technology works this way: "Beams of radio frequency energy in the millimeter wave spectrum are projected over the body's surface at high speed from two antennas simultaneously as they rotate around the body." Energy reflected back from the body, or other objects on the body, is used to create a three-dimensional image that is analyzed for anomalies.
        Or as Andler more simply stated: "It gives us an image of the person's outer body utilizing radio waves."
        What's the initial reaction from most people to using such technology? "Oh, I'm going to see myself naked," McCauley said.
        But the images look more like photo negatives, ones that show body outlines and seams of clothing. They are about as revealing as seeing people in swimwear or underwear.
        In theory, the machine will help TSA officers detect concealed weapons, explosives and other prohibited items without having to perform a passenger pat-down.
        Going through the $170,000 machine takes seconds — less time than the metal detector/pat-down process — and would especially benefit some travelers, such as those who have had hip replacements and would set off a metal detector.
        Of course, if something questionable appears on the image, it would trigger additional screening.
        Privacy issues with whole-body imaging have been a concern.
        To deal with this, the TSA security officer tending to the passenger at the checkpoint cannot view the whole-body images. Images are viewed by a different security officer in a secluded office away from the actual checkpoint. They cannot be stored, transmitted, printed, and are deleted after viewing, federal officials said.
        Also, the face of the passenger being screened is blurred.
        And, TSA officials said, passengers still have the option of going through a metal detector.

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