Phila. airport launches kinder, gentler body scanning

Carol Fedrizz, of Syracuse, N.Y., goes through a new X-ray scanner Thursday at F-Terminal of Philadelphia International Airport. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)

Philadelphia International Airport has new body-scanning technology that replaces the passenger-specific images that drew an outcry from privacy advocates and some passengers, who viewed the machines as too invasive and a virtual strip search.

Transportation Security Administration officials will demonstrate the technology for the news media Friday in Terminal F at the airport, where last year 12.2 million passengers went through security-screening checkpoints.

The software shows a generic outline of a person, not a specific image of an actual passenger. The technology was initially tested in February in Atlanta, Las Vegas, and Washington, and was rolled out in July. It was installed here at the end of August and is already in use.

Philadelphia airport has three body scanners - one each in Terminals B, C, and F - and each has the software upgrade, TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said.

The technology is on 241 millimeter-wave advanced-imaging scanners that are part of Department of Homeland Security screening at 40 airports at a cost of $2.7 million.

The new system has a monitor at the security checkpoint that displays an image resembling a paper doll. Both the traveler and the TSA agent can see it.

Under the old system, an image of each passenger, resembling a black-and-white photo negative, was sent to a separate viewing room where a TSA officer reviewed it "for any anomalies," Davis said.

"The remote viewing room is no longer necessary, the monitor is right there at the machine," she said.

"Rather than a passenger-specific image, the image that is projected is a generic computer-generated outline that is the same for every passenger," Davis said. "So it eliminates a lot of privacy concerns."

Here's how it works: The traveler stands inside the scan machine, arms raised. If the machine detects an "anomaly" - which may turn out to be nothing - a yellow box appears on the silhouette and the officer checks only that spot with a brief pat-down. If no yellow box appears, the screen turns green and says "OK."

The technology can detect metallic and nonmetallic items, such as explosives and plastic weapons, under clothing. The scans are deleted. The monitor stores only two at a time.

Passengers using the screening technology Thursday said they did not object. "I fly so much that I just really have never had a concern," said Carol Fedrizzi, a pharmaceutical researcher who was here on business and heading home to Syracuse, N.Y.

"We've flown internationally for years. We lived in Okinawa for four years," said Debbie Bola, who was traveling with her husband to Elmira, N.Y., from Beaufort, S.C. "I think whatever makes our country safer, that is what's best."

The debut of body scanners in the fall of 2010 sparked controversy over how to balance travelers' privacy with security concerns. Opponents said the scans - and the enhanced pat-downs given to those who chose not to be scanned - violated their right against unreasonable searches.

According to TSA statistics, fewer than 1 percent of passengers opt out of the scans and choose pat-downs instead. Travelers can still opt out if they have concerns about exposure to radiation or for medical reasons.

In all, 510 scanners are in use at 92 U.S. airports. About 250 scan machines at many airports use a competing backscatter X-ray imaging technology that differs from the millimeter wave technology used in Philadelphia.

Backscatter uses low-energy X-ray beams to scan passengers, while millimeter wave uses electromagnetic waves to screen passengers, according to the TSA. The agency is testing software for the backscatter X-ray scanners, with the goal of eventually upgrading them as well.

In July, a federal appeals court upheld the use of airport body scanners to screen air travelers but said the TSA should have sought public comment before deploying them in airports.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the use of the machines did not amount to an illegal search under the Constitution's Fourth Amendment.

The TSA stepped up deployment of full-body scanners after a 23-year-old Nigerian allegedly tried to ignite explosives hidden in his underwear aboard a Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam on Christmas Day 2009.

 


Contact staff writer Linda Loyd at 215-854-2831 or lloyd@phillynews.com.