'Virtual strip search' screening at airports intrusive or dangerous?

By Curt Autry - bio | email
Posted by Phil Riggan – email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Opposition to new, full-body imaging machines that produce a virtual strip search seems to be growing.

Two years ago, when TSA used Richmond International Airport as a test market for the new technology, modesty was the main concern. But the issue now is safety.

In a dark room, far from where travelers are being screened, a TSA officer spots something suspicious in a woman's back right pocket. Turns out, it's nothing more than a cell phone. While the subject's face is blacked out, the new millimeter wave technology machine has the ability to look under her clothes.

The new screening devices use millimeter waves to scan your entire body, essentially looking for any contraband, metal or not. And, when you show people the detailed image these machines can produce, the reaction is often one of shock.

"Oh my God, oh my God -- That's awful," one person said.

The ACLU has fought these machines from the start.

"We have incredible security at airports right now with the techniques that we use, which are invasive enough, why do we even need to implement something like this," said Kent Willis, Executive Director of ACLU of Virginia.

But now the concern is safety. The machines in Richmond emit no radiation, but some cities, like Memphis, use TSA's other approved scanner which utilizes low-level x-ray technology, called "backscatter." The government deems it safe, but not everyone buys it.

Arizona State physic professor Peter Rez is one of many raising a red flag, saying "the scary thing to me, is not what happens in normal operations, but what happens if the machine fails.  Mechanical things break down, frequently."

You can say no to either machine and opt instead for what TSA describes as an "enhanced pat down," which some travelers have described as quite intimate. But either way, some travelers, like Beth Rochkind, believe the government is doing what it has to to keep the flying public safe.

"I think there are a lot of attacks that are foiled, and I guess it's never enough," she said. "I don't know that I'd ever want to say that it is enough, but I think we're doing a lot. I do."

The European Union is considering these machines, but several countries have already publicly stated the scanners are too invasive and won't be deployed.

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