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TravelHaven News Brief – Privacy and health concerns over airport body-scanning devices

Government efforts continue to address concerns over the use of full-body scanners at airports. There are two types of machines being used, which have raised concerns about privacy, health risks and effectiveness. The more controversial “backscatter” devices project an X-ray beam onto the body, creating an image displayed on a monitor. The “millimeter wave” machines, which are considered less risky because they do not use X-rays, bounce electromagnetic waves off the body to produce a similar image. Unlike metal detectors, these machines can detect objects made with other materials, like plastic and ceramic, but they can’t detect certain explosives.

Travelers have raised privacy concerns about the possibility that “naked” images from the machines may be too revealing when viewed by security personnel and even more that these images may be saved with identifying data that might be obtained by unauthorized individuals.

Manufacturers have indicated that new software upgrades will deliver a generic cartoon-type avatar rather than an actual image of the individual passenger’s body. The new display would mark sections of a person’s body that need to be checked.
The Transportation Security Administration will add the software to its machines, 194 of which are in use at 51 U.S. airports with 28 more scheduled to receive the units in the second half of 2010. It is hoped that the revisions will address most privacy concerns, although some passengers worry that the original images may be saved and could be obtained by unauthorized persons.

TSA considers the use of full-body imaging voluntary, but says that passengers who refuse to be scanned may be frisked by U.S. security employees. The agency said that passengers offered the choice of the scanner or alternate screening such as a pat-down, chose scanning in more than 98 percent of cases.

Currently, a TSA employee in a separate room monitors the images to prevent passengers and other security workers at the checkpoint from viewing the full-body image that sees through undergarments. The software upgrade would replace the images with an avatar and alert authorities to a potential hidden threat, which officials believe will eliminate the need to keep the employee in a remote room. This would reduce personnel costs considerably.

However, others have expressed concern that the machinery may subject them to dangerous levels of radiation. Although manufacturers say the amount is very low, worries persist that scanners might malfunction and emit more radiation than they are supposed to, as well as what the health effects may be for frequent travelers submitted to multiple scans over time. Some medical experts also worry that insufficient consideration has been given to potential risks for certain segments of the population, particularly children, pregnant women, cancer patients and those sensitive to radiation.

Daniel Kassiday, an FDA. radiation official who was co-chairman of the committee that created the standard for the machines, said an individual could receive up to 1,000 screenings a year before reaching recommended annual limits for this type of radiation exposure.

New equipment is being developed to detect explosives in water bottles, toothpaste tubes, and other containers will be installed at most airport security checkpoints by 2012, allowing restrictions on boarding flights with creams, gels and liquids to be lifted. This security measure took effect in 2006 after British agencies detected a transatlantic plot to detonate liquid explosives aboard airliners flying to Canada and the United States.