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TravelHaven News Brief – Protection at privacy’s expense?

According to news sources, the bomb allegedly smuggled aboard Northwest Flight 253 was a packet of powder sewn into the bomber’s underwear. How do you find a nonmetallic bomb tucked into such a private place? By looking right through the bomber’s clothing with a naked-body scanner. Whole-body imaging looks like our best shot.

The TSA already has 40 scanners in operation at 19 U.S. airports: six provide primary screening at six airports, and 34 other machines (at 13 airports) are used for secondary screening and an alternative to pat downs. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced plans for the Transportation Security Administration to step up the purchase, installation, and general use of full-body scanners at the nation’s airports. An additional 300 units are scheduled to be rolled out in U.S. airports by the end of this year.

These machines use a variety of technologies to scan for prohibited and dangerous items that may be concealed on a person. In doing so, the scanners peer through a person’s clothing and can reveal not just weapons and explosives, but also clear images of the size and shape of body parts.

The graphic images created by these scanners, and worries about the unauthorized and inappropriate places the scanned images might end up, has some groups worried. “These technologies are way too invasive,” says Chris Calabrese, on the ACLU’s Legislative Council. “For some people it’s a religious issue. For most people, it’s an issue of modesty. They don’t want some TSA employee ogling them, and they don’t feel it should be a cost of air travel.”

The TSA is telling travelers there’s really no need to be concerned. According to TSA spokesperson Greg Soule, on its Web site, in videos, and in official documents, the agency explains that the whole body imaging machines will have no ability to “save, transmit, or print” images.”  But the ACLU ‘s Calabrese says, “There are a large number of both legal and policy reasons why the government would feel it would have to save images; no matter what they’re saying now.”

The Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) joins the ACLU in sounding an alarm. “They say, ‘don’t worry,’ but they completely don’t talk about the fact that the scanners are essentially digital cameras designed to peer through clothes,” says EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg. Rotenberg says the TSA’s technical specifications for the body scanners show that vendors are being asked to deliver machines that can, among other things, save, record, and transfer images. “EPIC feels that further deployment of the scanner devices should be suspended until the privacy and security problems brought up by these documents have been resolved.”

Unless legislators suspend or delay use of the scanners, there’s a fair chance that someday soon a Transportation Security Officer at an airport will ask you to step into one of these body scanners. Right now, you don’t have to. The TSA’s Greg Soule says, “At this point, the technology is 100 percent optional. However, if a passenger chooses not to go through, they will get a commensurate level of screening to include a full body pat down.”

But don’t assume everyone will say no to body scanners. “Pat downs seem slower, more invasive, and less guaranteed to detect objects than body scanners do,” says a software engineer in Palo Alto, Calif. He agrees with 78 percent of respondents in a recent TripAdvisor.com poll on body scanners who said they thought the machines “would enhance security” and with the 88 percent who said they were more comfortable with a full-body scan than with a full-body pat down.

Most people apparently believe that there are more important groups to worry about than the TSA.