Invasion of the full-body scanners - O'Hare passengers to be randomly selected, have pat-down option

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Chicago Tribune (IL) - Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Author: Kristen Mack, Tribune reporter

The first full-body scanner is finally set to arrive at O'Hare International Airport next week, bringing with it both the hope of better security and the fear of invasion of privacy.

When the scanner begins operating in early March, randomly selected local passengers will be confronted with the option of going through the revealing imaging devices or being subjected to a pat-down.

The scanner will be installed at United Airlines' Terminal 1 within the next two weeks, Jim Fotenos, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, said Tuesday.

O'Hare and Boston's Logan International Airport, which will get three scanners, are the first to receive 150 new full-body imaging machines purchased with federal stimulus money, Fotenos said. The other machines will be distributed to airports across the country by the end of June.

O'Hare will use the machine, which shows an explicit silhouette of passengers that can identify explosives or other weapons concealed on the body, as an initial screening device. That means any passenger who happens to be standing in a full-body scanner line will be randomly subject to the controversial search. But the use of only one body scanner in a large airport like O'Hare with many security checkpoints means that only a small percentage of passengers will be asked to go through the machine.

"No one has to go through it," said Fotenos, who added that signs will be posted explaining that the scan is optional.

Travelers who object, however, will have to go through a similar level of monitoring, which includes being screened by a metal detector or hand-wand, plus a required old-fashioned frisk. Physical pat-downs will be conducted by a TSA screener of the same sex.

The full-body imaging machines peer through clothing -- showing shapes, folds of fat and other anatomical characteristics -- to identify possible hidden objects. Even though facial features are blurred to protect privacy, the images reveal breasts, buttocks and other private parts, prompting some civil liberties groups to call the machines an unacceptable intrusion.

"We have continued to express concerns about the use of these machines as a primary screener because it's an invasion of privacy that isn't necessary," said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. "There is no justification for compelling people to go through a virtual strip search to go on an airplane."

Passengers who agree to the scan will stand inside a phone-booth-size compartment, raise their hands over the head and place their feet on markings on the floor. The process takes seconds.

In addition to blocking out the person's face, the screening officers viewing the images will be located away from the security checkpoint and do not come in contact with passengers, Fotenos said. TSA officials will communicate with each other via a radio system, and images are deleted after viewing, officials said.

"Passenger privacy is ensured through the anonymity of the image," Fotenos said. "The officer attending the passenger will not view the image."

The TSA determines which airports get the scanners based on "risk, airport readiness and operational suitability," Fotenos said.

Scanners were previously scheduled to arrive at O'Hare last year. O'Hare may get additional machines at a later date. It is not known whether Midway Airport will be included.

Nineteen U.S. airports already are using full-body imaging machines. The high-tech scanners have been tested at airports on passengers who were selected for more intensive scrutiny or who set off alarms while going through traditional security measures.

The use of the machines in airports is a key part of the Obama administration's plans to improve airport security. President Barack Obama called for buying hundreds more of them after the attempted Christmas Day terrorist bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner.