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What Are Whole Body Imaging and Full Body Scanning?


Question: What Are Whole Body Imaging and Full Body Scanning?

According to the Transportation Security Administration, whole body imaging is "technologies that visually screen travelers, allowing TSA to more thoroughly detect weapons, explosives and other threat items." (Quote taken from TSA's Evolution of Security blog.) The media often refers to whole body imaging machines as "full body scanners" because the images produced show the entire body as though it were unclothed.

There are two types of whole body imaging in use by the TSA. The first, backscatter passenger imaging, is currently deployed at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, New York John F. Kennedy International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport.

The second type of whole body imaging, millimeter wave technology, is currently being tested at 24 airports in the U.S. TSA plans to greatly expand use of millimeter wave technology in 2009.

Backscatter Passenger Imaging

Backscatter whole body imaging relies on low intensity X-ray technology to show the TSA screener any items carried in pockets or concealed by a passenger. TSA estimates that the amount of X-ray exposure is equivalent to the X-ray exposure you receive when flying for two minutes at maximum altitude.

The backscatter image is monitored by a remotely-located TSA employee, who communicates with other TSA personnel at the passenger screening area by headset device. The screener sees an image of the passenger's unclothed body. Any items carried by the passenger are obvious to the screener. According to the TSA's Evolution of Security blog, the passenger's identifying features (face) are blurred and no images are stored or retained in any way once a passenger leaves the screening area.

Millimeter Wave Technology

Millimeter wave technology involves projecting radio frequency energy over a passenger's body. The result is a 3-D image that leaves literally nothing to the imagination. Even the smallest items in a passenger's pockets are readily obvious to the screener. The screener sees a complete body image, without the cover of clothing, but the passenger's face is deliberately blurred on the screener's monitor. Screeners do not sit near the passenger security area; they are in another location and communicate with TSA employees in the screening area via headsets. On-site TSA employees can ask passengers about items in their pockets based on the screener's observations.

The TSA Evolution of Security blog claims that no millimeter wave technology images are stored or retained in any form; as each passenger exits the screening area, his or her image is permanently deleted.

Which Airports Use Full Body Scanners?

According to the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, some European Union officials are advocating use of full body scanners. This technology is currently being tested at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport and Heathrow Airport in the U.K., according to the BBC. German authorities have rejected the idea of whole body imaging as the scanning method of choice, calling the technology a "virtual strip search."

Implications of Whole Body Imaging / Full Body Scanning

As stated above, whole body imaging is currently being tested in several U.S airports. The TSA has ordered over 100 full body scanners and plans to install them at airports around the country. Supporters claim that the "see everything" approach will enable screeners to see plastic explosives, powered materials and other harmful devices that traditional screening methods might not detect. Those who oppose full-scale deployment of whole body imaging technology point out that fundamental human rights will be violated by use of full body screening methods that create a situation in which clothing – and dignity – are removed, albeit virtually and temporarily.

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