Body scanners land at MSP

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 22, 2010 - 9:41 PM

Use of the $170,000 machine has raised privacy and health concerns. Some travelers just dislike the hassle.

Curt Sponberg of Minneapolis wasn't happy Wednesday to see officials start using the new high-tech body scanner at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

His qualms weren't about privacy or X-rays. He just doesn't want to wait any longer than he already does to get through security.

"It concerns me a lot. ... This is going to really slow down the lines," said Sponberg as he prepared to enter a checkpoint with his wife, Colleen. "These will take at least 7-8 seconds longer, and I'm not really sure it could prevent the possibility -- or probability -- of anything happening."

The Sponbergs were among hundreds of travelers who took in the sight of the airport's first $170,000 Millimeter Wave Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) system with a mix of wariness and bemusement.

The Transportation Security Administration's (TSA's) newest screening tool, which essentially X-rays through a passenger's clothing to search for contraband, has stirred concerns nationwide about passenger privacy.

The instrument was given its first test run locally Wednesday. Agents turned it on at 15- to 30-minute intervals and politely asked about one of every six to 10 passengers at Checkpoint 10 in the Lindbergh Terminal to step inside the contraption, which calls to mind a movie time machine, raise their arms above their head and hold still.

The TSA has installed 224 such units so far at 56 airports, with plans to deploy 450 by year's end. Several more are slated to go into the Lindbergh Terminal by December, though TSA officials wouldn't say exactly how many.

In June, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar teamed up with Utah Sen. Bob Bennett on a bill that would mandate such scanners in all airports by 2013.

Sees nonmetallic items

In a tiny room just off Lindbergh Terminal's main screening area, a TSA employee points at a black and white image of a woman's body, legs spread, arms over her head, bra and underwear clearl visible.

Her face is blurred, an automatic feature of the software so TSA employees never know whom they are looking at. The images are automatically deleted after the passenger passes through. In this case, the image is of a TSA worker who volunteered to be scanned.

The officer points at the screen, at a white blob on the figure's right hip. In a real-life situation, the officer would phone screeners dealing with the passenger, and they'd conduct a more thorough search. If nothing was spotted, the passenger would be free to continue to his or her gate.

The scan takes four to five seconds, and it takes another 30 seconds or so for TSA officials to review the image and give the all-clear. It's relatively quick, but not as quick as a walk through a metal detector.

Nonmetallic items such as small as a handkerchief will be picked up by the scanner and must be removed from pockets, officials said. Passengers who decline to step through the scanner will be patted down.

The scanner bounces electromagnetic waves off the body to create an image. TSA officials say it meets all health and safety standards, emitting "thousands of times less [energy] than what is permitted for a cell phone," said Tom Connors, TSA's federal security director for Minnesota.

'Digital strip search'

Not everyone is impressed. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a federal lawsuit in July asking for a suspension of the program. The center alleged that although TSA first touted the scanners as a secondary screening, they've now become a primary screening device, something the group deems unconstitutional.

The group's senior counsel, John Verdi, said the scanners are also invasive and ineffective, and "the equivalent of a digital strip search. ... What this program does is subject every air traveler to the most invasive, most risky search."

He added that there are concerns about radiation and that a common justification for the machines -- a 2009 Christmas Day bombing attempt -- is moot because the machines can't detect powdered explosives.

The TSA's Connors would not discuss what the scanners will and won't detect. He said the scanners are not a "silver bullet," but rather "one of many layers we have that engage passengers from the time they enter the terminal until the time they get on the aircraft."

Fritz Ewing of Long Island watched as a TSA employee repeatedly walked through the machine and placed his arms in the air. Ewing said he hasn't thought about the scanners much and isn't concerned about privacy. "Not at my age," he said.

As long as the cost to taxpayers is reasonable, he doesn't mind, he said.

Anitra Ingalls, an oceanographer from Seattle, said she planned to opt for another pat-down as she headed for Checkpoint 10 because of her concern about health effects.

"I just have enough doubts," she said.

Rochelle Schwab of Tampa was only slightly more blunt about her refusal.

"You can't tell me those things don't cause cancer," she said. "I'm a road warrior. I travel 300,000 miles per year, and that's something I don't need."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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