Delegation upset with airport full-body scanning, pat downs

Posted Nov. 17, 2010, at 7:56 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 18, 2010, at 9:22 a.m.
The new pat-downs involve routine checks of the inside of travellers' thighs and buttocks, while scanners show a body's contours on a computer stationed in a private room removed from security checkpoints.
The new pat-downs involve routine checks of the inside of travellers' thighs and buttocks, while scanners show a body's contours on a computer stationed in a private room removed from security checkpoints.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The use of full body scanner technology by the Transportation Security Administration at airports across the country is setting off alarms with members of Maine’s congressional delegation.

“I still remain concerned about the intrusiveness and the effectiveness of the advanced imaging technologies and the potential health effects,” Republican Sen. Susan Collins told TSA Administrator John Pistole at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday. She said the agency should be using software in use by the Netherlands that is less intrusive, but still reveals potential weapons or explosives hidden on a person.

“I have seen this in use at the airport in Amsterdam,” she said. “It only shows stick figures but with X’s that indicate areas that should be searched for possible weapons.”

Collins said she shares the concerns of many in the public that some of the technology in use shows images of individuals that invade their privacy.

“The public will accept a certain level of intrusion and inconvenience,” she said. But she cautioned the public would not tolerate excessive intrusion of their privacy or use of devices that have not independently been proved to be safe.

There are more than 300 full body scanners in use at airports across the country with TSA planning to increase that to more than 1,000 of the devices in the next few years. Maine airports have no full body scanners, but may receive the equipment in the future.

There are two types of scanners in use, one that uses “backscatter” wave technology and the other that uses what is called millimeter wave technology. Both types of machines use radio waves that bounce off the passenger’s body to create a black-and-white three-dimensional nude image of the person.

Pistole said the new pat-down procedure is “justified” to assure everyone that travels by air that the others on the plane have been properly screened.

“Everybody who gets on a flight wants to be reassured that everybody else around them has been properly screened,” he told the committee.

There have been several news reports discussing the new devices and the pat-down procedures used by TSA if a person refuses to be scanned.

The approved TSA procedure allows screeners to use the front of their hands to touch passengers’ inner thighs, buttocks and breasts.

Pistole said only a very small percentage of travelers have refused to be scanned and were patted down, but he did not provide any numbers to the committee

Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud said while it is clear that airport security needs to be improved, he shares the concerns raised by many about the scanners.

“The use of these scanners is not ideal to many Americans,” he said. “I believe the TSA should look into ways to further safeguard privacy and listen to those that are concerned with the potential health effects of this newly deployed technology.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said the “first priority” needs to be the safety of airline passengers. But she said the TSA policies need to be “common sense” in their approach to provide the needed security.

“The full body scan presents some real privacy concerns, and there has already been at least one case of scanned images showing up on the Internet,” she said. “The ‘enhanced pat-down’ is not only intrusive; it’s time-consuming and slows down the security line.”

Pingree said she has “serious concerns” with the way the TSA has handled the passenger screening issues and said the agency needs to take the time to develop better ways to provide the necessary security.

Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe said while there have been improvements in the screening process for both passengers and cargo, the technology being used needs to minimize the very real privacy issues.

“I believe we will make great strides in effectively detecting terrorist threats without compromising the privacy of the traveling public,” she said. “That includes a focus on procedures that are proven, safe, and reasonable, and while I believe advanced imaging technologies currently play a part in the detection of threats, we must not rely on machines alone as intelligence, too, plays a key role in our homeland security efforts. “

Further hearings on the body scanning procedures and alternative technologies are planned in both the House and Senate.

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