PORTLAND, Maine — Dale Tucker tapped a button on the touchscreen monitor and the picture — the front and back outlines of a person — disappeared from the screen.
“The image is gone,” announced Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Ann Davis. “It can’t be brought back, printed, saved — nothing.”
The federal agency held its official unveiling of three new full-body scanners at Portland International Jetport Monday morning, hoping to ensure local air travelers that the introduction of the advanced imaging technology, or AIT, will not violate their privacy. Davis hailed the new scanners as “less intrusive” than alternative methods of passenger screening, including thorough pat-downs that have triggered public outcry when performed on children, the elderly or individuals with certain medical conditions.
The agency has rolled out about 560 of the AIT scanners at 104 airports nationwide, and plans to add 500 more in 2012.
The three Portland scanners were made by the company L3, and cost the federal government between $130,000 and $150,000 apiece, Davis said.
The image scrutinized by Tucker, a lead TSA officer, was a nondescript avatar with, on this occasion, bright yellow blotches where the model passenger wore a belt buckle and pocketed a cellphone. Fellow TSA employee Gordon Field was one of three who agreed to scans Monday for the assembled media’s benefit.
The difference between the advanced scanners and the traditional metal detectors, which still flank the new equipment in the airport’s security checkpoints, is that the scanners will alert agents to anomalies even when they’re not metal. Field’s belt buckle could have been plastic and it would have set off the scanner.
The devices subject passengers to what Davis called “harmless electromagnetic waves,” which detect items by thickness, not material. Had Field been carrying a folded up paper itinerary in his pocket, Davis said the machine would have caught that.
Software installed on the scanners by the manufacturer obscures the physical details of the individual passengers going through the devices, rendering each person as a stock outline with simple smiley faces and straight hair.
Earlier software programs used in AIT scanners, which the TSA began installing in airports in 2007, showed a greater level of physical detail, eliciting criticisms over privacy. But despite measures used in the new software to eliminate individual body details, Davis said, passengers are not required to pass through the scanners. She said use of the new technology by air travelers is optional, and those who decide against it will be able to board after going through a metal detector and submitting to a pat-down.
“We’re able to get at concealed threats in other ways,” Davis told reporters Monday. “This is obviously less intrusive. It’s fast, effective and painless.”
In November 2010, the U.S. Airline Pilots Association urged its members not to submit to AIT screening, citing concerns about radiation exposure and long-term health risks. Similarly, in Maine, a group of Central Maine Power Co. customers is taking its case against the electric company’s wireless smart meters to the Supreme Judicial Court, in part, because of concerns about radiation.
Davis said Monday the equipment has met “all known national and international safety standards,” and said using the scanners is less damaging than being in the vicinity of an active microwave oven. She said some AIT scanners used elsewhere in the country use X-ray technology, but she said even those scanners subject the human body to minimal distress, calling it the equivalent of briefly flying at high altitudes.