Can Imaging Technologies save us from Terrorists?

In the aftermath of the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack, imaging technologies such as millimeter wave and backscatter are regaining popularity, but do they work?

We already know that database passenger screening technologies won't spot all prospective terrorists, but what about imaging technologies like millimeter wave and backscatter imaging? Will they do the trick?

While these two technologies are lumped together as full body scanning, or as EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) prefers to call it, "Digital Strip Search," they're not interchangeable.

Millimeter wave technology devices like L3 Communications' ProVision Whole Body Imager scan you with millimeter wave radio frequency (RF) from two antennas simultaneously as they rotate around you. The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) claims that millimeter wave scanners use far less energy than a cell phone in their scans. The result is a 3-dimensional gray-scale body image. The images are revealing but they aren't exactly titillating or likely to ever appear in a hypothetical whole body image Web site of the rich and famous.

Backscatter is a form of x-ray. But, devices such as Rapiscan Systems' Rapiscan Secure 1000 use a much lower radiation setting than the x-rays you get at the dentist office. The idea, after-all, is to see what's under your clothes, not how the arm you broke when you were 7 has set. Ordinarily, backscatter gives viewers only a 2-dimensional image, but with multiple scans you can generate 3-dimensional images as well.

The idea behind both of these technologies is to let TSA staffers get as good an idea of what you're carrying on your body as if they had patted you down or given a partial strip-search. After the scans are examined, the TSA states that its "Advanced imaging technology does not store, print, transmit or save the image. All machines have zero storage capability and all images are automatically deleted from the system after they are reviewed by the remotely located security officer."

Digital Strip Search - 3-dimensional gray-scale body image created by millimeter wave technology devices such as L3 Communications' ProVision Whole Body Imager

As you might imagine, this idea of TSA employees looking at what are essentially images of naked people has not gone over well in some circles. It's not just EPIC and other civil libertarians. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, introduced legislation in the House of Representatives to ban both kinds of scanners. Of course, that was before the near disaster over the skies of Detroit.

Some people, such as Michael Chertoff, the former homeland security secretary, think that the scanners could have caught the would-be bomber. Chertoff told the New York Times, "If they'd been deployed, this would pick up this kind of device." Chaffetz responded that while he wants planes to be safe as possible, "I don't think anybody needs to see my 8-year-old naked in order to secure that airplane."

Others, however, such as Ben Wallace, the Conservative Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom, claim that the technologies can't detect the kind of low-density explosive that the would-be terrorist tried to use on December 25th.

Be that as it may, the TSA has just issued a contract to purchase more scanners from L3. Will these devices make air travelers safer? It will doubtlessly help some, but there's nothing magical here. We can only improve security, we can never perfect it.

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