Can Imaging Technologies save us from Terrorists?

In the aftermath of the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack, imaging technologies like are regaining popularity, but do they work?

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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 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."

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.

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