New TSA Scanner Makes Clothes Invisible

This past week, the Transportation Security Administration introduced new security measures at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, including a controversial "whole-body scanner." The scanner provides guards with an image that strips away a traveler's clothing, revealing everything that person is carrying — and their naked bodies. TSA spokesperson Christopher White shows Andrea Seabrook how it works.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Start your engines. It's just about the summer travel season, and the average price of gas has topped $3.60 a gallon. Now, to fill up your tank, it could cost 50, 60 even $70. The record prices have set off a political scramble for solutions.

Republican John McCain was the first to suggest suspending the federal gas tax this summer. Democrat Hillary Clinton jumped on board. She proposed a way to finance it.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): I want the oil companies to pay the federal gas tax this summer.

(Soundbite of applause)

SEABROOK: The Democratic frontrunner, Barack Obama, says he won't go there.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): This is what passes for leadership in Washington: phony ideas calculated to win elections instead of actually solving problems.

SEABROOK: Later in the show, we'll look at how these soaring gas prices may actually be changing America's car culture.

First, though, to what are the challenges facing folks who plan to fly this summer. Getting through airport security has been a hassle since 9/11. But checkpoints are changing, and I took a trip out to the airport to see the latest.

I'm standing in Terminal B at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and while I'd love to hop on one of these planes back here and jet off to Mexico's sunny beaches, I have other reasons to be here. This is where the Transportation Security Administration has just rolled out its newest security procedures.

It's a kinder, gentler security checkpoint, with one maybe unnerving change. But we'll get to that in a minute. Here to explain is Christopher White. He's the spokesperson for the TSA and he joins me here at Terminal B. How are you, sir?

Mr. CHRISTOPHER WHITE (Spokesperson, Transportation Security Administration): I'm great. Thanks for having us.

SEABROOK: Before we get to the unnerving part, you know, your average checkpoint that we look at, there are people trying to take off their shoes and pull their laptops out of their bags. And instead, what I see here is soft lighting - blue; they're blue lights.

Mr. WHITE: (Unintelligible) the most recognizable thing is lights and music, it's honestly probably the least important. What the biggest different is here is a calm environment. We have wireless whisper, but we can communicate very much like your local retailer at the Gap.

SEABROOK: I see. So, they all have a thing in their ear and they're talking to each other.

Mr. WHITE: Right. That allows them to call for assistance, to make other calls around the checkpoint without screaming, bag check, you know, all the things that raise the stress level at the checkpoint.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

SEABROOK: Am I hearing birds?

Mr. WHITE: You are hearing birds. We have…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHITE: There's a random selection of sound. It's not really designed to capture your attention. The birds are probably the most captivating element of the soundtrack. (Unintelligible) for most people is a very calm place, so this is a good example.

SEABROOK: Feeling soothed yet? Christopher White and I snake through the line. It's roped off by wide blue ribbons. Along the way, little signs have printed biographies of security officers with nice, smiling pictures. It's only fair that I get to know them a bit. They're about to know me pretty well.

Unidentified Woman: Make sure you hold onto your boarding pass. You will need your boarding pass.

SEABROOK: Time to grab a bin and empty our pockets. Shoes off too, but no more balancing on one foot. There are benches here, finally. Set everything on the rollers and it's automatically whisked forward to the scanner.

Mr. WHITE: The way the conveyor belt is set up - it's about ten feet long where you have several opportunities to grab bins. So, no longer does the business traveler have to wait behind that family of five who's grabbing 17 bins, puts a stroller and then seven backpacks in. All this stuff. They can bypass them, go directly into the checkpoint.

SEABROOK: Oh, the bins bring themselves back without a security person rushing back.

Mr. WHITE: It's part of the bin return system, and that enables our officers to focus on security and not schlepping 20,000 bins a day.

SEABROOK: You guys learned something from the bowling alley.

Mr. WHITE: We did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHITE: We took our lesson carefully.

SEABROOK: Now, it's time for my scan - no, not in your average walkthrough metal detector. This checkpoint of the future has what's called a whole body imager. It looks like a Plexiglas phone booth with a scanner that moves around the person inside.

Mr. WHITE: It uses radio waves, harmless radio waves, to bounce off the skin. It can see through clothes but cannot see through skin. It allows us to conduct a very high level of screening without ever physically touching a passenger.

SEABROOK: Now, wait a second. You can see through clothes but not through skin, which means you're going to see me without any clothes on if I go in that.

Mr. WHITE: Well, the image itself looks more like a robotic image, almost like a catsuit.

SEABROOK: I told you this was going to be unnerving. I step into the booth, raise my arms like I'm going to do a pirouette and that's it. I step back out again. Now, let's see that picture.

Mr. WHITE: So, we're entering the remote viewing location. It's separate from the checkpoint and it's off to the side where no one at the checkpoint can see the image, no one in this room can see the checkpoint.

SEABROOK: That is me. You know, it's not like you can see a naked person by any means but you can see through the clothes. What are you looking for on the body there?

Mr. WHITE: We're looking for any items that may be hidden on the person. So, today, to get to an issue where someone alarms the metal detector, they get a pat down. Typically they may be touched all over the body. Passengers greatly favor not being touched, and we totally understand that. So, by introducing whole body imagers, we can see things without touching people.

SEABROOK: Well, you sure can see the underwires of my bra.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHITE: Well, it's interesting that you say that because intel and news reports have shown recently terrorists are using more and more female bombers. So, it's very important that we look at those areas, and the underwire is a really good area to actually hide potential threat items, and then we can also see anything else hidden in there.

SEABROOK: Officials say the system works while still protecting travelers' privacy. The face and other body features are blurred. The picture is automatically deleted, they say, once they scan the next traveler. And they assure me that this computer, with my semi-naked image on it, has no access to the Internet. No posting this shot on Flickr.

Christopher White and I venture back into the blue lights and bird calls at the front of the checkpoint.

So, the question I have is, this all seems to be taking down people's stress level, there's more of your own pace and this sort of thing. How does it make me safer as an airline traveler?

Mr. WHITE: It makes you safer because by lowering the anxiety level at the checkpoint, people with hostile intent stand out. So, if everyone's stressed out, it's great camouflage for a terrorist. In a calm, relaxed environment, the terrorist stick out. They stick out much better, allowing our behavior detection officers to really see them quickly. It's a win-win for everyone. It's good for the passenger, great for security.

SEABROOK: Christopher White, thank you so much.

Mr. WHITE: Well, thanks for taking the time with us.

SEABROOK: Christopher White is a spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration. The agency just introduced a new security system in one terminal at BWI Airport featuring relaxing music, including birds, a conveyor belt for bins, and a full body scanner. Thanks again for the tour.

Mr. WHITE: Thank you.

SEABROOK: If you'd like to see my picture from the whole body imager, don't even think of going to NPR.org. It ain't there.

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