MADELINE BRAND, host:
President Obama said yesterday that there will be increased passenger screening at airports, and that will include expanded use of whole body imaging scanners. Some airports have started using these devices, which can basically see through your clothes. And that has raised privacy concerns. Some in Congress want to limit their use. NPRs Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD: Security experts say that these full-body scanners work a lot better than the metal detectors commonly in use. Those don't detect explosives at all. And they say a lot of the privacy issues have been solved.
Mr. JOE REISS (American Science and Engineering): And that initiates the scan process. The scan itself takes about eight seconds.
(Soundbite of machinery)
ARNOLD: To take a look at the technology, I went to one of the companies that makes these scanners, American Science and Engineering. Joe Reiss is the VP of marketing. He helped me to hide a small package of fake explosives around my ankle.
Mr. REISS: There we go. Up.
ARNOLD: Okay. I've got some plastic explosives in my boot. So, all right. So then we'd walk in and I stand in front of a scanner over here or...
Mr. REISS: Yep. Exactly. We'll start the scan.
(Soundbite of scanner)
ARNOLD: Their scanner is about the size of a tall refrigerator and you just stand in front of it with your arms away from your sides.
Mr. REISS: And this is you right here on the display. Here's your little fancy microphone device down here at your hip.
Mr. REISS: And then here's the simulate that you put into your shoe, explosive simulate. And this bulge here around your ankle is an obviously anomaly.
ARNOLD: As far as privacy, the image on the monitor is definitely not very revealing. The system is configured with privacy software, so you can't see my face or really any body features at all. It looks more like while I stood there somebody traced a chalk or charcoal outline of me.
Mr. REISS: Yeah, it does look like charcoal. That's a good way to describe it. We're not really showing any, you know, detail of the person themselves. It's really just confined to the outline, almost silhouette-ish in nature.
ARNOLD: You can see what these body scans look like at npr.org. Also at airports, the people who view such images are off in another room in the airport, away from the passengers, so they have no idea who they're actually looking at. And so Reiss thinks that the privacy concerns have been addressed and airports should be doing a lot more full-body imaging scans.
Mr. REISS: The threat's real. We saw it with Flight 253. It's a near-miss. It's unfortunate, but it's the world we live in. And these personal screening systems provide, by far, the best detection capability you can get for finding threats on people.
ARNOLD: Still, some lawmakers remain concerned. Jason Chaffetz is a Republican congressman from Utah who co-authored a bill to block wider use of whole-body scans. He says he did that after seeing other types of these whole-body imaging scans that airports have been testing that he says were more anatomically revealing.
Representative Jason CHAFFETZ (Republican, Utah): Do we really need to take nude pictures of grandmas and my eight-year-old daughter in order to be able to secure an airplane? I just - I have a hard time with that.
ARNOLD: Chaffetz says as the privacy software gets better he might end up supporting the technology, but he's clearly uncomfortable with it. And he says there are other options, for instance, more bomb-sniffing dogs.
Mr. DOUGLAS LAIRD (Security Expert): He was - it's nonsensical and he's ill-advised.
ARNOLD: Douglas Laird is the former head of security for Northwest Airlines. He's in favor of the technology, and he doesn't like the current policy which allows passengers to opt out. They can choose a pat-down instead. So even if the few airports that have whole-body imaging scanners, the one guy who actually might have a bomb in his pants can avoid getting scanned.
Mr. LAIRD: You've got a difficulty finding it patting people down because the reluctance to really touch people, and so the privacy people have raised a fuss about it. But if you want to keep bombs off airplanes, it's a gap that really needs filling.
ARNOLD: Meanwhile, the government says it's planning to deploy 300 more full-body scanning machines at airports and the issue is on the agenda at congressional hearings later this month.
Chris Arnold, NPR News.