STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
But as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, lawmakers themselves have been among those reluctant to deploy the machines.
PAM FESSLER: The equipment is designed to produce full-body images of airline passengers and presumably anything they might be trying to hide. Individuals enter a booth at the security checkpoint, where they're exposed to x-rays or radio waves, which produce a cartoon-like image. It's easy, according to this promotional video from the Transportation Security Administration.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
U: When a passenger encounters this technology at an airport, they will enter the whole body imager and wait for direction from the security officer on where to place their feet and hands. The whole process will take a matter of seconds.
FESSLER: That's what also worries privacy groups, which have mounted a major campaign against the machines now being tested at 19 U.S. airports. They say there's no guarantee the pictures won't be misused.
FESSLER: There's nothing to prevent images from being retained even when they say they won't be retained.
FESSLER: Lillie Coney is associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group at the forefront of the campaign. She says it's not clear whether, in fact, the machines could even stop a determined terrorist.
FESSLER: If they're still not going to guarantee that there won't be people who get by, then what's the tradeoff? Who in fact will be the casualties of technology that's deployed, that will literally strip away human dignity?
FESSLER: That's a big exaggeration and one that could cost lives, says Michael Chertoff. He pushed to get the advanced imaging equipment into airports when he was Homeland Security secretary under President Bush.
FESSLER: When you're talking about it as your virtual strip search, of course it's not a strip search. They minimize the fact that we have a program in place so that we don't maintain the images. Once the image is seen it's discarded and they simply dismiss that.
FESSLER: He notes that the Transportation Security Administration has made other accommodations to meet privacy concerns. For example, the images are viewed remotely by an officer who doesn't see the individual being screened at the checkpoint. Chertoff says the machines are crucial because existing metal detectors can't pick up dangerous explosives, something that's been known for years. He hopes now people will listen to reason and the program can move ahead.
FESSLER: I hope what does not happen is that months goes by, nothing happens, and then the ACLU is back and nobody's on the other side.
FESSLER: In this case, the imaging machines cost more than $100,000 apiece, and privacy groups say they're not backing off their fight, that what they fear most is a knee-jerk reaction to last week's incident. Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee and favors the new machines, says it's not going to be easy finding a solution.
FESSLER: We'll just have to explain in more detail how this kind of equipment is necessary if we're going to be confident that all is being done to protect the public.
FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.