New Airport Body Scans Don't Detect All Weapons The Transportation Security Administration is about to put hundreds of high-tech scanners in U.S. airports to deter terrorists. The scanners use a technology called backscatter X-ray. It's impressive, but some say it's far from perfect
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New Airport Body Scans Don't Detect All Weapons

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New Airport Body Scans Don't Detect All Weapons

New Airport Body Scans Don't Detect All Weapons

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. After the attempted airplane bombing on Christmas Day, President Obama is promising big changes.

President BARACK OBAMA: More baggage screening, more passenger screening, and more advanced explosive detection capabilities, including those that can improve ability to detect the kind of explosive used on Christmas.

INSKEEP: The President wants to equip airports with hundreds of full body scanners that look for bombs and weapons. These scanners use X-rays, although the devices are not like the X-ray machines you think you know. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on the advantages and disadvantages of the new equipment.

JON HAMILTON: Medical X-rays are powerful enough to pass all the way through your body. Steven Smith, an electrical engineer, says the airport machines rely on a much weaker beam.

Mr. STEVEN SMITH (Spectrum San Diego): The X-rays you're using typically penetrate through your clothing and about an eighth to a quarter of an inch into your body, where they ricochet or backscatter back in the same direction they came from.

HAMILTON: To a sort of camera that captures a digital image. Smith designed one of the first of these so-called backscatter scanners 20 years ago. These days, he runs Spectrum San Diego, an electronic imaging company.

Smith says backscatter X-rays are safe because they require only an insignificant amount of radiation. But he says the images they produce can look a lot like a nude photograph.

Mr. SMITH: It shows everything under your clothing. And if you had something within a few millimeters of your skin surface, it would show that also.

HAMILTON: The government plans to use software that makes the images less graphic.

Prisons have been using the backscatter technology for many years to find knives, guns and contraband, even though the machines cost more than $150,000 apiece. More recently, the U.S. military has deployed the scanners in Iraq to protect bases there from terrorists.

Mr. SMITH: In general, body scanners are able to give you the same degree of detection capability as frisking someone would. But it is far less invasive than actually frisking someone.

HAMILTON: Smith, who is a former police officer, says he doesn't want to talk about what the scanners might not find. He says that could help terrorists.

Other experts, though, say backscatter scanners would probably miss a weapon or explosive concealed in a body cavity. And that apparent weakness has provided an opportunity for a company in Indiana called Nesch LLC. It's developing another low-dose X-ray device that can find contraband where other scanners can't. This machine is called DEXI. Ivan Nesch is the company's CEO.

Mr. IVAN NESCH (Nesch LLC): To my knowledge it's the only one that very reliably can detect the presence of explosives or illegal substances that are hidden inside of a human body.

HAMILTON: So can any of this X-ray tech really make air travel safer?

Mr. BRUCE SCHNEIER (Security Consultant): Of course not. It's sort of magical thinking.

HAMILTON: Bruce Schneier is a security consultant who sees a couple of big problems with the government strategy. First, he says, every technology has its limits. And he's not reassured by the government's new scanner.

Mr. SCHNEIER: It doesn't detect low-density explosives. It doesn't detect explosives that are thin. You know, it's really very limited as to what it detects. It might or might not have detected the underwear bomber. We don't actually know.

HAMILTON: Schneier says another problem is that even hundreds of scanners won't be enough to protect every airport.

Mr. SCHNEIER: Do you remember the 9/11 terrorists didn't go through security in Boston. They went through security in places like Maine, because once you're through security anywhere in the system, you're never screened again. So unless these machines are in every airport in the country, all we're doing is making the terrorists take another flight before they launch their attack.

HAMILTON: Schneier says the government's real problem isn't a lack of technology. It's a strategy that reacts to what has already happened, not what might happen next time.

Mr. SCHNEIER: Airports are the last line of defense and they're not a very good one. And reinforcing that line of defense really has very minimal return for security.

HAMILTON: He says taxpayers would get more for their money if the government invested less in hardware and more in investigations of potential terrorists and better intelligence.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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