TSA Defends, Ramps Up Security with New Body Scanners

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Transportation Security Administration

Next time you fly, you might find yourself undergoing a full body scan -- digitally, that is. The Transportation Security Administration is ramping up use of body scanners, a technology that takes x-ray and electromagnetic pictures of a passenger's body, in response to the Christmas Day bomb scare on Northwest Airlines Flight 253. Body scanners can currently be found in 23 airports, such as Chicago O'Hare International, Los Angeles International, and Boston Logan International, according to the TSA. Last month, the TSA deployed more than 100 new scanners with plans to install another 1,000 by the end of 2011, increasing the number of airports with the scanners to 29.

Privacy advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union are adamantly opposed to the practice. These groups say body scanners violates a passenger's privacy and provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. The ACLU and several other organizations, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, have urged President Obama to suspend further deployment of these digital body scanners until a comprehensive study has evaluated the "effectiveness, health risks, and privacy impacts of the devices." The organizations have also asked the President to consider "sincerely held religious opposition to the digital undressing of air travelers by TSA officials, as well as the economic impact on the U.S. tourism industry."

The TSA released data this week in defense of the practice, saying digital body scanners have dramatically improved security at airports where the imaging units are in place and have "revealed more than 60 'artfully concealed' illegal or prohibited items in the past year," reports CNN. Dangerous items discovered by screeners include "a knife hidden in the small of a person's back" and concealed razor blades.

The body-scanning practice is optional. However, passengers who refuse this screening method when requested "will receive an equal level of screening, including a physical pat-down," according to the TSA website. The images recorded by the scan cannot be stored, printed, or transmitted, and each image is automatically deleted after review, says the TSA. Answers to other common questions on the technology are addressed in our FAQ on body scanners.

TSA officials have declined to say whether the new scanners could have detected the explosive powder sewn in the briefs of alleged underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian who attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 en route from Amsterdam to Detroit, Michigan on Christmas Day.

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