Sky Harbor screening device bares it all - East Valley Tribune: Business

Sky Harbor screening device bares it all

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Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2007 11:19 pm | Updated: 6:29 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Passengers at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, who were able to test the first airport backscatter, the controversial X-ray machine that virtually strips clothing, will get to try out the newest hightech security screener.

The first airport millimeter wave machine, which looks like a souped-up telephone booth, has been installed at Checkpoint D in Terminal 4.

The system revves up today, said Transportation Security Administration spokesman Nico Melendez.

Like the backscatter, the millimeter wave machine figuratively undresses the person being scanned, producing a computer image monitored by a TSA screener in a closed cubicle to give screened passengers an extra measure of privacy. A TSA agent, who cannot see any images, communicates by headphones with the screener, who can see the images but not the person being screened.

But while the backscatter produced a cartoon-like drawing of the person being screened, the millimeter wave machine produces a three-dimensional image that looks a little like an anatomically correct doll and is significantly more graphic.

The image of the head is blurred, however, so the passenger is unidentifiable.

Melendez describes the image as similar to a “fuzzy photo negative.”

He would not say if the more realistic image gives screeners a better shot at pinpointing any weapons or other threats secured to the body.

But he said the TSA picked Sky Harbor to pilot the new technology because the backscatter is nearby, allowing comparisons.

“We are looking for the most effective tool to help us scan quickly and unobtrusively for weapons, explosives and other metallic and non-metallic items,” Melendez said. “We are not in a position to say whether this one is better.”

The millimeter wave machine costs about $150,000, he said, while the tab for a backscatter is about $100,000.

The new technology pierces clothing by way of electromagnetic waves bounced off the body.

The backscatter uses low-intensity X-rays to scan the body and produce the image.

The backscatter generated worries about radiation, even though Melendez said the minimal dose of X-rays poses no real danger.

So the new technology can duck the health concerns generated by the backscatter but will face the same scrutiny about the virtual strip search aspect denounced by some consumer and privacy rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union.

But not so much by actual passengers, several of whom said they find screening machines less intrusive than a pat-down, a procedure the TSA has been using for the last few years as part of the post-9/11 Homeland Security measures.

In fact, a survey conducted in March, a month after the backscatter was turned on at the local airport, found that three out of four Phoenix-area residents knew of the backscatter and the firestorm that marked its arrival. And three out of the four of those who knew about the machine said they support its use to filter out potential air terrorists. Two out of three women surveyed said they would prefer it to a pat down.

The TSA collected its own statistics. Since the backscatter pilot began, 79 percent of the passengers required to submit to a body search in an airport where a backscatter was present, chose the machine screening, Melendez said.

And they continue to have that choice, he said.

See a video of the millimeter wave machine scanning process at

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