EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. -- A scanner the government is testing for airport screening reveals much more than meets the eye to be comfortable for most passengers.
Susan Hallowell, director of the Transportation Security Administration's security laboratory, sacrificed a large measure of her own modesty Wednesday to demonstrate the problem.
She stepped into a metal booth that bounced X-rays off her skin to produce a black-and-white image that revealed enough to produce a world-class blush.
Her dark skirt and blazer disappeared on the monitor, where she showed up naked - except for the gun and bomb she had hid under her outfit.
"It does basically make you look fat and naked, but you see all this stuff," Hallowell said.
The agency hopes to modify the machines with an electronic fig leaf - programming that fuzzes out sensitive body parts or distorts the body so it does not appear so, well, graphic.
Another option would be to restrict the screener to a booth so no passing peepers can see the image, said Randal Null, the agency's chief technology officer.
Null hopes to conduct pilot programs with the machines at several airports this year. A test run with volunteers at Orlando International Airport in Florida met with mixed results, he said.
Some were uncomfortable with the technology - called "backscatter" because it scatters X-rays - while others proclaimed it "a whole lot nicer than having someone pat me down," he said.
David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, thinks most people will object to the technology.
"The public is willing to accept a certain amount of scrutiny at the airport, but there are clearly limits to the degree of invasion that is acceptable," Sobel said. "It's hard to understand why something this invasive is necessary."
Magnetometers now in use at airports cannot detect plastic weapons or substances used in explosives.
With backscatter technology, rays deflected off dense materials such as metal or plastic produce a darker image than those deflected off skin. The radiation dosage is about the same as sunshine, Hallowell said.
Backscatter machines have been available for years, priced between $100,000 and $200,000. They have been used to screen prisoners' families and South African diamond miners going home for the day.
Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation, wants to persuade colleagues to focus research on technology that identifies items on people's bodies.
"The chances of someone bringing an explosive on an aircraft by walking through a metal detector or in hand-carried luggage are very real," said Mica, R-Fla.
Mica pointed out that Richard Reid, convicted of trying to blow up a trans-Atlantic jetliner with explosives in his shoes, walked through metal detectors at Orly Airport in Paris several times before boarding the plane.
Null said the biggest problem with the backscatter machines may be their size. One version, the BodySearch system made by Billerica, Mass.-based American Science & Engineering is about 4-feet by 7-feet by 10-feet - awfully big for an airport lobby, Null said.
Another system made by Hawthorne, Calif.-based OSI Systems is more compact.
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Transportation Security Administration: http://www.tsa.gov