Friday, February 23, 2007

'Backscatter X-ray' test begins at Sky Harbor

Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix is the first to install a new kind of X-ray scanner for passenger screening. The new machine, marketed by American Science and Engineering, Inc. (AS & E), uses a technique called 'Backscatter X-ray' to detect explosives and other weapons hidden on passengers. The device began operating today at one security screening station in Terminal 4, an area of Sky Harbor International Airport used primarily by passengers of US Airways.

The Backscatter X-ray scanner is intended to supplement traditional screening, according to an Associated Press article in the Arizona Daily Star. It will be used only for passengers who do not pass traditional screening, thus requiring secondary screening. Those passengers will be allowed to opt for a pat-down search instead of passing through the new scanner, at their request.

The Associated Press article about the new scanner says:
The X-ray technology, which was developed for prisons, was expected to start screening Sky Harbor passengers in December but the launch was postponed while the Transportation Security Administration worked out glitches and installed some new software.
In fact, the new scanner has been controversial because it reportedly produces high-resolution images that some say are too invasive of personal privacy. Some even refer to the technology as a "virtual strip search," however a TSA spokesman says that while the machine visually strips off clothing, the image it projects looks more like a chalk drawing than a real person

Another article about the new scanner, published on the website of Tucson TV station KVOA, pointed out that the security officer who works with the passenger going through the Backscatter X-ray will never see the image the machine produces. The images will be viewed by another officer who will be about 50 feet away and won't see the actual passenger. Images from the machine cannot be stored or transmitted.

Placement of the new machine at Sky Harbor is part of a field test of the device. A Backscatter X-ray scanner costs approximately $100,000. The scanner being used in Phoenix is on loan to from AS & E, the manufacturer.

TSA says that a person passing through the scanner will receive about the same amount of radiation as a person flying for two minutes at an altitude of 30,000 feet.