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Should U.S. airports use full-body scanners?

A decade after 9/11, the ability of a Nigerian man to get explosives on a flight to Detroit raises troubling questions about airport security

The Christmas Day attempt by a terrorist to blow up a plane over Detroit was a near-disaster that highlights the nation's need to continue improving airport security measures.

Current screening equipment detects only metal objects such as knives, guns, and some bombs. However, terrorists can evade the system by using non-metal weapons—such as plastic explosives—that are "invisible" to metal detectors. For more effective security, the U.S. should use full-body scanners, which use radio or X-ray waves to detect potentially dangerous items hidden under people's clothing, regardless of what material they're made of.

A number of precautions are in place to protect individuals' privacy. For example: Scanners cannot save images; screeners are located in separate rooms from the people being screened; and facial features are blurred. What screeners see is an anonymous image.

Some privacy groups say these steps aren't enough to protect privacy. Unfortunately, they have not offered realistic alternatives that would keep us as safe as full-body scanners could. While watch lists allow us to identify known terrorists in advance, some terrorists will inevitably remain unknown to us. Nor can we rely on travelers' innocent-looking appearances: Would-be bombers have included young couples and pregnant women.

Americans must decide how far they should put their safety at risk in order to protect their privacy. In doing so, they should remember: In order to keep travelers safe, we have to be right 100 percent of the time; to kill travelers, terrorists need only be right once.

Michael Chertoff*
Former Secretary of Homeland Security (2005-2009)

 A manufacturer of full-body scanners is a client of Michael Chertoff's consulting company.

Body-scanning machines are very invasive and they won't actually make Americans any safer.

These machines capture detailed pictures of passengers' naked bodies and have the capability to store and transmit those pictures—without the faces blurred to protect people's identities. Requiring passengers to be scanned disregards the objections that many Americans have to strip searches and naked photographs.

Because of the way the machines are designed, they have troubling security flaws that could allow Transportation Security Administration (T.S.A.) employees and outsiders to access naked images of passengers. The machines run on an operating system and a network that could easily be compromised.

This loss of privacy does not even buy security. There is strong evidence that these machines would not have picked up the kind of explosives used in the Christmas Day attack, since they're designed to detect hard plastics and metals, not the powders and liquids that can be key components of explosives today.

Body scanning machines will, at most, make Americans marginally safer. Several federal agencies had information that should have alerted them to the danger posed by the Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, but failed to properly utilize that information. Instead of spending tax dollars on devices that are ineffective and highly invasive, the government should be strengthening its intelligence networks and making more effective use of the information it obtains.

Americans have a constitutional right to privacy. We should not give up that right in exchange for the illusion of security.

Ginger McCall
Electronic Privacy Information Center

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, March 1, 2010)