Special Report : Are you part of an Airport Peepshow? - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Special Report : Are you part of an Airport Peepshow?

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November 17, 2008

Travelers beware: your full blown image - private parts and all, could soon be visible to security officers on-screen, at an airport near you! 

Within the next 60 days, the Richmond airport is scheduled to have one of these full body-imaging devices.  

But not everyone believes they're a good idea.  The ACLU views these new screening devices as "tantamount to an electronic strip search," yet others say it's a significant upgrade in airport security in a dangerous world. 

Afternoon rush-hour at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.   As the masses make their way through the metal detectors - a random few are pulled from line - and sent into this machine - a glass & steel, cylindrical device, called a millimeter wave passenger imaging screener.

The machine takes a circular head to toe scan of your entire body in less than a minute, and amazingly, the energy emitted is 10,000 times less than a cell phone. But make no mistake about what it does -  the technology is using radio waves to look under your clothes.

In another part of the airport - far from the scanner - a TSA officer sits in front of a monitor - and examines the image, with the face blurred out.  This particular passenger apparently forgot to put her cell phone in the bin - it's visible in her back pocket.  In fact, any item under your clothes, regardless of what its made of, would be detectable by these machines.

"This technology uses harmless electromagnetic waves to produce an image of the body that allows the security officer to ensure there are no items or threat items concealed on that person," said TSA Spokesperson Lauren Gaches.

And this isn't the only passenger imaging technology TSA has deployed. This picture is from a "backscatter" machine at the Phoenix airport - the woman is a TSA employee trying to sneak a weapon through the gate. And while her pistol is on view - as you can see - so is everything else.  This man, also a TSA employee - has a bag of narcotics taped to his chest, which the backscatter did detect.  The contrast and clarity of these pictures can be diffused somewhat - through a filter attached to the machine.

The millimeter wave screener will soon be in Richmond, and 21 other cities around the country - within the next 60 days.  At the Richmond airport - when you show passengers a photos of these images, it's not uncommon to hear....

"Oh my!  That's a little more invasive than I think I would like," said Rosemary Sloan, with a laugh.

And she is certainly not alone. The American Civil Liberties Union has been vocal in it's opposition to the deployment of these machines:

"This is the ultimate government invasion of your privacy.  It literally is a camera that strips you nude for government employees," says Kent Willis of the ACLU.

But passenger Stacey Zabel takes a more pragmatic approach to going through these screeners.  He's a frequent business flyer.   Day to day, time and security are his two biggest concerns -- modesty isn't even on the list.

"I have no doubt that it's more time efficient, and it's less invasive - in my opinion, than being wanded," says Zabel.

These machines are clearly marked, no one is forced to go through. TSA allows the passenger to decide if this is an acceptable loss of privacy  -- a trade-off, of sorts, for piece of mind when traveling by air

The European union is considering these machines - but several countries have already publicly stated the scanners are too invasive - and won't be deployed.