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by Mike Zazaian December 4, 2006 - 3:35pm, 53 Comments

Demonstration of a man standing in front of a Secure 1000 backscatter x-ray machine

A new x-ray scanner at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport takes skin-deep photos of passengers to detect guns and explosives, but should personal privacy be the price of safety?

Dubbed backscatter, such x-ray scanning systems are capable of photographing the bodies of individuals through clothing, producing a composite image of the contours of each passenger’s body. The technology, which has been successfully tested at London’s Heathrow Airport and a number of prisons, hasn’t been implemented in U.S. airports due to privacy concerns.

Backscatter now faces its introduction to the United States following a revision to the system by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) that blurs out private areas while still allowing for the detection of any dangerous materials that passengers may be carrying. The exact date of backscatter’s debut has yet to be set upon, but the TSA has said that it will be featured in Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor, which handles about 80 percent of all passengers there.

We’re hoping to have it up for the increased traffic we are anticipating over the holiday and the bowl games, said Paul Armes, regional federal security director for the TSA.

Not all passengers will be required to pass through the backscatter, however. The device will initially be used as a secondary means of scanning for passengers that fail an initial pass through the standard metal detectors.

And while the TSA is gung-ho on security that the backscatter promises, many are hesitant to accept the violation of privacy that the backscatter poses. Barry Steinhardt, head of the ACLU’s technology and liberty program, fears that intimate images taken by the backscatter could easily be abused by airport employees and security agents:

It’s absolutely predictable that as this technology becomes commonplace, you’re going to start seeing those images all over the Internet.

Despite public skepticism TSA officials contend that revisions to the backscatter will fully protect the privacy of passengers. One precaution being taken to ensure passenger privacy is a remote screening process, meaning that only off-site officials in private rooms will be able to view the images. The TSA has also said that images taken by the backscatter will not be stored in the system, but rather deleted immediately after a photo is taken to eliminate abuse.

We did have concerns about the privacy issue before this current technology was available, said Deborah Ostreicher, Deputy Aviation Director for the TSA. But we are assured that passengers will be protected.

Assuming that all goes well with the initial run of the backscatter at Sky Harbor, similar technologies will be introduced to a number of other major U.S. airports early in 2007.

Via azcentral.com