TSA introducing backscatter x-ray

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TSA is testing backscatter x-ray scanning for secondary screening (þ Lauren Weinstein):
The technology, called backscatter, has been around for several years but has not been widely used in the U.S. as an anti-terrorism tool because of privacy concerns.

The Transportation Security Administration said it has found a way to refine the machine's images so that the normally graphic pictures can be blurred in certain areas while still being effective in detecting bombs and other threats.


The security agency's Web site indicates that the technology will be used initially as a secondary screening measure, meaning that only those passengers who first fail the standard screening process will be directed to the X-ray area.

Even then, passengers will have the option of choosing the backscatter or a traditional pat-down search.

So, on the one hand, these backscatter x-rays are pretty privacy defeating, not to mention unflattering. They certainly show a lot more than just weapons, and it's not like you want everyone checking out your body shape, piercings, etc. On the other hand, it's clearly more convenient than actually being patted down, especially since there have been reports that the screeners aren't necessarily as courteous as one would like, especially when women are being patted down. So, arguably if you're going to be aggressively searched, you'd prefer it to be by backscatter x-ray rather than by pat-down.

On the third hand, precisely because this kind of screening is relatively fast and physically unintrusive—and the general public isn't largely aware of how much it reveals—you should expect the barriers to it being widely deployed to be a lot lower than for patdowns. As Weinstein observes, it will eventually be practical to use this kind of scanning as a form of primary rather than secondary screening. It's not clear that that's an equilibrium that those of us who do care about this kind of privacy—and who expect that our fellow citizens eventually will as well— are likely to welcome, especially since we don't exactly have a rash of hijackings and plane bombings with the current system. (Don't forget, the 9/11 hijackers used weapons that were allowed through security.) >


Terahertz imaging does much of the same thing, by the way. It has only become practical in the last few years, but it is clearly capable of much the same sort of "clothing stripping" security scans.

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