Just in time for the busy holiday travel season, the Transportation Security Administration on Friday unveiled its new full-body scanners at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, the first such scanners in an Alaska airport. But will they actually make flying any safer, or will the scanners be just another hurdle to get over at airport security?
The four scanners are different than the ones many travelers may already be familiar with, and which have garnered waves of public criticism since their debut in U.S. airports last year. Those first-generation scanners utilize "low level X-ray beams" to create a virtual image of an individual and any items they might have on their person.
Critics argued the scanners were an undue invasion of privacy, since they essentially look through a person's clothes and create a colorless image of a nude body. Additionally, recent reports indicate that the exposure to even that low level of radiation could result in a small number of cancer cases. In November, Europe even banned the units -- called "backscatter" units -- over health concerns.
Instead, European airports now rely on a different technology known as millimeter-wave that relies on bouncing radio waves off of a person's body. These are the same $150,000 machines now being installed in Alaska airports.
The image produced by these millimeter-wave scanners is less detailed than those created by the X-ray scanners, a feature intended to assuage passenger concerns over privacy. Instead, they project "anomalies" -- bumps or objects that the scanner deems unusual for a person's body -- in the form of a yellow box on a generic male or female silhouette. The scanners' reliance on radio waves also eliminates the radiation caused by the backscatter machines.
At a press event debuting the new machines at Anchorage's airport, TSA Public Affairs Manager Lorie Dankers said that use of the machines "remains optional for all passengers." She stressed the differences between these new machines and the backscatter scanners, emphasizing that the new scanners are not X-rays and neither store nor transmit any images of passengers. Passengers who refuse a scan will have to submit to a manual pat-down.
Dankers added that Fairbanks International Airport will also debut its own scanners sometime this month, with some limited operations beginning as early as this weekend. Additionally, Dankers said that the Juneau and Ketchikan airports will likely see scanners in 2012.
Ted Stevens International manager John Parrott backed Dankers's statements about the improved privacy aspects of these new scanners.
"The new scanners here at the airport -- as well as those that are going to be installed in Fairbanks and the other airports -- do not produce individual images, they just highlight areas of anomaly," Parrott said. "This hopefully mitigates privacy concerns that surrounded some of the earlier scanners in the Lower 48."
Following prepared statements from Dankers and Parrott, plainclothes TSA employees demonstrated the new machines. Critics of the TSA often accuse the security process of being nothing more than "security theater" -- going through the motions to give the public a feeling of safety without actually producing actual results -- but the demonstration took it to a new level. Anchorage TSA employees filed in and out of the machines, shuffling objects in their pockets so they would show up on the screen, circling back around and walking through again.
If the scanner didn't detect any objects, a large "OK" would appear on the display, monitored by a TSA agent. Yellow squares popped up where objects that the machine determined to be "anomalies" were detected on the person. Locations ranged from front pockets, back pockets, love handles, and even one that showed up in a woman's genital area. Any of these would trigger what Dankers referred to as a "targeted pat-down."
The pat-down procedure has been another hotly contested aspect of TSA screening procedures. The "enhanced pat-down" procedure adopted by the TSA last year involves a security agent running the back of his or her hand along the inside of a subject's waistband, in addition to feeling along the thighs and torso. The procedure has inspired horror stories from an elderly woman told to remove her adult diaper to a pat-down causing a urostomy bag leak.
So how can you avoid a pat-down? Dankers wouldn't say specifically what items the employees were carrying, but did say "it's the kinds of things you'd have when you travel." This would include keys, phones, coins, even bulky jewelry, among other things.
There is some concern about false positives with the millimeter-wave machines (scanners detecting anomalies that simply aren't there). Germany has held off on deploying even the millimeter-wave scanners due to a false positive rate approaching 50 percent in some German press reports -- including underarm sweat showing up as an anomaly.
Dankers said that millimeter-wave are the only type of new scanners that TSA will deploy, but didn't know whether they would eventually replace the more contentious backscatter machines already in place. Between the old and new machines, the TSA has about 540 scanners currently deployed at about 100 airports in the U.S.
The old metal detectors still sit next to the new scanners at the Anchorage airport. Dankers said that passengers will go through one or the other -- never both. Which raises the question: if the metal detector is good enough for some passengers, why isn't it good enough for all of them?
"Once our officers are trained on the (scanner), it would become the primary method of screening," Dankers said. "We would still use the metal detector from time to time, in cases where we needed to clear the queue of passengers," or in the event of a backlog.
So if the scanners are intended to more accurately identify threats, why wouldn't every passenger be required to go through them, regardless of how long the line is getting? That's what Thomas Brown with the passengers' rights group Alaskans' Freedom to Travel USA (AFTUSA) wonders.
"So they'll sacrifice safety for the sake of a few minutes?" he asked when told about the passenger mitigation strategy involving using the metal detectors at times of congestion.
AFTUSA was downstairs from the security checkpoint at the Anchorage airport. Protesters carried anti-TSA signs and even offered cookies -- some shaped like TSA's trademark blue gloves and others, gingerbread men, dubbed "G-men."
The group was less concerned with the scanners than with the pat-downs they could lead to. "That scanner's going to pick out medical anomalies of people that are going to have to be patted down," said Patricia Anderson, another member of AFTUSA. "Nobody should be touched."
Anderson said that "some groups" have concerns about the long-term health effects of millimeter-wave machines as well. "So I will not go through one," she said, "based both on my medical history, that will probably prompt me to be patted down anyway, and my concerns over the health issues of the scanners."
That "medical anomalies" concern Anderson voiced has already been validated in Alaska. State Rep. Sharon Cissna became a sudden celebrity among the anti-TSA crowd earlier this year when she took a ferry from Seattle to Juneau rather than be subjected to a pat-down after a full-body scanner revealed her mastectomy.
"We are not paying attention to this. People are not interested enough to protect a population that's been damaged," Cissna said in a conversation with Alaska Dispatch earlier in the week. "We accept it, but I think we've got to start putting the line down somewhere."
Additionally, the group is opposed to what they call the TSA's "increasing overreach." Diane Schenker, another member of AFTUSA who was protesting Friday, called the TSA "an agency with a huge amount of authority (with) no accountability."
Thomas Brown argued that the TSA's procedures have been mostly ineffective at deterring threats, like one in 2009 presented by "underwear bomber" Umar Abdulmutallab.
That case was actually a big reason for last year's federal rollout of the new scanners and pat-down procedures. Meanwhile, as commercial air travelers are subjected to new and ever-growing screening procedures, other areas of air travel remain largely unbothered by the TSA, like smaller, general aviation aircraft. One startup even hopes to cash in on the TSA backlash by limiting passengers to only nine per flight -- one less than would merit TSA scrutiny.
Regardless of the degree to which the TSA regulates air travel, the ever-evolving litany of security procedures employed by the agency raises the question of where it will all end, and whether or not any of the changes actually increase security, or merely create the illusion of it.
"Security that's at least effective … you could give me that argument," Brown said. "You're violating my rights for effective security. (But) this doesn't even work. It just compounds the idiocy of the situation."
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com