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may 18 2009

Ban "whole-body" TSA scanners?

(Courtesy Der Spiegel)
(Courtesy Der Spiegel)

So, TSA? The agency has raised howls from privacy advocates by announcing its plans to make it mandatory for travelers to pass through body-scanning machines that show images of people underneath their clothing at major airports by the end of the year.

Up until now, the machines were a voluntary alternative to being patted-down by an agent. The images produce a near X-ray-like image. USA Today reported a TSA official as saying, "You can actually see the sweat on someone's back."

Already at several airports nationwide, all passengers are passing through the high-tech machines. The machines are available at other airports for secondary screenings only. The TSA plans to roll out the machine nationwide by end of year.

Today, the Electronic Privacy Information Center began a campaign to lobby Homeland Security's Secretary Janet Napolitano to suspend the program and invite public comment before making the procedure mandatory.

EPIC director Marc Rotenberg explained to us: "One of the big issues is that most people don't understand that these devices are essentially digital cameras. We don't object to the scanning. The problem is that it is too easy for the TSA to record and store images.

Other critics say that the machines perform "a virtual strip search." More than 500 readers wrote in with comments when we blogged about the TSA's new scanning machines. (See: "Is the TSA violating your privacy with its new body scanning machines?")

But most travelers don't seem to mind the machines. When given a choice between using them and not using them, "over 99 percent of passengers choose this technology over other screening options," a TSA spokesperson told CNN.

Congressman Jason Chaffetz, Republican from Utah, has introduced legislation to ban the machines. But it's not clear if the bill has a chance of becoming law.

The machines will cost between $100,000 and $170,000 each of taxpayer money, reports The New York Times.

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