Thursday, April 17, 2008

Catch a Wave and Avoid a Pat Down

Since we posted information about Checkpoint Evolution and the expanded use of millimeter wave technology, we’ve noticed a number of comments from many of you questioning the use of this technology and the images it captures during the screening process.

There are a lot of misconceptions out there so we thought it might be worth a few words to see if we can address some of your concerns.

The expanded use of the millimeter wave in our nation’s airports actually goes back to the 9-11 Commission report, which recommended increased use of explosives detection technology for passengers at the security checkpoint. Of course, with the timing of the commission’s report and the bombing of two Russian airliners shortly thereafter, TSA deployed the highly invasive physical pat-down and deployed explosive trace portals to many airports nationwide. Otherwise known as the puffer machines, we continue to help fine-tune this technology while working with private technology companies to develop additional screening equipment that will scan passengers for any and all concealed weapons and explosives, thereby eliminating the need for the invasive pat-down. We more than recognize that passengers don’t like being patted down by our officers and, though some of you may think differently, our officers don’t like patting down passengers either. It’s uncomfortable for everyone involved.

So over the last year, TSA has piloted the millimeter wave whole body imaging machines. We have been so pleased with the millimeter wave that we are moving to deploy additional machines to LAX and JFK airports. Assistant Secretary Hawley recently announced the purchase of 30 additional machines. The millimeter wave allows our officers to see a rotating image of the passenger so they can see any threat items that might be hidden on a person’s front or back without them having to turn around. Many of you have commented on a CNN story we rolled the dice on last month. We allowed CNN to film as we ran one of the many covert tests conducted at security checkpoints everyday. Using a physical pat-down, our officer was unable to locate the threat item that one of the covert testers concealed in a back brace and, while we demonstrated for the public that our officers are tested regularly and the tests are meant to be challenging, unfortunately we failed that test on a nationally televised stage. We are confident that millimeter wave whole body imaging technology would have found that threat item.

Now I do remember a post someone wrote a few days ago, asking about cell phone cameras, suggesting officers could use them to take photos of passengers’ whole body images. First of all, as we’ve shown you, the image looks like a fuzzy negative…there’s nothing to see. And second, every airport using whole body imaging technology installs a separate, closed and remote viewing room for our officers to view the image projected from the machine, and in each case so far, those viewing rooms have been at least 50 feet from the machine. This distance ensures the officer viewing the image for concealed items has no way of interacting with or identifying the passenger. The officer staffing the equipment communicates with the officer in the viewing room with wireless microphones. No one is allowed in the room while the officer is screening those images and the officers are not permitted to carry cell phones, back packs or any other devices while they work in the viewing room.

Additionally, these monitors have no ability to save, print or transmit the image. Once it’s deleted, or once the next passenger steps into the machine, the previous image is gone forever.

I believe it is worth noting that whole body imaging machines are already in use in state and federal facilities around this country, including public courthouses.

As a married father of five small children, I wouldn’t think twice about sending my wife, my four boys or little girl into this machine. I’ve seen the image it produces and I am not only confident as a TSA employee - but as a citizen - that TSA has done everything possible to address passengers’ privacy concerns regarding whole body imaging.

For those of you who remain skeptical, you’ll be happy to know that, as we expand the use of whole body imaging to JFK and LAX, it remains an optional screening method for passengers. It’s voluntary so if you’re selected for additional screening and you prefer the physical pat-down, just let our officers know.

Millimeter wave, a form of whole body imaging technology, is currently in use at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. Since its introduction there, more than 90 percent of passengers have elected to undergo screening with this technology instead of being subjected to a pat-down.

Nico Melendez

TSA EoS Blog Team