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Naked Scanners Draw Criticism, Stir Up Debate

November 13, 2010

The US government’s efforts to strengthen airport security came under fire by scientists Friday, warning that the full-body, graphic-image X-ray scanners that are used in airports to screen airline passengers and crews could be hazardous to their health.

“They say the risk is minimal, but statistically someone is going to get skin cancer from these X-rays,” Dr Michael Love, of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told AFP.

“No exposure to X-ray is considered beneficial. We know X-rays are hazardous but we have a situation at the airports where people are so eager to fly that they will risk their lives in this manner,” he said.

The potential health risks posed by these scanners add to concerns from passengers and airline crews about the devices, which have been called “naked” scanners because of the graphic image they give of a person’s entire body, including genitalia.

One airline pilot last month refused to be scanned, saying it was an “assault on my person” and a violation of his rights to privacy.

The full-body scanners began being placed in US airports in 2007 by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), but the agency stepped up deployment of the machines this year when increased funding made it possible to buy another 450 of the X-ray units.

Scientists from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) raised concerns about the serious health risks that the scanners pose in a letter sent to the White House Office of Science and Technology this past April.

Biochemist John Sedat and colleagues said in the letter that most of the energy from the scanners is delivered to the skin and underlying tissue. “While the dose would be safe if it were distributed throughout the volume of the entire body, the dose to the skin may be dangerously high.”

The White House agency this week responded to the letter, saying the scanners have been “tested extensively” by US government agencies and were found to meet safety standards.

But Sedat told AFP Friday that the official response was “deeply flawed.”

“We still don’t know the beam intensity or other details of their classified system,” he said, adding that UCSF scientists were preparing a rebuttal to the White House statement.

Some 315 of the full-body X-ray scanners are currently in use at 65 US airports, according to the TSA.

The TSA says that 98 percent of passengers prefer body scans over other screening methods. The agency cites experts who have said a body scan would have likely detected the powdered explosive that terror suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly stuffed in his underwear and ignited aboard a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit last Christmas.

John Verdi, senior counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a privacy advocacy group that is challenging the government in court, said: “We believe the program is unlawful, invasive and ineffective.”

“Frankly, I cannot believe that the people who advocating this program are still citing the Christmas Day bomber as justification when it’s clear that attempt wouldn’t have been foiled by those machines,” he told FoxNews.com. 

Verdi said the machines would have shown the underwear but not the bomb sewn inside of it. “It can’t penetrate that far.”

EPIC filed a lawsuit against TSA in July, seeking an emergency suspension of the program. A judge decided not to grant the suspension but did allow the case to proceed on a non-emergency basis.

Unions that represent pilots for American Airlines and US Airways say they want a more efficient screening process for pilots instead of them having to use the same security procedures used for passengers.

Pilots have compared the new screening process to “sexual molestation.”

A spokesman with TSA said the agency has agreed to continue discussions with pilots about its security practices and policies.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) issued a travel advisory Wednesday for airline passengers who may face the new screening process and pat-downs.

“Travelers are being asked to educate themselves about the new policy and to know their rights if asked to undergo security pat-downs,” the group said. “CAIR’s advisory is particularly important for Muslim travelers leaving for or returning from Hajj because of concerns that they will be singled out for secondary screening by security personnel.”

CAIR said it has received complaints about the new pat-down procedures, particularly from travelers who wear a hijab, or headscarf.

“Passengers who have undergone the new pat-down procedure have reported feeling humiliated by a search they describe as invasive and that has involved TSA officers touching the face and hair, the groin area and buttocks, and in between and underneath breasts,” said CAIR.

CAIR said Muslim travelers have the right to request the manual search be conducted in private and be screened by an officer of the same gender.

The official blogger for the TSA, Blogger Bob, this week shot down accusations of sexually charged pat-downs. “There is no fondling, squeezing, groping, or any sort of sexual assault taking place at airports. You have a professional workforce carrying out procedures they were trained to perform to keep aviation security safe,” Bob wrote.

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