SHIFT: Airport x-ray searches — they'll see your panties in a wad

And now for Round 2 in our scrutinize-airport-security week, inspired by the advent of backscatter x-ray technology, a new system meant to obsolete pat-down searches at airports. Today's Shift is taken by Stewart Wolpin, who points out there are other things we should aim our scanners at if we really wanted to make the skies more secure.

Thanks to a new fangled x-ray machine, airport screeners will be able to see you naked, all in the name of enhanced security. Our imaginations conjure up visions of tittering TSA screeners crowding around screens trying to keep a straight face as they try to figure out if that's a gun in your pocket or if you're just happy to see them.

Okay, that's not entirely true. But that's how lots of civil libertarians and bashful folks with their panties in a wad are reacting to the new SmartCheck x-ray body scanners now being used in Phoenix and coming soon to LAX and JFK.

As is usually the case, the truth is more complicated and, unfortunately, less spicy than the screaming tabloid headlines. To begin with, the scanner is simply an option to the even more invasive and embarrassing physical pat-down. Second, a specially trained screener is sequestered in a closed booth, away from the leering crowd, and images are immediately trashed. Third, x-ray radiation absorbed from the scanners is equal to the amount you'd get in 2 minutes at 30,000 feet. And finally, panties, wadded or not, wouldn't show up on the x-ray. "Privacy" software blurs curves and other revealing bulges, leaving only bones and illicit materials on view.

Regardless of these sobering facts, the reactions to this new machine are a bit surprising. After all, x-rays have been around for more than a century. Every pre-pubescent baby boomer in America has ordered up a pair of x-ray specs from the back of a comic book. And doesn't anyone remember the skeletal security see-through screen in Total Recall (if you don't, check the pic above)?

In fact, we've employed every seemingly benign technology since the end of World War II in a devil's bargain, trading our Constitutional freedoms for increased security, first from Communists and now from terrorists. The question isn't how we ended up with this latest high-tech privacy infringer, but when our fear and our paranoia would give us the nerve to deploy it.

Ironically, this invasion of our privates is, to quote Malcolm X, a case of the chickens coming home to roost. We Americans are champion voyeurs. By buying In Touch, Hello!, Star, Us, People, et al., or watching E!, Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, et al., or surfing TMZ for online pictures of Antonella Barba, we pay paparazzi tens of thousands of dollars for salacious snaps of unsuspecting celebs. As long as it's somebody else's privacy being invaded to pique our prurient interests, let the sun shine where the sun don't shine. But when it's our privacy that's being invaded, even in the name of plane peace of mind, we hypocritically evoke the Constitution to protect our Puritan purity.

What makes this tempest in the terminal even more ridiculous is the inefficiency of passenger screening to begin with. Stripping each and every passenger, either physically or technologically, is absurd considering how many pieces of barely checked luggage gets casually tossed into the plane's cargo bay. We could save everyone a lot of time and money by putting technology at work on the plane itself — taser-armed air marshals on every flight, bulletproof cockpit doors, rigging planes with the means to fill the passenger cabin with sleeping gas, to name a few.

But if peering through my superfluous outer garments instead of forcing me to shed them speeds my appointment with stale peanuts and tepid Diet Coke in my middle coach seat, leer away.

Stewart Wolpin has been writing about technology for more than 20 years for such publications as Playboy, CNET, Consumers Digest and American Heritage of Invention and Technology. He's also a Mets season ticket holder and has played poker every Thursday night for the last 22 years.