Backscatter x-ray technology, a new system meant to make airport security searches easy and non-contact, brings with it concerns about privacy and effectiveness. With the multitude of issues at stake (touched upon recently by William Saletan over at Slate), we thought it was a good topic to mark the return of Shift, SCI FI Tech's regular column, and every day this week one of our new columnists will chime in with his or her take on the controversial system. First up is Peter Suciu, who wonders what all the fuss is about.
I'm a frequent business traveler, so predictably the bane of my existence is the TSA security checkpoints. Ever since the tragic events of 9/11, travel has become an absolute nightmare. The rules are vague, the security personnel are rude (at times hostile) and the worst part is that I don't feel any safer. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes — who guards the guards?
Just making me take off my shoes when there are cold, wet floors has me worried about catching something. And since this procedure is standard practice, most would-be baddies probably have moved on to using other objects rather than shoes to hide explosives. Not to mention we're still relying on humans, not superhumans either, to do the screening. Thus the idea of a machine that can see through clothing — you know, like Superman — strikes me as a good thing
Of course not everyone would agree. A number of news, and so-called news organizations from FoxNews.com to Slate are jumping on the bandwagon of information, disinformation and in some cases downright fiction. Even the tech blogs are too eager to find problems. But is the new x-ray machine x-rated, as some suggest? And more to the point, what's the problem?
People have found ways to smuggle nonmetallic items aboard planes, including ceramic knives — but sorry Slate, there is no such thing as a plastic gun that can evade security detectors (hello, even if there were… the bullets are metal!) — and various bombs can be hidden within loose-fitting clothing. Puffer machines can detect explosives, but again you need to be very sloppy in how you're carrying it to get caught.
Backscatter x-ray machines, which are what all the fuss is about, are different. This technology essentially lets airport screeners see through your clothing, in much the same way the x-ray machine allows them to "see" what's in your bags. Thus any bulky and/or dense item will show up, whether it is explosives or just that horde of chocolate you tried to sneak past in hopes of avoiding those outrageous prices at the newsstand.
One of the concerns is that the machines expose people to radiation, but the machines actually put out less radiation than you'd be exposed to after sitting on the plane for a few minutes. The other stumbling block is privacy, and groups such as the ACLU and Electronic Privacy Information Center have labeled the backscatters to be akin to a virtual strip search, but the fact remains that these devices will only see the basic outline of your body sans clothing. The people running the scanners are not actually seeing you in the flesh — nude or otherwise.
While currently voluntary, the machines are being tested at the Phoenix International Airport, and actually only to those who require a secondary screening. So if you'd rather forgo the digital strip search, you could opt for a real-style pat down. This also addresses the point that those who actually deserve a secondary screening receive one, rather than a human randomly decide who gets to suffer through it. And it's easy enough to avoid. Don't wear overly loose fitting clothes, and remove all objects as instructed.
But if the machine becomes standard, what's the problem? Everyone will have to go through… and it isn't like there's a big plasma screen for all to see! Personally I'll rather just keep my shoes on, send my laptop through the belt, and walk through this machine. Then if the TSA can see once and for all that I have nothing to hide, and I can make my flight with just a bit less stress.
Peter Suciu is a New York City-based freelance writer who has covered consumer electronics, technology, video games and the toy industry for more than a decade. In that time his work has appeared in more than three dozen publications including Newsweek, PC Magazine and Wired. His two addictions are iced tea and TV, preferably high-def.