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Maker defends airport full-body image scanners

Peter Kant of Rapiscan Systems says that the low levels of radiation used by the machines don't pose a health threat and that the uproar over privacy concerns comes from a 'vocal minority.'

November 22, 2010|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times

With increased airport security measures sparking passenger furor on Thanksgiving eve, the Torrance company that makes most of controversial full-body image scanners used across the country finds itself at the center of a heated debate over privacy rights and health concerns.

Rapiscan Systems Inc. manufactured 211 of the 385 image scanners in use at 68 airports nationwide. The machines, called the Secure 1000, use low levels of radiation to create what looks like a nude image of a screened passenger to detect weapons and contraband hidden under clothing.

In an interview, Peter Kant, executive vice president of Rapiscan, defended the units, insisting that the scanners do not pose a health risk and saying the uproar over privacy concerns comes from a "vocal minority." He also talked about a proposed upgrade that he hopes will address privacy fears.

Can you address the concerns over the health risks of passing through the machine?

Rapiscan System's Secure 1000 is designed to use exceedingly ultra-low amounts of backscatter radiation that is specifically designed only to go through clothes and bounce back … off the body.

The amount of exposure received by people going through the scanner is roughly equivalent to the amount you would get from two minutes in the airplane or eating half a banana. Bananas have potassium in them and that potassium is slightly radioactive. You would have to go through the system more than 1,000 times to equal a dental X-ray.

The machine has been tested by the Food and Drug Administration and John Hopkins University. We've seen all the recent reports from the president's science and technology advisor, all showing how small the amount of energy is used by the machine.

What about the long-term effects?

Fortunately, backscatter technology is an exceedingly well understood and highly studied technology. We've had Secure 1000 systems out for over a decade. We are well aware of the implications of using the technology.

What about the privacy rights concerns? How do we know that body images taken by the machine won't be copied, stored or sent out on the Internet?

The systems are designed without any capability of storing, saving or otherwise archiving any images or data that are taken from the checkpoint.

Finally, we are releasing in the next few months … a threat-recognition upgrade where the system never even uses an image. It just automatically detects any anomaly on the body and directs the [ Transportation Security Administration] officer where on the body to ask the passenger, "What's in your back pocket?" or whatever. No image is ever created or used of the passenger — and that is only a couple of months away from being available.

You no doubt have heard that the U.S. Marshals Service in Florida had been copying and storing images from scanners at a courthouse. Some people see that as proof that it can be done.

Those systems were not ours and were made by another company and a completely different technology. I can't comment as to why that technology was used in that way, but I can assure you that our systems do not allow for any saving or archiving.

What are the advantages of the full-body scanners over the traditional metal detectors?

The metal detector is an excellent technology for detecting metal, which is a good thing when you are worried about weapons like knives or guns. However, as the years have gone on, the weapons have become more sophisticated. Explosives are not made of metallic materials at all.

And so the detection of explosives with a metal detector is nearly impossible if not difficult. As those threats change, the Secure 1000 and backscatter technology allow you to detect every kind of threat.

And still, there seems to be a lot of people upset about having to go through your machines.

I disagree that there are a lot of people upset about this. Recent polling has shown that over 80% of people in the U.S. want this technology deployed at airports.

TSA's own polling is showing that 99% of people opt for using this scanner over the pat-down search, even before the enhanced pat-down process was implemented Nov. 1.

So I think there is certainly a significant interest in the technology. There is not a large public outcry against this technology. In fact, most of the public is demanding that it be in the market.

Are you saying we are hearing from a vocal minority?

I believe that any time you talk about terrorism and what some people feel are revealing pictures, there is a lot of media interest in that. But the vocal minority is just that — very vocal and a minority.

Are we in the U.S. a little more sensitive to issues of privacy than, say, travelers in Europe?

I don't believe there is any real difference. In fact, when the scanners were first introduced in Europe, there was a lot of interest — not quite as vocal as it was here.

But after a few weeks of implementation, over 95% of passengers chosen for extra screening at Heathrow Airport in London, for example, where these systems are used, selected to go through this technology.

So there may be some initial interest in the U.S. about what is it, how does it work, should I be concerned. Once the reality of the situation is going to be known and people experience the systems and how quick, safe and efficient they are and how much better security is, I believe that most of this goes away.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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