Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Department of Homeland Security is seeking new security screening technology that would allow air travelers to board flights without removing their shoes.

The department also is testing a privacy-sensitive version of an X-ray machine that has drawn complaints because although it is able to detect weapons beneath clothes, the initial version also provided a nude image of travelers.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is asking companies to develop a machine that can examine shoes while still on passengers’ feet. Agency officials hope to begin testing this winter.

The agency also is testing a version of the contentious backscatter X-ray machines that will outline the human form while screening for weapons, unlike the current design that shows a realistic image of naked bodies.

“We are continually searching for better tools that raise the bar for security and reduce the hassle factor for passengers. We have to focus resources on stopping terrorists, and that means being smart about how we acquire new technology,” said TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield.

Airport scrutiny of passengers’ shoes was put in place after British terrorist Richard C. Reid, also known as the “shoe bomber,” tried to ignite explosives in his shoes during an overseas flight in December 2001. Random passengers initially were asked to remove their shoes, but now all passengers may be obliged to remove their shoes.

Backscatter technology, which can see underneath a person’s clothing, has been dubbed “a virtual strip search” by the American Civil Liberties Union. The Homeland Security Department’s testing program with the system was put on hold last year until more privacy-sensitive technology could be developed.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress last month that the technology would come online soon and that he did not want to enter into an “endless debate” on the privacy ramifications.

The technology, which is used in some prisons to screen visitors, also could be used to detect humans smuggled in cargo.

American Science and Engineering Inc. is using a $700,000 contract to test its Z(R) Backscatter screening system, which can detect metallic and nonmetallic weapons and explosives hidden beneath clothing.

“The system is a safe and effective method to find most classes of threats by displaying a clear and accurate image,” said Anthony Fabiano, president of the company.

The technology uses high energy X-rays to scatter — rather than penetrate like medical X-rays — and the “backscatter” creates a highly realistic image of the nude form.

Joe Reiss, the marketing director, said the company developed a “privacy enhancement filter” for the technology so the exact human form is not duplicated but weapons can still be detected.

“The image looks like an outline of a form with no details of personal characteristics. When a child traces an outline of his hand, the image would look something like that,” Mr. Reiss said.

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