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Scan My Body - As Long As It Is Safe

I mentioned in my last blog post I will travel to Anaheim in early February to attend several shows, notably the Pacific Design & Manufacturing Show and Medical Design & Manufacturing West . That means once again subjecting myself to the rigors of airport security - whipping out my photo ID, emptying my pockets of loose change, taking off my shoes, belt, and watch, and if necessary show security I’m not carrying any top-secret files on my laptop computer.

I’ll likely pass through the familiar X-ray machines I’ve been going through for several decades as a technology journalist. But since the foiled Nigerian terrorist attack attempt aboard a Northwest Airlines flight landing in Detroit this past Christmas, there’s been a renewed outcry for more effective screening devices, as the X-ray machine failed to detect the terrorist’s concealed explosives. Indeed, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has for months been conducting a pilot program at selected airports, where a whole body scanning machine that uses millimeter-wave imaging technology screens passengers instead of the x-ray machine.

Not surprisingly, whole body scanning has come under fire from some elected officials due to concerns they violate the privacy of individuals. We asked NASA Tech Briefs readers in our Question of the Week if whole body imaging should be used for airport security, and so far the response has been in favor of the technology.

Like many of the respondents, I believe the potentially greater security whole body scanning technologies offer outweigh any possible indignities these devices impose. Various parts of my body have been imaged for medical purposes throughout my life, so I’m not bothered by airport security looking at my insides for a few minutes.

But I do concur with one of the respondents, who raised the issue of how effective and safe whole body scanning technologies are. Are there are potential problems arising from being exposed to ultra-high frequency energy fields? Can they pose a risk to people with certain medical conditions? How accurate and thorough are these machines? Can they be fooled by certain objects or in certain lighting situations?

Then you have to consider the cost and logistics of implementation. How many hundreds of millions of dollars are we talking about retrofitting hundreds of airports to use these technologies? And will whole body scanning technologies be adopted in other nations as well? What good is it if someone cannot transport concealed weapons through our stringent airport security systems, but can easily pass through another nation’s more lax airport security systems and possibly create havoc when a plane is landing or is in mid-flight?

Let’s hope our officials look beyond knee-jerk privacy concerns to address the nitty-gritty safety and economic considerations of using whole body scanning.