Air Security: Could Technology Have Stopped Christmas Attack?

Photo: Airport Security Technology

If 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had succeeded in his attempted Christmas day airline attack, 289 people would have died. But some security analysts say a powerful but controversial piece of technology might have prevented the alleged terrorist from ever boarding that Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit.

Full-body imaging scanners, or so-called "naked scanners," might have spotted the explosive materials officials said Abdulmutallab had sewn into his underwear, some security analysts contend.

According to the Transportation Safety Administration, 19 airports across the country already give passengers the option to undergo a full-body imaging scan instead of a pat-down. And the agency recently purchased 150 more scanners that use X-ray beams to generate an image of a passenger -- including possible foreign objects hidden under their clothing.

In light of the recent attempted bombing, some security experts are raising their voices in support of a more widespread adoption.

Scanners Generate Full-Body Images of Passengers

"I value my privacy as much as any individual, but I travel all around the world, and when it comes to my safety and my family's safety, and I know these things work, then I want to be safe first and I'll worry about my body exposure later," said Billie Vincent, former director of the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Civil Aviation Security and president of Aerospace Services International, Inc.

Full-body scans are generated by two kinds of technology. Millimeter wave scanners emit radio frequency energy to generate a 3-D image of a passenger. And backscatter scanners beam low-intensity X-rays to create a 2-D image.

Vincent said both scanners would have likely detected the foreign objects on Abdulmutallab's body.

The technology has been used in prisons and other military installations for years, but former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the Washington Post that it was time to renew calls for more widespread usage.

"This plot is an example of something we've known could exist in theory, and in order to be able to detect it, you've got to find some way of detecting things in parts of the body that aren't easy to get at," he said. "It's either pat-downs or imaging, or otherwise hoping that bad guys haven't figured it out, and I guess bad guys have figured it out."

Body Scanners Spot Threats Hidden Under Clothing

The imaging technology units range from approximately $130,000 to $170,000. The TSA purchased the 40-millimeter wave units currently in use from Santa Ana, Calif.'s L-3 Communications and the 150 new backscatter units from Torrance, Calif.-based Rapiscan Systems.

Even though the images can fuzz out parts of the body to protect a passenger's privacy, the technology is designed to spot metallic and non-metallic threats concealed under layers of clothing.

In a statement, a DHS spokesman said, "TSA is continuing to move forward with its current use and future deployments of imaging technology."

But the renewed interest in the scanners has also revived the critics, who say the scanners are a violation of privacy.

"I think the first question you have to ask is whether this actually works -- whether it works to protect our security," said Michael German, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. If not, he said, "This is an extreme loss of privacy without the security benefit."

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