Phoenix airport to test body-scan machines

Passengers at the Phoenix airport will start getting searched today with the help of a technology that creates revealing images of people's bodies to find hidden weapons.

Travelers at the city's Sky Harbor International Airport will receive body scans from a machine the Transportation Security Administration is testing to see if it can be used throughout the USA. The millimeter-wave machine uses similar technology to a controversial X-ray scanner, called backscatter, that the TSA delayed for several years because of privacy concerns.

The new machine, which resembles a large phone booth, bounces harmless radio waves off travelers as they stand inside for several seconds with their arms raised. It produces black-and-white computer images that clearly show the outlines of people's undergarments.

Like its backscatter predecessor, the new machine raises privacy concerns. American Civil Liberties Union privacy expert Barry Steinhardt said the test could pave the way for the machines to be used in arenas and schools. "It's conditioning Americans to the use of these invasive technologies," he said.

The machine being tested in Phoenix blurs passengers' faces completely and instantly deletes the images. Screeners view the images from a remote room where cellphones are barred to ensure photos aren't taken.

The scanning process takes about a minute and will be used in Phoenix only on passengers pulled aside for extra screening at one airport checkpoint. Those passengers will choose between being scanned by the machine, which uses extremely high-frequency millimeter waves, or being patted down by a screener. "It avoids a pat-down, which a lot of people find distasteful," TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe said.

The TSA test will determine how well the ProVision machine, made by government contractor L-3 Communications, finds weapons and whether it can operate quickly enough to replace metal detectors at checkpoints. Similar machines are used at courthouse entrances in Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, and at airports in Amsterdam, Madrid and Moscow.

The TSA bought eight ProVisions for $1.7 million and will test them at Los Angeles and New York's Kennedy airports shortly.

A backscatter machine that was modified to produce cartoonish images of passengers has been tested in Phoenix since February. Passengers have overwhelmingly chosen to be scanned by the low-radiation X-ray machine instead of being patted down.