Body scanners touted as ‘comfortable alternative’ to physical pat down

Canadian airports will begin using full body scanners that see through clothing as an option for passengers selected for secondary screening.

Minister of State Rob Merrifield and Transport Minister John Baird announced the new screening measures to comply with new directives issued by the U.S. for all inbound flights. Canada has bought 44 ProVision Whole Body Imager machines from New York-based L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. Each unit costs $250,000 for parts and associated training, for a total of $11 million.

The new security measures are a response to the attempted Christmas Day bombing. Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit was the target. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is accused of trying to ignite a bomb, and has claimed training from al-Qaeda based in Yemen.

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Behind a podium labeled with a “Protecting Canadians” slogan, Baird said the new scanners were needed to ensure continued flights from Canada to the U.S.

“We were facing a reality that Canadians could not take direct flights to the U.S.,” he said. “We know the lines have been long, but the necessary steps must be taken to protect everyone travelling.”

The body scanners were tested in a pilot project from June 18, 2008 to January 18, 2009 at Kelowna International Airport. The Federal Privacy Commissioner has also conducted a review of what the machines will reveal and other procedures put in place to protect travelers’ privacy.

Millimeter wave scan images don’t show naked bodies, standing arms extended over head. The images are black and white and resemble scanned images of baggage passing through conveyer-belt scanning systems.

It could be a comfortable alternative to a physical pat-down for many, says Jenelle Turpin, airport communications coordinator at Kelowna International.

“If you’re trying to look at the bits and pieces, you really have to look at it,” she says. “It’s more like a metallic, robotic outline.”

L-3 Communications describes the product on its Web site as safe and producing less radiation exposure than a cell phone, or two minutes of sitting on an airplane. There are 200 of the scanners deployed around the world, including 40 systems in 19 American airports.

The machines are vertical cylinders with mostly transparent walls. A separate arm glides down to complete the scan of an individual standing in the cylinder with arms raised. The scan could take between eight and 15 seconds to complete.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) also plans to rollout hundreds of more such scanners at its airports. The scanners will also be put to use in Nigeria, The Netherlands, and Britain.

Privacy will be maintained by protecting a traveler’s identity, Merrifield says. The security official looking at the image will be in a separate room looking a Windows-based PC console. They will not see the person being scanned, and will radio to the security official with the traveler if the scan reveals any objects.

“The image will be automatically deleted immediately after the viewing,” he continues. “The image will not be stored, printed or transmitted.”

Nor will the security official monitoring the images be allowed to bring into the room any sort of device that could capture the images, says Assistant Privacy Commissioner of Canada Chantal Bernier.

The Commissioner’s office received a Privacy Impact Assessment from L-3 Communications in summer of 2009 and issued recommendations in October. The case has been made that the extra precautions are necessary because the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) feels there is a risk of non-metallic explosives being smuggled onto a plane.

But Canada won’t use extra privacy filters put in place by some other jurisdictions using the scanners. Software can be used to render a more cartoon-like image of a person and indicate objects, or blur the face and private regions.

“There will not be blurring,” Bernier says. “Blurring will defeat the purpose.”

Millimeter wave scanners produce a 3D image of a person’s body by sending out radio waves and measuring the energy reflected back. It’s an alternative to backscatter scanners that produce 2D images with low-level X-rays.

Passenger participation in the Kelowna pilot was completely voluntary, Turpin says. Those who participated also filled out a survey from Vancouver-based Intervistas Consulting Inc., which reported to CATSA about the test phase.

CATSA wouldn’t discuss the study results.

Nor would Intervistas, but Solomon Wong, senior vice-president, was able to talk, more generally, about the machines.

Studies done in the U.S., he says, show high levels of customer satisfaction with the scanners. They are often preferred to a physical search.  

For airport screeners, it means increased accuracy because physical pat-downs can’t include private areas such as the groin. The Christmas Day bomber had reportedly hidden explosives in his underwear.

“There were explosives in his groin area,” Wong says. “The key thing is the ability to detect through clothing.”

Merrifield suggested a full body scanner could have stopped the would-be bomber before he boarded the plane.

“A pat down on Dec. 25 probably would not have picked that up,” the minister says. “What we’re hearing from Amsterdam is that this machine would have.”

But the wave scan “technology is still maturing overall in terms of liquid detection,” Wong says. Liquid explosives have been used in past al-Qaeda plots to bring down planes.

A mandatory full body scan could be performed in some cases, Baird says.

“If you show up with a T-shirt that says ‘Suicide Bomber’… it could be that a physical pat down isn’t enough,” he says. “Those cases will be few and far between.”

Nine Canadian airports will install the scanners over the next couple of months, including airports in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Halifax.

Eleven will be in place across the country by next week, Merrifield says.

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