Over the next few days, the federal Transportation Safety Administration will start using four whole-body imaging machines at security checkpoints at Louis Armstrong International Airport.
While a top TSA official informed them about the federal government's plans to roll out the technology in New Orleans, Aviation Board members were greeted Thursday with a poster board display showing ghost-like, but revealing, black-and-white images of a man, his face blurred but his genitals clearly defined.
The poster was part of a presentation by Michele Gaudin, a New Orleans lawyer who contends the scans, btained in an open-government lawsuit by privacy advocates at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, are an infringement on travelers' constitutional right to privacy, do not work any better than traditional metal detectors and could be a dangerous source of radiation.
"We're still Americans here, right?" Gaudin asked the board rhetorically. "Why is every person who comes to the airport, then, going to be subject to this as if they are a terrorist?"
But TSA regional director Ray White, who oversees airport security in Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, assured the Aviation Board that steps are being taken to protect privacy and ensure images of bodies are not retained.
He said only one TSA employee will be able to see the images, and that person will be in a separate room where he or she will have no contact with any travelers. The employee will not be allowed to have a cell phone or other recording equipment. He added that the images will be erased immediately after the screener determines there is no threat, and only written data will be retained. The government agency has contracted with L3 Corp. and Rapidscan for the machines.
He also said independent testing by Johns Hopkins University found the level of radiation from the millimeter-wave screening, which takes about four seconds to capture an image, was "about 10,000 times less than what you'd have with a cell phone."
All travelers will have the option to decline a full-body image scan, he said. Those who opt out will be screened using traditional metal-detectors, White said, but they will also be subject to pat-downs and other secondary screenings that they should be able to avoid if they go through the body imaging.
White said the full-body image scans will become the primary scanning method. Signs and verbal notices will be used to alert passengers as they approach the checkpoint that they have the right to use the old method.
Gaudin said White's presentation suggested that the new technology is a time-saving technique rather than a safety measure. Given that wait times are extremely low in New Orleans, Gaudin asked the board to reject the installation of four machines this week.
"We're being asked to give up our liberty and not even for our safety, but for speed," Gaudin said.
But the new machines are a federal mandate and the airport board has no say in whether they are used here, White said. Opponents say that the airport shouldn't accept that.
"Whose body is my daughter's?" said Tom Kowitz. He and Gaudin are radio co-hosts known as Baldy and the Blonde on WGSO-AM. "Whose airport is this?"
Aviation Board Chairman Nolan Rollins said the board will "take a look at the matter and consider the board's responsibilities, not only as fiduciaries of the airport but for the citizens of Louisiana."
Still, Rollins said, "We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that this is a voluntary thing. It's not forced and it gives citizens a chance to choose."
Airport Director Iftikhar Ahmad said he invited White to come explain the change in technology to the board and wanted the public to have a chance to react, even though the airport has had no jurisdiction over screening since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, when the TSA was created.
The push to deploy 500 machines by the end of the year and 1,000 by the end of 2011 is TSA's response to demands from President Barack Obama to improve screening at airports in the wake of a near-tragedy last Christmas, when a would-be suicide bomber managed to carry explosives in his underwear onto a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
The bomb plot showed how the traditional metal detectors were unable to detect the plastic explosives hidden in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's clothing.
White said the new technology will prevent that from happening, but acknowledged controversy in the wake of complaints about similar images being retained by U.S. marshals at a Florida courthouse.
By filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the Electronic Privacy Information Center obtained copies of about 100 images of naked bodies, a sample of those that were retained by the U.S. Marshals Service after the scanning devices were deployed at courthouses.
The privacy advocates have also filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security to block the TSA's use of the technology. The Electronic Privacy Information Center has called for U.S. Senate hearings on the matter and says on its website that its actions have caused the TSA to implement new safeguards against the retention of its images of airline passengers.
David Hammer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3322.