THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Lawsuit challenges airport full-body scanners

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By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / August 4, 2010

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A privacy advocacy group is suing the Department of Homeland Security to suspend the use of the controversial full-body scanners employed at airports across the country, including at every major checkpoint at Logan International Airport.

The machines, which use X-rays or radio frequency energy to detect weapons and explosives beneath passengers’ clothing, have been much criticized because of privacy concerns.

In the lawsuit, filed last month, the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., said the slightly blurred but accurate pictures of passengers’ naked bodies produced by the machines are the equivalent of a “digital strip search.’’

The suit says the program, run by the Transportation Security Administration, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, violates the Privacy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The program also violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the lawsuit says, referencing religious laws about modesty.

Court documents allege the scanners also violate the Fourth Amendment by having passengers undergo “a uniquely invasive search without any suspicion that particular individuals have engaged in wrongdoing.’’

The TSA declined to comment on the lawsuit, but spokesman Greg Soule said the agency is exploring “additional privacy protections through automated threat detection.’’

Currently, an image is created for every person who goes through the scanner. The agent with the passenger never sees his or her image, and the agent viewing the image never sees the passenger.

Travelers can opt to have a pat-down and a metal detector screening instead.

The TSA is working with technology companies to develop software that would show a generic paper-doll-like figure instead of an actual image of a passenger’s body — and transmit images only when a threat is detected.

The TSA plans to keep the current scanners in place until less invasive software is available.

This will not solve the privacy issues, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, because the images of travelers’ naked bodies are still being captured by the machine.

“We think the privacy safeguards are mostly fiction,’’ said Rotenberg, adding that a congressional investigation is underway to review the scanners.

According to the TSA, the scanners’ ability to store images is used for testing purposes only and is disabled before they are installed in airports.

“There is no way for someone in the airport environment to put the machine into the test mode,’’ Soule said.

Officials at Logan International lobbied for the airport to be the first to have the full-body scanners installed. The TSA aims to deploy as many as 450 machines this year — adding to the 50 that were already in place at airports around the country — following the attempted terrorist attack on a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day. And Logan is now pushing to be the first to implement the less invasive scanning software.

“When this technology is available, we want to be the first airport to put this in so we can take the privacy issues off the table,’’ said Edward Freni, director of aviation at Logan.

Freni said that no privacy concerns from Logan passengers had been brought to his attention. But one of the petitioners in the lawsuit is Bruce Schneier, a Minneapolis security technologist who said that while he was traveling through Logan Airport he was not told the full-body scan was optional. Nor did he see any signs indicating he could have a pat-down.

Ralph Nader’s Center for Study of Responsive Law has also weighed in on the full-body scanners, raising questions about privacy and safety.

And a group of University of California San Francisco scientists wrote to President Obama’s science adviser in April, stating that the dose of radiation from the X-ray scanners may be “dangerously high.’’

The scanner X-ray emits the same amount of radiation that a passenger receives in two minutes of flight, according to the TSA, but the scientists say this is misleading because the scanner X-rays are not distributed throughout the whole body, but are directed at just the skin and the underlying tissue.

There are also questions about the effectiveness of the scanners, which critics say may not be able to detect explosives hidden in body cavities.

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security announced plans to expand the full-body scanner program to more airports.

Currently, 157 full-body scanners are in use at 43 airports; by the end of the year nearly 500 are planned to be in place.

Next year, 500 more machines are scheduled to be installed.

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.