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Published: Wednesday, 6/15/2005

Forget 'see-through' security

IN THE name of anti-terrorist security, travelers have put up with a lot, but we're willing to bet they won't go along with the latest proposal: body scanners that allow airport screeners to see through a passenger's clothing.

Yes, the Transportation Safety Administration is preparing a pilot program in selected airports to test such devices, which use low-dose X-rays to detect hidden weapons or explosive devices.

At the same time, the technology would give security personnel stationed at computer monitors a disturbingly detailed look at passengers' nude bodies.

To say that such high-tech strip searches would be extremely embarrassing, uncomfortable, or even unbearable for many travelers would be a gross understatement, so we'll just pass on this advice to the TSA:

Forget about it. Find another technology that will detect guns, knives, and bombs, but don't sanction what would be, in effect, free peep shows for the screeners and an outrageous invasion of passengers' privacy.

In addition, there's a health issue. Medical experts say the "backscatter" technology employed by the scanners would result in radiation exposure of a thousand times less than a routine chest X-ray. But some experts caution that not enough is known about the effect of repeated scans on the genetics of frequent travelers who might be sensitive to even low dosages.

Use of the so-called "BodySearch" machines is the brainstorm-in-waiting of TSA, which has been roundly criticized for failing to do its job. A government report in April said that airport security isn't any better now than before the 9/11 terrorist attacks nearly four years ago.

Despite extensive searches and other safety measures that have clogged airports, undercover agents have been able to smuggle various weapons onto passenger aircraft. Screeners, meanwhile, annoy travelers by confiscating their nail clippers.

The message that travelers will not tolerate security agents peering under their clothes must be passed on up to Michael Cherthoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which includes TSA.

Mr. Cherthoff told a Senate subcommittee in April that he favors the "BodySearch" technology and he made it known that he wants it installed in airports without an "endless debate" or more "hand-wringing" over the privacy issue.

Such an attitude shows how disconnected Mr. Cherthoff must be from the concerns of ordinary travelers, who regularly are forced to endure cattle-car treatment from the nation's airlines. Security hassles have become just one more irritation.

While we realize that airlines and their passengers must be protected from the possibility of terrorism, agencies like TSA must not resort to voyeurism in the name of safety.

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