CLEVELAND - Beginning this week, new machines at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport will let security screeners see right through travelers' clothing - skivvies and all - in their search for threats.
The federal Transportation Security Administration announced yesterday that it has begun a two-month test of "whole body" scanning devices that will replace metal detectors on two of Hopkins' 12 security-checkpoint screening lanes.
The machines, which are about the size of a Porta-John, use radio waves in one version and weak X-rays in another to scan for hidden objects that the metal detectors don't spot: liquid, gel, or plastic explosives, for example.
"This raises the bar of the technological screening process and enhances safety for everybody," said Michael Young, the TSA's federal security director in Cleveland.
But the machines are aptly named: "whole body" imaging means just that: They reveal the most private of body parts. So, not surprisingly, they're exposing something else: controversy.
Critics ranging from civil-liberties and privacy activists to religious groups have blasted the process as a virtual strip search since the technology debuted in 2005 at an airport expo in Germany.
The European Union Parliament last year denounced whole-body imaging as a "serious impact on the fundamental rights of citizens." Stateside, the Privacy Coalition, a band of 40-plus organizations ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Rifle Association, wants whole-body imagers banned. The ACLU calls the process "an assault on the essential dignity of passengers" who face "the technological equivalent of [having to] parade naked through a ... room with a bag on their head."
Last month, the House of Representatives took up the matter when it passed a TSA authorization bill to which a rookie Republican from Utah tacked an amendment sharply limiting the agency's ability to use the technology. The measure awaits Senate consideration.
The TSA says it is working with device makers and protesters to balance privacy concerns with security needs. For starters, full-body scans are optional. Any passenger can decline to step through the peek-a-booth and choose to be frisked instead.
Also, the process is set up to disconnect the passenger being scanned from the person who actually examines the passenger's naked image - with the face electronically blurred - on a computer screen in a remote room. The TSA officers at the security checkpoint cannot see the on-screen image, and the TSA officer in the remote screening room cannot physically see the person being scanned.
Finally, the agency insists that it's virtually impossible to save or copy an image of anybody's naked body, or publish it on the Internet or elsewhere. The devices' programming prevents that, and TSA employees will be forbidden from bringing cameras, cell phones, or other image-recording devices into the viewing room.
Even with those safeguards, the government is sensitive to the criticism, said TSA Public Affairs Director Andrea Munzer McCauley.
"We're piloting the technology, but we're also piloting the public's acceptance of it," she said.
Hopkins becomes the 21st airport in the nation to have the technology, which should be operational by Sunday. The machines will replace metal detectors in two of the airport's dozen security-screening lanes as "primary" screening devices. Each passenger in a security line will be assigned to the next open lane, meaning they'll effectively be sent at random to either a full-body imager or an X-ray machine. (At 15 other airports, they're "secondary" screeners: Only passengers who set off metal detectors go through the full-body scanners, unless they opt for a pat-down.)
When, or whether, Hopkins will get permanent replacements after the 60-day trial is unclear, TSA spokesmen said.