Full-body scanners, the Transportation Security Administration’s controversial new weapons in the fight against terrorism, will be installed at some Montana airports next year, airport managers said.
But the new technology is expected to come with a twist that similar machines in use around the country don’t currently have. Rather than showing actual photos of passengers’ bodies, the images projected on screens viewed by TSA personnel will resemble “stick figures.”
Gallatin Field airport director Brian Sprenger said the new scanners are expected to be installed locally next year. Managers at airports at Helena and Billings said the same thing.
New software is being tested that will turn the images of people passing through the scanners into “stick figures.” Currently, the images projected on screens for TSA personnel to view are essentially “naked pictures” of travelers.
“What we understand is that they are developing new technology that basically replaces what they see with more of a stick figure,” Sprenger said. “They still can tell where the alarm might be but they don’t show the anatomy the way the machines do at the moment.”
But the technology that will convert the images into “stick figures” has not yet been approved for use in the U.S., according to Tom Binford, director at Logan International Airport in Billings.
The scanners have caused an uproar as people have expressed outrage across the country in recent weeks. Federal officials have said the scanners were introduced after continued security threats at airports.
There are now about 300 scanners in use at 60 airports and TSA hopes to have 500 units installed by the end of the year, CBS News reported.
The scanners use low-dose radiation to produce graphic images of passengers’ bodies, essentially taking a naked picture as passengers pass through security checkpoints. People can opt out of the scan, but are then subjected to manual pat-down searches.
Ron Mercer, director of Helena Regional Airport, said the new technology should end much of the controversy over the new scanners by the time they are installed at his airport in spring 2011.
The Billings airport is scheduled to get the new scanners sometime next year, but a specific date has not been announced, Binford said.
Mercer said he thinks the current scanning technology could negatively impact the number of people who fly.
“...I would guess that there’s a larger number who don’t care for that than we anticipate and will not be flying,” Mercer said. “I think it would make a difference to some people. Some say they would do it to feel more secure, but at the same time there are those silent folks out there who will find another way and say ‘I’m not going to do it.’”
He said those who opt out would be patted down by security personnel, “and you don’t want that either.”
Binford said he has heard from customers who are concerned about the new security procedures. He tells them they need to contact TSA.
“I cannot control the TSA,” Binford said.
Mercer said the Helena airport, which will likely have 95,000 passengers this year, has no plans to protest the TSA’s mandate for the new scanners, which will be paid for by the federal government.
“You hate not to cooperate with the TSA because they are trying to make the system safe,” he said, adding that the software that makes people look like stick figures “will take away 90 percent of problem.”
Sprenger said airports have nothing to do with the new scanning technology, which is entirely the purview of TSA, but that no matter what is done to calm the protests, people will be upset.
“We’re kind of a bystander on that,” he said. “We have a number of people who are waiting on that technology because it’s less intrusive than the pat-downs. But there are some people as well who don’t like that technology.”
Sprenger added that mandate to provide enhanced security at airports has created difficulties for the TSA.
“You kind of have to sympathize with the TSA that they’re kind of behind a rock and a hard place, trying to find a way to do it with technology and without technology,” he said. “It’s a difficult situation.”
Interviews with the Helena and Billings airport managers were conducted by Michael Noyes and Phil Drake, news reporters for Montana Watchdog, an agency created and funded by the Bozeman-based Montana Policy Institute. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org, call (406) 442-4561 or visit montana.watchdog.org.