“I DIDN’T REALLY expect her to touch my vagina through my pants,” said Kaya McLaren, an elementary schoolteacher from Cle Elum, Wash., who was patted down at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport last Saturday because the body scanner detected a tissue and a hair band in her pocket.
—The New York Times, November 18, 2010
The Transportation Safety Administration didn’t have to come out looking so bad. But it’s hard to imagine that now, months after the agency introduced new full-body scanners that permit operators a peek through the clothes of the people they’re screening. Yes, the faces are indistinguishable, but the private parts—not so much. And it’s a toss up whether getting felt up by a TSA employee is a lesser evil.
Curt Lew, whose Bellevue-based Emit Technologies makes security equipment—including a handheld device that sees through walls—says he and his team have built an alternative scanner. Passengers step into Emit’s phone-booth-size People Portal II and are displayed on a monitor as genderless wire-frame figures. Metallic and nonmetallic weapons, drugs, and explosives appear on the figures as red triangles—and travelers don’t even have to remove their shoes.
The People Portal isn’t new. Lew and his business partner—a fellow former University of Washington architecture student—journeyed to the tiny southeastern Washington town of Clarkston in the spring of 2002 to break bread, collaborate, and eventually partner with an inventor who was developing the technology.
The Emit scanner uses low-emission microwave frequencies that pass through the body. The x-ray devices known as “backscatters” currently employed by the TSA, on the other hand, use a higher energy spectrum. “That’s why their pictures are so graphic,” Lew says.
But the Port of Seattle, which manages Sea-Tac airport, doesn’t see the big whoop over TSA’s new methods. Around Thanksgiving—when the media seized onto the story as a juicy main course, and a YouTube clip of a San Diego airport passenger demanding the TSA keep its hands off his “junk” went viral—life at Sea-Tac remained uneventful, says airport spokesperson Perry Cooper. “The number of folks who opted out of the backscatter scans was less than one quarter of 1 percent. I would assume that most people are okay with it.”
Cooper also points to a recent study, coproduced by researchers at MIT, that compared the radiation generated by the backscatters to the amount found in everyday activities, such as drinking water or breathing air. His favorite: One year of sleeping with another person exposes you to two millirems of radiation—200 times more than a single pass through an airport scanner.
Yes, but the People Portal uses an even lower energy frequency, Lew says. “And we’re faster because we don’t rely on operators to determine what is seen. We let the software do it.”
So why aren’t you stepping into a People Portal before your flight instead of showing the TSA your birthday suit? Because it costs money to win a federal contract. Lew says Emit can’t afford the “lobbying firepower” required to land Congressional approval, pointing to a recent USA Today report. A company that reaped $39.7 million from the sale of backscatters to the feds last year “spent $4.3 million trying to influence Congress and federal agencies.”
He may have a point. How puny is Lew’s firepower? Asked about Emit Technologies, TSA spokesperson Dwayne Baird drew a blank, then filled the silence by defending his agency’s scanner purchases. “These are vendors whose products we’ve tested in real-life situations. We started piloting them in 2007.”
Years ago, Lew and his partners were in talks with one of those vendors, which wanted to collaborate with the Bellevue company. “Of course,” he says, “they stopped calling after they got accepted by the TSA.”