Full-Body Scanner Arrives at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport

At Chicago’s O’Hare, federal security agents are getting up close and personal: The airport’s first full-body scanner began screening passengers today, producing the revealing, nude-like images that have made the devices so controversial.

O’Hare International, the nation’s second-busiest airport, is the first of 11 slated to receive the imaging technology under a $25 million federal program paid for with economic stimulus funds. Some 20 other U.S. airports already operate the scanners, which are designed to prevent terrorist attacks like the one attempted on Christmas Day by a Nigerian man who concealed explosives in his underpants.

“It’s a very effective additional layer of security to get at the threat of improvised explosive devices on aircraft, one of 20 different layers that we have,” Lee Kair, the Transportation Security Administration’s assistant administrator for security operations, told the Chicago Tribune.

Among the next on the list to receive the scanners are airports ranging from Los Angeles International, to Port Columbus International in Ohio, to Florida’s Fort Lauderdale- International Airport. According to TSA spokeswoman Sarah Horowitz, the 11 airports were chosen based on their threat level for a terrorist attack. “The Transportation Security Administration deploys imaging technology based on risk airport readiness and operation suitability,” Horowitz told CNN last week.

The full-body scanners are designed to find hard-to-detect explosives, like the pentaerythritol tetranitrate used by the would-be Christmas jetliner bomber and other illegal materials that older technology can often miss.

In mere seconds, scanners can produce an X-ray-like sketch of travelers’ bodies that displays everything from concealed weapons to the contours of the body. And for some, that’s the problem.

“I feel violated knowing they can see under my clothes,” Rainie Jones, a passenger, told NBC News in Chicago. “I’m a very modest person.”

Critics say the scanners blatantly violate passengers’ privacy. The American Civil Liberties Union says the technology is “a striking and direct invasion of privacy” that is akin to a “virtual strip search.” Pope Benedict XVI has weighed in too. “It is essential never to lose sight of respect for the primacy of the person,” he said in February.

For now, passengers who feel uncomfortable with the scanners can choose to have a TSA agent pat them down. But after being scanned at O’Hare, the Chicago Tribune’s Jon Hilkevitch said he’d take his chances with the imaging technology.

“After closely observing privacy protections to ensure the anonymity of the image and the person who is screened — and given the alternative of being frisked by a TSA officer wearing latex gloves — I’ll go with the touch-less scan every time,” he wrote.

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