The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Feb. 23 unveiled a test of backscatter screening technology at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (PHX). This new technology can detect weapons, explosives and other metallic and non-metallic threat items concealed under layers of clothing – without physical contact.
Passenger concerns that – like Superman’s X-ray vision – the technology would reveal more than just weapons and explosives are unfounded, according the agency, which has applied multiple protections for passengers’ privacy.
“Privacy and security are not mutually exclusive, and backscatter has potential to be a valuable tool in our layered security approach,” TSA Administrator Kip Hawley said. “There will be opportunity for continued public dialogue as we see how this technology works in the airport setting.”
Billerica, Mass.-based American Science and Engineering Inc. (AS&E) developed the SmartCheck personnel screening system being tested at Sky Harbor Airport. AS&E’s patented Z Backscatter X-ray technology displays both organic and inorganic materials, revealing objects such as guns and knives, explosives, composite weapons and other hidden threats and contraband. The software provides a sketch outline of the passenger with information for the security operator to identify the nature and location of threats. The system creates only the privacy-enhanced image and does not reveal facial features.
Backscatter will be used in secondary screening as an alternative to a pat-down and is voluntary, said Joe Reiss, vice president of marketing at AS&E, who was present on the first day the tehcnology was introduced.
“There weren’t too many surprises,” Reiss said. “The overall reaction from passengers was very good.”
TSA plans to evaluate operational issues, including throughput, privacy considerations, training, safety of use and perceptions by the traveling public, and Reiss seems confident the technology and its ease-of-use will pass muster.
“We heard comments about the effort by TSA to make the checkpoint process ‘more friendly,’” he said, adding that some passengers who have experienced a pat-down security check told him they thought the Z Portal experience was less invasive, more comfortable and saved time.
Part of the challenge in testing security technology in the field is navigating through real-world logistical issues, which, by nature, vary broadly. For backscatter, TSA’s team in Phoenix has worked with the airport to establish a separate location for the security officer who will view the images so the officer never sees the passenger.
Passengers volunteering to participate in the operational test will be asked to stand for two separate scans, one facing the system and one facing away. A Transportation Security officer will guide the passenger through the process, and each scan will take less than 10 seconds. The entire screening process will take less than 1 minute.
TSA’s privacy-filtered image looks like a chalk outline of the person’s body. It shows any concealed items, including weapons, explosives and other metallic and non-metallic threat items. The officer attending the passenger will not view the image, and as an additional measure, the officer viewing the image will be remotely located and unable to associate the image with the passenger being screened. Once viewed remotely, the image cannot be stored, transmitted or printed.
To ensure this additional layer of privacy, TSA constructed an enclosed office in the vicinity of the checkpoint so operational testing of the equipment can begin. Longer-term, TSA is pulling cable and fiber to establish a remote image-viewing location in an adjacent terminal.
How it Works
Z Backscatter works by detecting and outlining “low-Z” materials (items that contain low atomic-number elements such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen). Low-Z materials include plastic and liquid explosives, plastic weapons and drugs. SmartCheck also recognizes the lack of scattering that occurs when “high-Z” materials are placed against the body. These “high-Z” materials – such as metal weapons and bomb-detonating wires – also are outlined on the person being scanned. Thus, the system is able to display all organic and metallic threats and contraband anywhere on a passenger’s body.
“TSA is implementing a screening protocol that delivers maximum threat detection while maintaining the privacy of the traveling public,” said Robert Postle, AS&E’s vice president of worldwide marketing and sales. “The voluntary screening process is safe, non-intrusive, easy and effective. We are very proud to assist TSA in their critical mission to safeguard air travel.”
Since the SmartCheck system uses Z Backscatter X-ray technology, it is safe for both operators and scanned passenters, with the radiation dose from a single scan equivalent to the radiation received from 2 minutes of airplane flight at altitude, or less than 10 microrem (0.1 microsieverts) per scan. SmartCheck meets the manufacturer’s requirements of the American National Standards Institute standard N43.17, which is the standard that the Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH) references for systems such as SmartCheck.
TSA plans to expand the backscatter pilot later this year to JFK and LAX, according to TSA spokeswoman Amy Kudwa.
At press time, which was 4 days after the pilot program was initiated, Kudwa said it was too early to talk about how the test was proceeding. The process will be reviewed after several months of testing, she said.