Saturday, April 19, 2008

Virtual Strip Searches of Air Travelers

It took zillions of bucks and decades of research, but the U.S. Transportation Security Administration has finally achieved the dream of adolescent males everywhere: a scanner that that lets them view air travelers without their clothes.

Using millimeter wave radio frequency scanning technology, the TSA and others now use this device at some airports. Early tests suggest that 90% of travelers prefer this over the conventional Braille method of secondary screening, i.e. a pat-down search.

The devices currently cost about $US 150,000 -- considerably more than the X-ray goggles sold for years at novelty stores. The radio frequency energy projected by these scanners is said to use only 1/10,000th of the energy involved in a cell phone transmission. Unlike X-rays, this energy is non-ionizing.

The TSA says that to the preserve the privacy of air travelers, these images will only be viewed by a technician located in a remote booth and that the faces will be blurred. However, they don't mention whether these viewing stations will also come furnished with door locks and boxes of tissues.

In theory, the scanners will not be able to store or transmit any of the images they create. In practice, a mere cellphone camera is all it would take to bypass this barrier, so it probably won't be long before these images -- most likely those of celebrities -- start showing up on the Internet.

Will this technology ever be widely used by physicians? I doubt it, except perhaps in physical exams involving patients (or physicians) who are agoraphobic or pathologically shy.

As a parting thought on the matter, here are two short but silly videos on the topic of X-ray glasses:

And this one: X-ray glasses 2

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