Jacksonville airport increases security as privacy advocates bemoan

By James Cannon

In the coming weeks Jacksonville International Airport passengers can expect increased security measures as two additional body-imaging scanners go online.

Officials with the airport and the Transportation Security Administration said these additional machines will increase security and in some cases speed up passenger wait time. But others are more worried about civil liberties and privacy concerns as this technology shows a fairly detailed image of the body.

One Millimeter Wave Advanced Image Technology scanner has been in use at JIA since November 2008.

Passengers are selected at random to undergo the voluntary scans. If someone opts out, more old-fashioned methods such as wanding and pat-downs could be utilized to screen the passenger, said Sari Koshetz, a spokeswoman with the Transportation Security Administration.

But she said less than 2 percent of people selected choose to opt out of the new full-body imaging scanners.

Currently there are 142 units installed at 41 airports nationwide, Koshetz said Wednesday. She said the Transportation Security Administration plans to have about 1,000 units operational by the end of next year, most of which will be paid for by stimulus money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Once a person has been identified as a candidate for imaging screening, the passenger will approach the unit the same as if going through more traditional metal detectors. Once the person’s shoes, belt and other objects are removed, the passenger will extend his or her arms outward as a revolving camera snaps detailed pictures — showing objects, shapes and anatomical characteristics — to identify hidden objects.

The scanning officer and the officer watching the images in the locked monitoring room never see both the passenger and the image, Koshetz said. She also said all images are required to be deleted after being checked and that no images are saved, printed or electronically transmitted to anyone.

Even though facial features are blurred and other methods of discretion are used, some civil liberties groups call the technology a breach of privacy.

“This is a virtual strip search,” said Brandon Hensler, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

Hensler said these machines have not been proven anymore effective in preventing harmful devices from boarding planes than traditional methods. He also raised the issue of children undergoing one of these intrusive scans.

Jacksonville resident Donna Williams agreed with Hensler’s criticism after she underwent a full-body scan at JIA Wednesday.

“This was far more invasive than just going through a metal detector,” Williams said.

But other passengers like Arnold Kieckhafer, heading back home to Germany, said the scans are a sign of the times and he had no personal privacy issues after being scanned Wednesday.

Jacksonville Aviation Authority spokesman Michael Stewart said the new technology will decrease the amount of time passengers wait to be screened at security checkpoints. He said on average about 4,000 passengers are screened at JIA every business day and even a five-second decrease in screen time per person would amount to a noticeable decrease in wait times.

“We are always fighting to balance speed and safety,” Stewart said. “But it’s staggering the amount of money we spend on keeping less than 1/100th of passengers off airplanes.”

Hensler echoed similar sentiments about the cost of several hundred machines that cost taxpayers $130,000 to $170,000 each.

“The government throws money at problems without effectively researching its options,” Hensler said. “There is a problem sure, but then the government throws money at a problem in a knee-jerk reaction to make people happy. But it doesn’t actually fix the problem.”

james.cannon@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4207


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