Airports in California could soon see the second generation of full-body scanners used to detect nonmetallic weapons and improvised explosive devices after earlier machines raised privacy and health concerns.
Following a solicitation process that began in February, the Transportation Security Administration last week selected two contractors as part of a $245 million program for body scanners that first must be tested at a Transportation Security Administration laboratory and systems integration facility before being operationally tested at airports.
TSA spokesman David Castelveter said a list of those airports was not yet available, but for the next generation of scanners, the agency was looking for “enhanced detection capabilities, faster passenger throughput and a smaller footprint.” All newly purchased machines will rely on a generic outline of the traveler rather than a more revealing image of the person.
He said the agency did not yet know how much each of the two companies might receive. They are American Science and Engineering Inc. in Massachusetts and L-3 Communications Corp. based in New York.
Critics initially complained that machines now in airports across the country compromised the privacy of travelers because they enabled screeners to see underneath clothing. Transportation security officials sought to ease concerns by placing the viewer in a room apart from the airport checkpoint.
By June, the legacy machines were installed at airports in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento. Nationwide, there are about 700 machines deployed at more than 180 airports with two types of scanners utilized. One projects an X-ray beam over the body, and the other relies on electromagnetic waves.
Travelers have at times opted out of the scanners for a variety of reasons. Instead, they requested equally controversial pat-downs that were then labeled by some as too intimate.
Texas even considered a bill last year that would have prohibited pat downs that involved touching “the anus, sexual organ, buttocks or breast of another person.” But the Lone Star State backed off when the federal government suggested flights into Texas may have to cease.
Some skeptics asked for an alternative because of health concerns. Federal officials have long-maintained that radiation doses emitted by X-ray scanners are too small to pose any risks. But ProPublica reported in November that radiation safety experts had argued as early as 1998 against using X-rays in security technology. They contended that X-rays should be used only when there is a medical benefit.
“Research suggests that anywhere from six to 100 U.S. airline passengers each year could get cancer from the machines,” ProPublica wrote. “Still, the TSA has repeatedly defined the scanners as ‘safe,’ glossing over the accepted scientific view that even low doses of ionizing radiation – the kind beamed directly at the body by the X-ray scanners – increase the risk of cancer.”
Castelveter of the TSA responded that tests have shown the radiation doses are well below limits specified by the American National Standards Institute. He also said the radiation doses have been independently evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and academic experts.
“The radiation doses emitted by the scans are extremely small and deliver an amount of radiation equivalent to three to five minutes of radiation received through normal daily living,” he said.
American Science and Engineering manufactures and sells numerous types of security screening technologies for government clients around the world. The company reported more than $200 million in revenues for the 2012 fiscal year, according to company figures.
The most recent and publicly available contracting data shows that the firm has raked in some $992 million worth of contracts since 2000 from across the federal government for everything from hazard detection devices to federally sponsored research into X-ray and inspection technologies.
The Center for Investigative Reporting, parent organization of California Watch, found in 2010 that the company was profiting from another new type of scanner that can reveal hidden items inside passing vehicles. By that time the company had inked contracts with numerous agencies in Washington for mobile X-ray machines worth at least $188 million since 2004. The total included expenses for services such as technical training and maintenance agreements.
A failed attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, nicknamed the “underwear bomber,” to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight in 2009 sped up the government’s investment in whole-body imagers. Another company benefiting from the demand for body scanners is Hawthorne, Calif.-based OSI Systems, which posted a global purchase backlog of $1 billion for its products earlier this year, the highest in the company’s history.
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This story was produced by California Watch, a part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.californiawatch.org.