Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) had had enough. Walking through the L-3 ProVision active millimeter wave machine at Nashville International Airport on January 23, Paul set off a phantom alarm. When the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screener approached Paul to pat him down, the senator insisted he be screened again rather than submit to a pat-down. TSA screeners denied that request and detained the libertarian-minded senator after he continued to refuse the pat-down. The TSA eventually allowed Paul to walk again through the scanner, which did not register an alarm that time. By then, however, he had missed his flight. He caught another flight to Washington, D.C., but the incident didn’t end there. The next day, Paul rebuked the TSA in an op-ed: “Every time we travel, we are expected to surrender our Fourth Amendment rights, yet willingly giving up our rights does not make us any safer. It is infuriating that this agency feels entitled to revoke our civil liberties while doing little to keep us safe.”
This wasn’t the only recent bad press for the advanced imaging technology (AIT) industry, and privacy isn’t the only concern. While Paul’s encounter was with an active millimeter wave machine, the other technology—backscatter—has sparked health concerns. Backscatter uses x-rays and has provoked fears of cancer, despite assurances from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its Inspector General that the scanners are safe. In December, a Harris Interactive poll conducted for ProPublica found that 46 percent of respondents were against backscatter machines. While the U.S. Congress has not limited the use of this technology, the European Union banned it in November 2011.
The industry is striving to address these concerns without compromising security in the face of clear threats like the May plot by an al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen to use a bomb to bring down a U.S. bound plane. Here’s a look at where things stand, what is achievable in the near term, and the challenges that remain.