WASHINGTON — Last night on Capitol Hill, Frankie Guerrero took a bag of white powder, dropped it in his drawers, and stepped into a metal machine resembling a photo booth.
The machine generated an image that revealed a ghostly outline of a human body with a black spot over the groin area. Guerrero, vice president of operations for Florida-based Brijot Imaging Systems, Inc., was showcasing a new full-body scanner to lawmakers and homeland security officials in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building.
Brijot, like many other homeland security contractors, is trying get its piece of a lucrative market boosted by 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempt to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear on board an airliner on Christmas Day.
Since the botched attack, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced it would invest heavily in advanced imaging technology to screen air passengers for similar threats metal detectors don't find. The department's fiscal year 2011 budget request asks for approximately $215 million to purchase 500 full body scanners. Just today, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that the department deployed full body scanners at 11 additional domestic airports.
Brijot hopes its new imaging system, known as SafeScreen, will detect threats while alleviating fears of full-body scanners among the traveling public. Full-body scanners at airports have taken numerous hits from critics. Some charge that they violate passengers' privacy and upset religious sensibilities. Others fear that at least one form of the technology jeopardizes health through X-ray exposure.
Bob Daly, chief technology officer for Brijot, however, says its full-body scanner nullifies these concerns while providing better detection capabilities. The difference between Brijot's full-body scanner and its competitors' rests in the underlying technology. Brijot's system relies on passive millimeter wave technology, which detects differences in temperature between a person being screened and the objects he carries. The image generated by the machine looks like a gray and white thermal image set against a black backdrop, which makes it difficult to determine even the sex of the person being screened.
"If a powder/liquid is in a plastic bag and taped to your body in a way that it follows your natural contours, it can be difficult for backscatter and active millimeter wave technologies to identify that anything is amiss," Daly said. "This is because those technologies are looking at the reflection of energy off of the body, seeing if there are any shapes on your body that do not belong."
This differs from the two other TSA-approved technologies—active millimeter wave and backscatter technologies.
Active millimeter wave technology bombards a passenger with radio frequency energy. The energy reflected off the body and other objects generates a three-dimensional image of the passenger's body and anything else carried on his person. The downside of this technology is that the resulting image is anatomically detailed. Currently, the TSA assuages privacy concerns by making sure the person that views the image is in another location and therefore never sees the physical passenger. The technology also blurs the face of the person screened as well.
Backscatter technologies are friendlier to privacy concerns because the image generated looks like a chalk outline of a person. Backscatter technology, however, evokes another concern from critics: radiation. It uses weak X-rays to generate a two-sided image of a passenger and anything else on that person's body.
Doctors have vouched for the safety of backscatter machines. Dr. James Thrall, chair of the American College of Radiology and chair of radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, told ABCNews.com that a passenger "would have to take hundreds and hundreds of trips requiring screening to even reach what would be considered a negligible dose." Nevertheless, health concerns persist.
These privacy and safety fears should help Brijot market its SafeScan system, which the company says should be TSA approved by summer. An incident this week shows why. Just two days ago, two Muslim women bound for Pakistan refused to a full-body scan at Manchester Airport in the United Kingdom because of religious and medical reasons. The Times (of London) reports the full-body scanners they would have entered were manufactured by Rapiscan, which uses backscatter technology.
Last month the Fiqh Council of North America, which interprets Islamic law for residents of the continent, declared full body scanners unislamic. In a statement on its Web site, the council declared it "emphasizes that a general and public use of such scanners is against the teachings of Islam, natural law and all religions and cultures that stand for decency and modesty."
Brijot's hoping its system will be approved by Muslims and other communities worried about full body scanners. Brijot spokeswoman Rachel Wanner says a version of passive millimeter wave technology currently protects Saudi Arabia's royal palaces. The company, she says, is also actively reaching out to Muslim and secular civil liberties organizations, including the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
One more advantage SafeScreen would have over its competitors is its size. The machine takes up 62 percent of the footprint size that TSA currently requires, saving valuable real estate inside airports, says Wanner.
While SafeScreen was specifically designed to meet TSA specifications, Brijot has similar units deployed across the United Kingdom and the United States and has ongoing trials in Hong Kong and Thailand.
♦ For a breakdown on TSA-approved full body scanners already in circulation, see "FAQs: Whole Body Imaging."