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Airport security: two alternatives to full-body scanners

Critics say that full-body scanners are costly, invasive, and will slow airport security further. The Puffer and the Guardian are alternatives, though not yet fully developed.

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A Transportation Security Administration officer views a full-body scan during a demonstration of passenger screening technology on Wednesday at the TSA Systems Integration Facility in Arlington, Va.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

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Amid privacy concerns sparked by the move to triple the number of full-body scanners in US airports, some groups are pushing for alternative technologies they say could provide the same, or better, level of screening without the privacy issues.

The Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) move to expand the number of full body scanners in US airports by early 2010 comes in the wake of the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack. The bomber hid the explosives in his underwear, which would have been caught only by a full-body pat down or in a full-body scanner that can see through clothing.

But the use of full body scanners is controversial because it snaps something close to a naked image.

On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on its website advocated the use of the “Puffer,” a machine first developed by General Electric that can detect chemical particles a person may have on their body and analyze whether or not they are harmful. The machine works by blowing puffs of chemically-sensitive air around the individual.

Another potential alternative is the “Guardian,” an “explosive trace-detection portal machine” similar to the Puffer but more advanced. The sensors in the Guardian can detect chemical molecules more quickly and in hard-to-detect areas such as the inside of shoes.

Chris McBee, director of sales and marketing for Syagen Technology, says his company spent $3 million to develop prototypes of The Guardian. TSA contributed $1.5 million but did not continue the program. That’s unfortunate, Mr. McBee says.

“We have a better mousetrap. There are solutions out there that are viable alternatives to whole body imaging and that have superior detection characteristics,” he says.

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