Senators look to Amsterdam for airport technology

Three Republican senators say computer-based system alleviates privacy worries

 Three Republican senators want the Homeland Security Department to consider using at U.S. airports the computer technology used in Amsterdam’s Schiphol International Airport to screen passengers for explosives.

Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Jon Kyl (Ariz.), and Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) said in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that the technology at Schiphol "appears to offer a solution to the significant privacy concerns that have been raised about DHS’ deployment of whole body imaging machines in the United States." The senators sent the letter April 12 after returning from a trip to the Netherlands. Collins is the ranking GOP member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmenal Affairs Committee.

The Dutch are using computer-based auto-detection technology to identify potentially threatening objects concealed on a person, the senators said. The technology displays boxes on a featureless human body outline to show areas that may need more inspection. The Netherlands put the technology in place after the attempt to blow up an airplane en route to Detroit from Amsterdam last Christmas Day.

Since the failed attack, the Obama administration has moved to have DHS’ Transportation Security Administration greatly increase the number of whole body imaging machines that can detect non-metallic explosives at airports nationwide. TSA plans to deploy 450 imaging technology units this year, and the administration requested funding for 500 more in fiscal 2011.

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TSA says it has strict privacy protections by making the images anonymous, ensuring they can’t be stored, transmitted or printed, and that they’re deleted immediately after being viewed. Images are viewed by officials in separate rooms, and passengers can opt out of the machines and instead receive a physical pat down.

However, some privacy advocates have argued against widespread use of the technology. The American Civil Liberties Union has said the technology involves a “striking and direct invasion of privacy.”

The senators said the auto-detection technology used in Amsterdam avoids the need for a screener to review a detailed image of a passenger in a separate viewing room and appears to improve the speed of the screening process.

“The screening machines used by Schiphol incorporate auto-detection technology that addresses many of the privacy concerns raised by the scanners DHS is currently testing, while also appearing to provide a highly effective scan,” the senators wrote. “We would appreciate the department providing our staff with an update on the department’s efforts to acquire and deploy this auto-detection technology, which appears to be superior to the whole body screening technology that is now being installed at U.S. airports.”

A TSA spokesperson said the agency has looked into the technology and will continue to do so.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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