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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Airport scanners will show genitals

By Dan Oakes

Domestic travellers leaving Melbourne Airport over the next six weeks will be asked to test new security scanners that can see through clothing.

- Body scanner trial - Voluntary testing - 'Possible to see genitals'

Transport security authorities are trialling the new "X-ray backscatter" body scanner , which has been described by critics as a "virtual strip search".

The scanner uses a low energy X-ray to reveal any objects, metal or otherwise, under a person's clothing, including body features. The testing will be entirely voluntary during the trial , which is being undertaken to test how the new scanners would affect the flow of passengers through the security point.

"It does see through clothing, but it's not a photographic image, it's a low-energy X-ray that reflects off the skin," said Cheryl Johnson, general manager of the Office of Transport Security.

"It will show the private parts of people, but what we've decided is that we're not going to blur those out, because it severely limits the detection capabilities. It is possible to see genitals and breasts while they're going through the machine, though."

However, Ms Johnson said there were a number of measures in place to tackle concerns about privacy.

"The faces are automatically blurred and ... it's only a chalk-style outline, it's not as invasive as some of the other equipment that we've got," she said.

"The security officer that's looking at it is located away from the screening lane, so there's no comparison of the person walking through and the image. The images are not saved, you literally walk through, the screener hits a button to say clear and the image goes."

The new scanners will be tested at Melbourne Airport alongside "next generation" baggage X-ray machines that can detect explosives in luggage.

Hand-held scanners that can detect explosives in liquids are also being tested.

Ms Johnson said these were a direct response to an alleged terrorist plot in 2006 to detonate liquid explosives on-board airliners.

Ms Johnson said all the scanners had tested well in laboratory conditions, but information was needed on how they would impact on passenger amenity.

The trial runs until the end of the November, and the results will be analysed before the technology is rolled out for real, possibly at domestic and international terminals.