Monday, December 11, 2023

Patent promises privacy

| November 30, 2010 8:00 PM

While in physical therapy Monday morning I overheard a conversation in the next room. They were discussing TSA's new body scanners. The machines have become a popular topic of late: how much is security worth a trade in liberties?

The scanners are a non-issue for me. As long as I don't have to go in a private room and be cavity searched by a stranger, I'd rather endure the "revealing" body scans than wonder what my fellow travelers might be carrying onto the aircraft. The new scanners don't concern me nearly as much as other trades, such as warrantless searches, detention without judicial review, and other deeper constitutional violations.

Still, the new machines and more intrusive pat-downs (the alternative for protesters) understandably bother people. When crowds get a picture of your birthday suit it can be disconcerting to say the least.

Travelers may have new hope. Rapiscan, the same company which makes the controversial scanners for airports (also used in some courthouses), recently obtained another patent for a new machine with what it describes as "minimum display of anatomical details."

The basic issue is that the x-ray technology used by the current scanners to "see" metals, plastics, and other potentially threatening materials can not distinguish between those and, well, body parts. All is revealed or nothing is.

The newest patent builds upon previous patents by Rapiscan and its competitors to respond to public concerns. Trying to build smarter scanners which afford privacy without sacrificing effective security has proved a challenge. The new patent claims "an x-ray screening system capable of rapidly screening people for detection of metals, low Z materials (plastics, ceramics and illicit drugs) and other contraband which might be concealed beneath the person's clothing or on the person's body."

In other words, it claims the new design can do the same job, but faster so it's harder to zoom in on the more embarrassing aspects. The patent claims this is possible with more sophisticated x-rays of higher and lower intensities emanating from a rotating disc, creating a fan pattern. The company also claims detection will improve.

If the machines come to fruition, it may be a while before sufficient capital outlay can bring them to airports. At least it offers hope, and not just for travelers; the technology may have medical applications as well.

I'll say this for protesters: They can spur invention.

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. E-mail

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