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TSA screenings at airports too invasive? 'Opt Out' protest planned.

Internet grass-roots groups urge passengers to 'Opt Out' of the digital whole-body imaging scan on the day before Thanksgiving. The alternative to these TSA screenings is an 'enhanced' pat-down.

By Elizabeth FullerCorrespondent / November 16, 2010

A sign explaining millimeter wave imaging technology is displayed at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Sept. 22. Security officials using the new, high-tech body scanner say the full-image technology is a critical tool to help head off potential threats, but some passengers view it as an invasion of their privacy.

Jerry Holt / The Star Tribune / AP / File

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The day before Thanksgiving is traditionally one of the busiest travel days of the year. This year could see even more delays at airports because of spreading protests over new security-screening technology.

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Several grass-roots movements, including National Opt-Out Day, have arisen in the past week, inviting people to opt out of the relatively speedy but controversial digital scan in favor of the slower “enhanced" pat-down, the only alternative offered by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

"People are getting groped in America’s airports,” says Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. The apparent goal of the protests is to show that both procedures – the digital scans and the pat-downs – are too invasive, he adds.

Objections to the digital scanners – known as advanced imaging technology, or AIT scanners – have been growing for months. The equipment uses X-ray technology or millimeter-scale waves to generate an image of the body’s outer several centimeters, effectively allowing TSA employees to look under passengers' clothes without ever touching them. The generated images are relatively anonymous, but they leave little to the imagination.

When the machines were introduced at London’s Heathrow Airport earlier this year, the first sexual harassment suit resulted within two months, reported the BBC. A young woman spoke to the police after the guard commented on her breasts after seeing her scan. The angry and embarrassed woman said she felt traumatized by the incident.

But the machines enhance security in the post-9/11 world, administration officials say, and procedures are in place to avoid instances such as the Heathrow one.

RELATED: Why Europe is balking at the invasion of body scanners

"AIT machines are safe, efficient, and protect passenger privacy," wrote Janet Napolitano, head of the Department of Homeland Security, in a Nov. 15 op-ed in USA Today. "And the weapons and other dangerous and prohibited items we've found during AIT screenings have illustrated their security value time and again. Rigorous privacy safeguards are also in place to protect the traveling public.... The officer assisting the passenger never sees the image, and the officer viewing the image never interacts with the passenger."

Secretary Napolitano's next sentence, however, touched off an Internet furor: "The imaging technology that we use cannot store, export, print, or transmit images."

That statement is contradicted by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a Washington privacy group, which alleges that it has evidence that the machines can indeed store the images. One device used in a Florida courtroom had more than 35,000 images stored in its memory, the US Marshals Service acknowledged in a response to a Freedom of Information Act request from EPIC. While TSA employees are instructed not to use the machines to store images, EPIC obtained copies of TSA's purchase orders specifying that the machines be able to save and export image data when in "Test Mode."

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