Calls for Full-Body Screening Devices Grow After Terror Attempt

(Bloomberg)    A suspected terrorist’s attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner may override privacy concerns and intensify a push for full-body scanning equipment at airports.

U.S. officials charged a 23-year-old Nigerian man with trying to blow up Northwest Flight 253 as it prepared to land in Detroit on Christmas Day. President Barack Obama said yesterday he ordered a thorough review of the episode and called for new scrutiny of screening policies and technologies.

Metal detectors currently used to screen passengers wouldn’t have found the explosive allegedly carried aboard by the suspect, said former Federal Aviation Administration security chief Billie Vincent. Only more sophisticated devices such as low-level X-rays and millimeter-wave technology would work, Vincent said.

Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, called for more widespread use of the full-body scanners after the aborted attack. “We were very lucky this time but we may not be so lucky next time, which is why our defenses must be strengthened,” Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement yesterday.

The committee said it would hold a hearing next month on airline security and how the alleged terrorist got onto the plane.

Advanced Equipment

Companies such as OSI Systems Inc., Smiths Group PlcSafran SA and L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. may benefit from any requirement that airports get more security equipment. London-based Smiths is the world’s biggest maker of airport scanners. Safran, based in Paris, is the world leader in biometric technologies, such as fingerprint scanners. New York- based L-3 also makes scanners for airport use.

L-3 has “developed a more sophisticated system that could prevent smuggling of almost anything on the body,” said Howard Rubel, an analyst at Jefferies & Co., who has a “hold” rating on the stock. “Speed and privacy issues have slowed its introduction.”

Jennifer Barton, a spokeswoman for New York-based L-3, didn’t respond to a phone call seeking comment.

L-3 rose $1.17, or 1.4 percent, to $86.80 in New York Stock Exchange composite trading yesterday. That was the highest closing price since October 2008. OSI jumped $2.45, or 11 percent, to $24.47 in Nasdaq Stock Markettrading. The percentage gain was the biggest since Jan. 29.

OSI’s Rapiscan unit makes machines that can detect liquids and other potential explosives beneath passengers’ clothing. In October, the U.S.Transportation Security Administration placed an order valued at $25 million for Rapiscan’s imaging equipment, the Hawthorne, California-based company said.

Expediting Delivery

“We are starting to implement and put them in at TSA’s direction at U.S. airports,” Peter Kant, an executive vice president for Rapiscan, said yesterday in an interview. “We’ve been on the phone a lot with TSA about how to expedite delivery.”

The company has delivered about 40 machines so far to the agency, he said.

The Transportation Security Administration has been adding low-level X-rays and millimeter-wave technology machines to find explosives. There are millimeter-wave machines at 19 airports, the agency said on its Web site.

TSA recently announced the purchase of 150 Rapiscan units with some of its $1 billion in airport-security funds from the $787 billion economic stimulus package, said Greg Soule, a security administration spokesman.

The agency intends to purchase an additional 300 advanced imaging-technology units in 2010, Soule said.

Using the technology is voluntary for passengers, the security administration said. Those who do not wish to receive millimeter wave screening will undergo metal detector screening and a pat-down, according to the agency.

Privacy Issues

Full-body imaging has been criticized by some advocacy groups as an invasion of privacy. Kant said his company has mitigated that concern by blurring body images and having technicians viewing the images in a different location from the screening equipment.

“There have been privacy concerns expressed about the use of these whole body-imaging devices, but I think those privacy concerns, which are, frankly, mild, have to fall in the face of the ability of these machines to detect material like this,” Lieberman said on “Fox News Sunday” on Dec. 27.

Using technology for every threat may cost more and reduce risk less than measures such as increasing visa reviews in “high-risk” countries, said David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University and the University of North Carolina.

“Every time we have an episode, we should not rush to judgment and spend billions of dollars deploying the newfangled technology that will meet a very narrow sliver of the threat,” said Schanzer. “That’s not a satisfying response that politicians can make. Politicians feel an urgent need to respond to the threats today.”

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