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Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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Wolfe's Den: Airport Scanner Patents Promise Not To Show Your 'Junk'

Rapiscan, the company supplying the controversial x-ray backscatter screeners, has won a patent for a machine which detects threats "with minimum display of anatomical details." Its competitors, and body scanner pioneer Martin Annis, are also pursuing enhanced privacy approaches. Here are the technology details.

5 Airport Body Scanner Patents Stripped Down
(click image for larger view)
Slideshow: 5 Airport Body Scanner Patents Stripped Down

Are the airport body scanners, which have provoked a raging controversy, "porn machines," as they've been dubbed by Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg? Or are they the most effective means going of identifying terrorists carrying explosives?

A bunch of U.S. patents I've dug up indicates that the former is definitely not the manufacturers' intent, notwithstanding the 100 leaked naked body scans posted recently by Gizmodo. Those scans, btw, were at a courthouse, not an airport. They're very blurry besides, though this picture from one of the Rapiscan scanners actually used at U.S. airports is anything but.

As for the effectiveness of backscatter X-ray technology at sussing out bombs, that's an issue open to debate. Experts have pointed out that the machines will not reveal contraband secreted in a bodily orifice (nor, it is to be hoped, will the TSA pat downs). Other observers have noted that the long airport lines snaking toward the security checkpoints are themselves unprotected targets, which are scarily ripe for suicidal terrorists.

Finally, health activists have raised alarms about yet another source zapping people with X-rays. For its part, Rapiscan claims that exposure levels are so low, an individual can safely undergo "up to 5000 scans per year." (If so, maybe they should install the machines at the Admirals Club.)

Me, I stumbled thru a non-opt-out scan on Nov. 18 at SFO. At the time, I hadn't been aware of the debate, which was shortly to go viral. So I wondered what the heck was up with the machine to which I was being directed. At first glance, it reminded me of a revolving darkroom door, but also could've been a salvaged "Orgasmatron" from Woody' Allen's 1973 film "Sleeper."

The experience itself was uneventful, though I have to say I wasn't happy with the "Up Against The Wall" position one is directed to assume while being imaged. On a technical basis, it did occur to me that, if these machines can photograph genitalia, they should also be able to visualize feet, in which case can't we all just put our shoes back on?

Mostly, my reporter's eye was curious about the technology behind the airport body scanners, which I suspected was being mis-, or at least loosely, characterized by writers who hadn't bothered to do much digging. (In their collective defense, what Web worker has time for that nowadays?)

So I went where I always go, to the patent record, and dug up some interesting information.

As a quick intro, before we dive into five patents I've selected, here are a couple of stories worth check out. This AllBusiness article gives a quick overview of the airport scanner marketplace. Three companies were originally competing to win the U.S. airport body scanner contract: Rapiscan Systems Inc. , of Torrance, Calif., L-3 Communications Security and Detection Systems Inc., of Woburn, Mass., and American Science and Engineering Inc. (ASAE) of Billerica, Mass.

Rapiscan won the contract as the sole supplier of airport scanners in Sept. 2009. (Rapiscan's representation by former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff has been much in the news recently. )

ASAE is notable because it was found by Martin Annis, who was recently identified in this New York Times article as the father of X-ray body scanners. Annis is no longer associated with ASAE, but even in his mid-80s he is still cranking out scanner patents, as we shall see shortly.

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