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Congressman Admonishes DHS for Neglecting Public Concerns Over Screening Technology

02/03/2010 -The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must pay closer attention to whether passengers are comfortable with future screening technologies before they are deployed to airports,a lawmaker said today during a hearing on passenger screening research and development. 

The hearing comes after President Barack Obama called for DHS to work closely with the Department of Energy to develop and deploy the next generation of screening technologies at U.S. airportsafter the botched terrorist attack on Christmas.

Rep. David Wu (D-OR), chair of the House Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation, admonished DHS for not listening to ten-year-old guidance by the National Academy of Sciences that stated the government must pay more attention to whether the public will accept new passenger screening technology.

"Ten years later [in 2007] the Academies concluded that nothing had changed and these issues were still ignored," Wu said in prepared testimony. "No wonder the deployment of body-scanning technologies has proven to be such a public failure."

Since the failed attack, DHS has decided to aggressively deploy full body imagers to airports around the country. The controversial technology—which can peer underneath passengers' clothing to identify contraband—has been described as a virtual strip search by critics.

DHS, on the other hand, believes the technology will be able to spot both metallic and nonmetallic threats a passenger may conceal while going through security. The alleged terrorist on Christmas, 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, smuggled explosive powders sewn into his underwear past airport security in Amsterdam and tried to detonate them on board a Detroit-bound flight over the United States.

Yesterday, DHS announced plans to have 1,000 machines in circulation at high-risk airports by the end of 2011.

Wu said that after looking over the witnesses' prepared testimony, public acceptance of future screening technologies received short shrift. Witnesses included representatives from DHS' Science and Technology Directorate, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology—all players in the research and development of next-generation passenger screening technologies.

"The agencies before us today still do not have a robust and comprehensive plan for conducting and using effective pubic acceptance research" to guide their research and development processes, he said.

While there has been push back on deploying full body imagers at airports by some members of Congress, civil libertarians, and privacy advocates,a January poll conducted by USA Today and Gallup showed 78 percent of Americans approved of the technology.

Wu, however, isn't backing down and said he will ensure legitimate public concerns are addressed when developing the next-generation of airport screening technologies.

"Of course the screening process must protect the public," Wu said, "but it must be accepted by the public as well."

Photo of image generated by a backscatter full body imaging machineby TSA.