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Home > Culture and Society

The Backscatter

On the down side, the Backscatter has nothing whatsoever to do with anal sex, but on the plus side it is the future of airport security technology.

26 June 2003

The Backscatter is so-called because the x-rays it uses reflect away (or, if you like, 'scatter back') from what are known as Low Z materials, such as skin and clothing, but hone in on what are known as High Z materials, such as plastic explosives or bloody great bombs.

All well and good you might think. Whatever it takes to defeat the terrorist hordes. However, there is one thing you're forgetting. And that thing is your body, naked and flabby, on a screen for all to see. This week the Backscatter received its first major PR boost, when Susan Hallowell, director of the Transportation Security Administration's security laboratory, demonstrated the system for the world's press. By her own admission, Ms Hallowell appears 'fat and naked' when scanned by the Backscatter. She also appears bald and slouchy with a foul other-worldly smile. Like something unpleasant from Cocoon.

However, the terrorist paraphernalia beneath her clothes is clearly visible. The question must be then, is it worth it? The system has already been tested on volunteers in Florida. Some of them didn't mind it, preferring their nudity to the idea of 'being patted down'. Others find the process a little overly-invasive. To counter the embarrassment of passengers, it has been suggested that screeners have their own booths, thus protecting the passengers' nudity from the prying eyes of passers-by. This however, would leave the scanner open to suspicion, according to one volunteer:

"You'd never know if the screener was looking for bombs or getting his rocks off, like a Catholic priest in a confessional booth."

Already used in some high security prisons and in South African diamond mines, the Backscatter will probably be introduced into our airports whether we like it or not, and the idea of our naked bodies amusing or arousing airport staff will be just another of the many horrors of air-travel that we will have to face.

Refusing to be scanned, saying that you'd rather be blown to kingdom come will, sadly perhaps, not be an option.

More future science.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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