With the debate over the security benefits body scanners provide versus the downside of what's been called a virtual strip-search coming to O'Hare, local congressmen generally are backing the controversial technology.
But what's still a question mark among some is whether the full-body-imaging machines are best used on every traveler or just for those who raise red flags.
In the first half of the year, O'Hare International Airport will receive some of the 150 scanners bought by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie S. Andolino said last week. What's unknown is when exactly the scanners will arrive or how many would be given to O'Hare, which has a dozen security checkpoints.
There are 40 scanners at 19 airports across America now, with six used instead of a metal detector for primary screening and 34 used for secondary searches. Travelers can opt for a full pat-down.
The technology uses radio waves or low-level X-rays to scan people's bodies, producing a contour-revealing image that shows concealed items. It's risen to the forefront following the attempted bombing of a jetliner headed for Detroit on Christmas Day
Suburban congressmen split this June on a U.S. House vote seeking to prohibit the TSA from using the machines for primary screening at airports. The issue is still in the Senate.
U.S. Reps. Melissa Bean, a Barrington Democrat, Bill Foster, a Batavia Democrat, Mark Kirk, a Highland Park Republican, Judy Biggert, a Hinsdale Republican, and Jan Schakowsky, an Evanston Democrat, voted against restricting the TSA.
"I'm glad to see that O'Hare is one of the airports intending to move forward with a technology that will make us safer in the air," Bean said. "It's also much faster in terms of efficiency to walk through scanning machines," than removing shoes and other items.
She argued that images are not saved and subjecting everyone to same level of security increases safety.
Secondary screening "does not give people the same sense of security," Bean said, adding it can be arbitrary.
Foster said a decision has to be made on how the scanners are deployed at O'Hare, whether for primary or secondary screening.
"There's a trade-off between privacy and security that the whole country has to have a discussion about," he said.
He supports developing software that allows a computer, instead of a human, to view the body images. Currently, a TSA officer reviews images at a remote location from the scanner.
U.S. Reps. Peter Roskam, a Wheaton Republican, Donald Manzullo, a Rockford-area Republican, and Daniel Lipinski, a Western Springs Democrat, voted in favor of preventing the scanners being used for primary screening.
"If it can be used discreetly as a secondary form of screening, he'd support it," Manzullo's spokesman Rich Carter said.
Roskam said in an e-mail that the failed attack was a reminder of the need to enhance aviation security. "Body scanners could be an important tool in this ongoing process, allowing for high risk and flagged passengers to be screened more thoroughly after initial screenings. It's vital though that we ensure that safeguards are in place to protect the personal privacy of the traveling public as these body scanners are utilized at O'Hare airport," Roskam wrote.
But Biggert said "I still think - if we have the technology - we shouldn't prohibit the TSA from the ability to use that technology."
Full-body scans likely would have detected the explosives bomb suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab of Nigeria allegedly carried, she said.
Lipinski, who sits on the House Aviation Subcommittee, said he's concerned about privacy. But, he added, "as the threats change, we have to be willing unfortunately to use devices such as these, if that is the only way to stop people threatening to blow up a plane."
Kirk is on active duty with the U.S. Navy Reserve and was unavailable for comment.
When it announced the purchase of the 150 scanners, the TSA said they would be used for primary screening. Costs range from $130,000 to $170,000.