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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 March, 2004, 09:29 GMT 10:29 UK
How revealing is an X-ray scanner?
Just as luggage is systematically X-rayed to see what's inside, the Met Police have tested a scanner which looks through clothes for drugs and concealed weapons. But is modesty preserved?

Police officer using the x-ray in London last weekend
An electronic strip search
In just six seconds, an X-ray scanner can produce a 360 digital image of the body - minus clothes.

This is no coy version of James Bond's X-ray specs, in which 007 can see the hidden guns - and saucy underwear - which lie beneath a villain's garments.

What shows up is the naked human form and anything concealed on the person: coins in a pocket, trouser studs, metal or ceramic knives, guns, explosives, drugs. The shin bones, which lie close to the skin's surface, can also be seen, as can features such as the cleft between buttocks.

Just such an X-ray scanner has been used by UK police for the first time, during a pub raid last Friday night. Those rounded up were given the option of a body search or this electronic strip search.

Of the dozens searched, the majority opted to be scanned. Arrests were made for a range of offences including cannabis possession, handling stolen goods and carrying a knife.

The X-rays in effect strip you naked - little is left to the imagination, says Superintendent Malcolm Baker, who was involved in the use of the scanner. "It's very graphic."

Birthday suit

Steve Smith, the American who invented and developed the Secure 1000 scanner, says privacy is an issue.

Scanner
Subjects stand before the scanner
"The general outline of the body can be seen, along with some blurry details of the anatomy. It shows about as much as if the person were wearing a tight bathing suit. Obviously, it must be used with discretion, such as ensuring that the monitor is visible only to the security screener."

Already the scanner is in use in the US and worldwide in airports, embassies, court buildings, prisons and government properties. While modesty was preserved during the police operation by the scanner - and its operators - being hidden away in a mobile unit, civil liberties advocates have raised concerns about an operator's code of conduct and any risks of passers-by having a look.

So the scanners can be fitted with a modesty filter which adds a fig-leaf to the birthday-suited subject.

"What it does is reduce the resolution at certain parts of the body, much like a broadcaster can pixilate someone's face," says Angus Fowlie, of the manufacturer, Rapiscan.

While the scanner is more invasive than a conventional metal detector, Dr Smith says it is more effective as it can detect "21st Century weapons" such as explosives and plastic guns.

"At present, the only way of locating these dangerous items is through a pat-down search, where the security officer rubs his hands over the person's body."




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