Brace yourselves, beleaguered fliers. As politicians push for more computerized body scans in the wake of the thwarted Christmas Day terror attack, a small group of security companies stands to benefit from a surge in orders. But the scans could add another layer of hassle to an already miserable airport experience—and not make the world's aviation system much safer. "It's completely reactionary," says Michael Boyd, president of aviation consulting company Boyd Group International in Evergreen, Colo. "Everything we're doing is reacting to a terrorist threat, not anticipating one."
The U.S., Britain, and the Netherlands are already pressing ahead with plans for increased use of the full-body scanners. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration, which has 40 scanners in place at 19 airports so far, has spent $25 million on 150 additional scanners and plans to buy 300 more. The devices, which are placed at security checkpoints, use radio waves or low-level X-rays to produce detailed images of passengers' bodies—and weapons or explosives beneath their clothes.
That may just be the start of the security push. Senators Joseph Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) advocate increased use of the machines, and Lieberman plans to hold a Senate hearing on airport security later this month that will call for more passenger scans. On Jan. 5, President Barack Obama said stepped-up security measures would be put in place soon. Even Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a longtime critic of body scans who calls them a "virtual strip search," says political opposition to the machines has evaporated since the Christmas Day plot. "Nobody wants to appear to be soft on security," he says.
NEW ATTACK MODESBody scanners could certainly deter some terrorist attacks. They're designed to flag plastic weapons or chemicals explosives like those Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly had hidden in his underwear on Dec. 25. But critics point out scanners can't always detect low-density materials, such as powders or liquids, or items inside the body. Boyd fears that installing a bunch of scanners now could motivate terrorists to find new means of attack while costing hundreds of millions of dollars that could be better spent anticipating the next move. "You can't stop terrorism," he says. "You can only deter it" as effectively as possible.
The biggest beneficiaries of a scanner boom will likely be L-3 Communications (LLL) of New York and Torrance (Calif.)-based Rapiscan Systems, part of OSI Systems. They're the only scanner makers approved so far by the TSA, which already has contracts with them that could top $100 million apiece. If the TSA decides to install the machines at all 2,100 security lanes in the U.S., that could produce total revenue of $300 million to $400 million. "The TSA is saying, 'Let's accelerate the process,' " says Richard Hoss, a senior research analyst with Roth Capital Partners. "It's likely to benefit these companies." The stocks of OSI and L-3 are up 29% and 2%, respectively, since Christmas Day.
Other manufacturers could get in on the game in the future. London's Smiths Group is trying to win TSA approval for its machines. American Science & Engineering (ASEI) in Billerica, Mass., has provided scanners to the agency in the past and is believed to be seeking approval again. The company declined to comment.
SLOWER SURVEILLANCE?Few travelers to date have encountered body scans. Of the 40 TSA machines in use, only 6 are used for so-called primary screening of all passengers. The rest are reserved for those pulled aside for secondary screening. Amsterdam's Schiphol airport has 15 body scanners but will likely need more to meet the country's directive to screen all passengers on U.S.-bound flights.
The current U.S. machines are made by L-3 and use high-frequency radio waves to render 3D images of passengers' bodies. The TSA's next 150 scanners will come from Rapiscan. It uses a second technology approved by the agency, backscatter X-rays, which create two-dimensional images of passengers as well as weapons and explosives that standard airport metal detectors don't pick up.
Skeptics worry that scanners will slow down the security process; it takes 15 to 25 seconds for an individual to pass through one. But much depends on whether the machines replace or supplement existing equipment. The manufacturers argue that their devices minimize the need for separate metal detectors, and actually speed up the process. Too much technology "either makes the checkpoint look like a Best Buy (BBY) showroom or makes passengers very annoyed," says Peter Kant, an executive vice-president at Rapiscan.
The TSA hasn't disclosed how its new machines will be used but says it's aware of the concerns. "There's a balance that has to take place between customer service and security," says spokeswoman Ann Davis. The TSA also is addressing privacy fears—making sure scanners blur facial features and genitalia—and deleting images after use.
Still, critics say there are more effective ways to address security threats. Funds could pay for more bomb-sniffing dogs, tighter management of terrorist watch lists, or better intelligence. Instead, opponents say, politicians will spend money addressing the last threat, as they did after September 11, the shoe bomber, and other attempted attacks. "Every time something goes wrong, there must be a problem and someone to blame," says Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer at BT Group (BT) and a security industry gadfly. "If we use full body scans, [terrorists] are going to do something else. This is a stupid game, and it's time we stop playing it."