See-Through Security

Some travelers say these images are too revealing and an invasion of privacy.

Bob Segall/13 Investigates

It sees right through your clothes. It lets someone else see revealing images of your body. And 13 Investigates has learned it's coming to Indianapolis' new airport terminals. Some air travelers say this new security technology goes way too far.

Before your flight takes off, let's face it, you are taking off too: taking off your shoes, your jacket, your belt - all in the name of airport security.

But would you be willing to take off everything?

While you ponder that question, 13 Investigates wants to introduce you to Millimeter Wave Technology, also known as Whole Body Imaging.

Next week, when it comes to Indianapolis International Airport, it will give Transportation Security Administration officers a revealing look at airline passengers.

Just how revealing?

We'll get to that in a moment. But first, here's what it is and how it works.

Inside the chamber

After walking through traditional metal detectors at airport security, any passenger can be randomly selected for additional screening inside a Millimeter Wave machine. The process takes only a few seconds.

When travelers walk into the Whole Body Imaging chamber, they are instructed to raise their arms above their head. The $170,000 machine then bounces electromagnetic waves off the body to create a very detailed 3-D image. That image is seen only by a TSA officer in a separate room - and passengers' faces are blurred to help conceal their identity.

"It allows security officers to see very quickly and very easily that there are no threat items concealed at all on that person," explained TSA spokeswoman Lauren Gaches. "It's a passenger imaging technology that enables TSA to detect prohibited items - weapons and explosives - that are concealed on the body without physical contact."

But it's not just weapons and explosives that TSA security officials can see when you walk through the Millimeter Wave machine. The machine also defines the curves and details of the human body and creates an image that makes many passengers feel uneasy.

"Almost like they can see you naked"

13 Investigates found unidentified Whole Body Imaging scans on TSA's website and showed them to air travelers at Indianapolis International Airport.

"Gosh, it's like an x-ray but it still shows quite a bit of your body in terms of some private areas," said Indianapolis-to-Las Vegas passenger Henry Washington. "It's quite revealing."

"I'm just uncomfortable with that," said Susan Davidson, while waiting for her flight to Mississippi. "It's almost like they can see you naked in that x-ray."

TSA doesn't like using the term "naked."

In fact, Gaches went out of her way to avoid using the word during her interview with 13 Investigates.

When reporter Bob Segall asked directly, "Are they essentially creating an image of a naked body?" the TSA spokeswoman responded, "They produce an image of the body as it appears in life."

Segall then pointed out, "The image of the human body as it appears in life would be naked," and Gaches agreed.

"Right," she admitted.

Gaches later called WTHR to claim her comment was presented out of context, alleging "Right" was in response to a different question and that WTHR had misrepresented her by improperly editing the interview. The unedited interview shows that is not the case.

The TSA spokeswoman also told 13 Investigates the Millimeter Wave machine creates a "blurry, almost Transformer-like image" of the human body, but later stated body images are not blurred.

"The faces are blurred to protect the privacy of the individual but other areas are not blurred because what we're looking to do here is to have a high-level of detection capability," Gaches explained.

Deleted and gone forever

When Indianapolis' new airport terminals open November 12, they will have four Whole Body Imaging machines. TSA says travelers who walk through those machines should not worry about their whole body image falling into the wrong hands.

"There is no ability for us to store, to save, to print or to transmit an image," Gaches said. "As soon as a person goes through the machine, that image is deleted and is gone forever."

TSA also says, unlike a standard metal detector, Whole Body Imaging will help detect both metallic and non-metallic threats that passengers may attempt to conceal. Citing "national security reasons," the agency would not provide specific examples of those threats.

Because the technology can help bolster air safety, some travelers believe the technology is a great idea.

"I think if it keeps me safer, then I'm all for it," Jean Crump said before boarding her flight to Tampa.

But most of the travelers WTHR interviewed in Indianapolis say they're not yet ready for whole body imaging.

Electronic strip search?

Traveler Mark Shelton said he does not like the idea of Whole Body Imaging. "Some of these pictures don't really look any different than a strip search," he said.

TSA insists Whole Body Imaging is not equivalent to an electronic strip search.

"I don't think so because that would imply there was no choice," Gaches said.

Passengers do get a choice.

According to TSA, any traveler can opt out of a whole body scan and instead choose a traditional pat down search. 13 Investigates saw passengers making that choice at Detroit Metro Airport, one of several U.S. airports where Whole Body Imaging machines are already in use.

"Apparently you can see, well, everything..." explained Detroit-to-Seattle passenger Sean Arts, who said he asked for a pat-down search after reading about Millimeter Wave technology on the internet prior to his flight. "...Underneath your clothes and in different areas, all your private areas and it's just not something I feel is necessary."

Indianapolis travelers like Sara English say when the technology lands at IND next week, they won't be offering up their whole body image either.

"I don't want anyone to see that. That's why I wear clothes," she said.