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On December 25th, 2009, Umar Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian national, attempted to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear while on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, en route from Amsterdam to Detroit. Subsequently, a host of American officials started to voice strong support for the installation of airport scanners in order to limit the possibility of such attempts going forward. However, these scanners spot more than just explosives, and some privacy advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, feel they are the equivalent of a “virtual strip search”. Nevertheless, the United States, the U.K., and the Netherlands are all forging ahead with plans for increased use of full-body scanners.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which had 40 scanners in place at 19 airports as of early January, recently bought 150 additional scanners from Rapiscan Security Systems for $25 million, which ought to be installed by the end of June. The TSA hopes to acquire 300 units going forward, as the use of scanners in airports is key to the Obama Administration’s plans to step up airport security, given their ability to show objects hidden on the body. The first 40 scanners, which were manufactured by L-3 Communications (LLL), use millimeterwave sensors that emit radio frequencies, and measure the differences in radiated energy. The result is a detailed 3-D image of a body that is reminiscent of a photo negative. The competing technology, which is manufactured by Rapiscan, is a backscatter x-ray scanner, which sends out low-intensity beams and maps how the x-ray photons get reflected back. Backscatters are typically best at imaging organic material, and they easily detect the scatter patterns of drugs, explosives, and body parts. 

Body scanners have been available for years, but deployment has been tempered by objections from privacy advocates. Although the machines highlight the body’s contours the computers are stationed in private rooms detached from the security checkpoints, and an individual’s face is never shown. Moreover, the screener looking at the computer images does not know the person’s identity. For additional privacy, the agency does not “keep, store or transmit images. Once deleted, they are gone forever…”     

Yet, the naysayers are seemingly not convinced. The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security in November of last year, requesting it to hand over information about the scanners. The lawsuit stemmed from the TSA’s earlier statement that whole-body imaging would not be mandatory for passengers, then subsequently required passengers at six airports to submit to the security measure. In addition, in June of last year, the House of Representatives passed a measure that prohibits the TSA from using such imaging as a primary means for screening passengers. Of the 40 TSA machines now in use, only six are used for primary screening, with the balance reserved for secondary screening of suspicious passengers. 

And no matter what your take on the use of these machines, one thing is for certain--they do make for extended waits at the airport. On average, it takes 15 to 25 seconds for an individual to pass through a body scanner, but this may well just be an inconvenience that travelers have to become used to and often readily accept, as security may have to outweigh convenience in perilous times as these.

The biggest potential winners here are L-3 Communications and Analogic Corp. (ALOG), and the aforementioned Rapiscan Systems, which is part of OSI Systems (OSIS). L-3 Communications and OSI Systems are the only manufacturers approved thus far by the TSA, which already hold contracts that may well be worth more than $100 million each. If the TSA eventually decides to install the devices at all 2,100 security checkpoints in the United States, we would not be surprised to see total revenue of approximately $300 million to $400 million. And investors have certainly taken note, with OSI and L-3 stocks up 36% and 9%, respectively since just before Christmas.