Chicago Metra Tests Crowd-Scanning Weapon Detection System

The Transportation Security Administration has been loaning the detectors out to transit agencies across the country who want to try them out. Critics say the technology amounts to “digital stop and frisks.”

by Marie Fazio, Chicago Tribune / October 16, 2019

(TNS) — Those who bothered looking up from their phones at Millennium Station Tuesday morning found themselves being scanned by two white boxy detectors swiveling back and forth as crowds passed.

It was only a test, for now.

The scanners, mounted on tripods and observed by as many as 10 Metra police officers just outside the station, are designed to detect potential threats hidden under clothing, such as bomb vests or guns. It’s unclear how effective the machines are, and the American Civil Liberties Union questions whether such “digital stop and frisks” are constitutional.

The Transportation Security Administration has been loaning the detectors out to transit agencies across the country who want to try them out. “Metra did reach out to TSA to conduct these tests,” said Metra spokesman Michael Gillis. “We were interested to see if the technology was something that might work for us.”

Gillis said the tests are not in response to any specific incident or threat.

Millennium Station was the first of several trials scheduled this week. The scanners were placed near a pillar in the center of the underground space and pivoted to the left and to the right. Two of the officers sat behind a laptop at a wooden table as people scanned by the detectors appeared on the screen.

The few commuters who looked up craned their heads to get a better view of the detectors. Some seemed mildly curious or confused, and others just walked past.

More testing will take place during Wednesday’s morning rush at the Van Buren Street Metra station and Thursday morning at the Ogilvie Transportation Center.

Metra has no plans at this point to implement the technology in stations, but the testing will determine if it is “suitable for the mass transit environment,” Gillis said.

A prime benefit of the device is its ability to scan a large crowd without disrupting the flow of traffic or requiring a line to form, he said.

The technology identifies objects that block the “naturally occurring emissions” from a person’s body, said TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein. For example, an explosive device or “in layman’s terms, a suicide vest," she said.

The scanner relays information to a nearby laptop, where an operator sees two images. One of them is called a “green ghost,” literally a green image of a person with emission-blocking objects appearing in black. The other is an actual image of the person so the operator can get a sense of where the object is on the person, Farbstein said.

The machines can detect both metal and nonmetal objects.

Farbstein noted that the machines do not take photos, record video or show anatomically accurate images of a person, so it “is not revealing in any way."

The detectors do not emit any radiation or any other harmful rays, she added. They can be easily moved around, which works well for transit systems with many stations and entrances at each.

Thruvision and QinetiQ, security technology manufacturing companies, have both provided TSA with equipment for testing in the past. Gillis said that one model from each company is being tested by Metra. Neither company responded to requests for comment.

Chicago is only the latest testing bed for the new technology.

TSA has worked with New Jersey Transit, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority. In February 2018, the agency partnered with Amtrak for testing at Pennsylvania Station in New York City.

Also last year, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority became the first surface transportation agency to purchase the technology after testing. The equipment has also been used at mass transit hubs near Super Bowl venues, Farbstein said.

She would not comment on how effective the machines have been. “You can never be too careful," Farbstein said. "You want to do what you can to safeguard against threats.”

Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the Chicago chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, questioned whether the devices are constitutional, noting that “digital stop and frisks” have never been ruled upon in a court of law and open the door to potential discrimination.

“It’s not clear if everyone is scanned or if someone can opt out,” he said. “Is it based on age, is it based on gender, is it based on race? What is the trigger for someone to be subjected to this search?”

©2019 the Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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