Is this the description of a nightmare? It will be reality soon, if a new kind of scanner starts being used. You’ll step behind it, dressed normally, while X-rays bounce off you and produce a black-and-white image that reveals if you’re carrying plastic weapons or explosives?and also displays a nude image of your body.

The government wants to use the new technology at airport security checkpoints because the equipment now in use can only detect metal objects. Susan Hallowell, who is testing the equipment, says, “It does basically make you look fat and naked but you see all this stuff.”

The technology is called “backscatter” because it scatters X-rays. X-rays deflected off dense materials such as metal or plastic produce a darker image than those deflected off skin. The radiation dose isn’t dangerous?it’s about the same as sunshine, according to the manufacturer.

Backscatter machines have been used for years to screen people visiting prisoners and to make sure South African diamond miners, going home at the end of the day, don’t pocket a few stones to take with them. Before they’re used in airports, the FAA wants to develop an electronic “fig leaf” that can preserve passenger privacy. Another option might mean stationing the screener in a booth so only he sees the naked image.

FAA chief technology officer Randal Null tried it and says, “It was a whole lot nicer than having someone pat me down.”

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