Body scanners at U.S. airports will stop creating person-specific images for passenger screening after complaints by privacy advocates.
The TSA will install software that will use a generic body outline in scanning for items that could pose a threat to passengers, the Washington-based U.S. Transportation Security Administration said in a statement today. Passengers will be able to view the same outline as TSA officers. If a potential threat is detected, additional screening will be required.
"This is a positive step forward to improve TSA's screening procedures at U.S. airports through increased privacy for individual travelers," Representative Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican who chairs the House Homeland Security subcommittee that oversees TSA, said in an e-mail. Rogers has called for more risk-based screening procedures at airports.
Privacy advocates and passenger-rights groups have raised concerns about the images generated by body scanners, which show non-metallic items under clothing. Last week, a federal appeals court rejected a claim by the Electronic Privacy Information Center that the scans violate constitutional and federal protections against unreasonable searches. The "naked" images are too graphic, the group has said.
The TSA will install the software on so-called millimeter wave scanners, which use radio-frequency energy, in U.S. airports in "the coming months," Greg Soule, a TSA spokesman, said by telephone. The agency will test the software on backscatter scanners, which use low-intensity X-ray energy, later this year. Almost 500 body scanners are in service in 78 U.S. airports.
'Pretty Substantial Change'
Eliminating the use of person-specific images "represents pretty substantial change in agency policy," Ginger McCall, open government counsel for the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, said in a telephone interview.
The group, a research and advocacy group focusing on personal privacy and civil liberties, wants the TSA to make the technical specifications of the software public, McCall said.
The TSA's Soule declined to comment on publishing the technological specifications.
The agency should stop using the scanners entirely, said Brandon Macsata, executive director of the Washington-based Association for Airline Passenger Rights.
"We feel there are better ways to balance security and privacy," Macsata said in a telephone interview.
The TSA uses body scanners made by L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. and OSI Systems Inc.'s Rapiscan Systems Inc. division. Any additional machines that the TSA purchases will come equipped with the technology, the agency's Soule said.
The announcement won't change Rapiscan's manufacturing plans, Rapiscan Executive Vice President Peter Kant said in an e-mail. Torrance, California-based Rapiscan Systems, a closely held division of Hawthorne, California-based OSI Systems, makes security-detection technology for airports.
L-3 is upgrading the software on its ProVision 241 machines in U.S. airports under a contract with the TSA, Jennifer Barton, a company spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. New York-based L-3 makes military and homeland-security technology for the U.S. government.
L-3 rose 64 cents to $82.17 at 4:01 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. OSI Systems added 11 cents to $43.86 on the Nasdaq Stock Market.
Chaffetz happy with new direction
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, has been highly critical of the so-called whole body imaging machines, arguing that security officials shouldn't have to see travelers' nearly naked bodies to secure the airline system.
He said Wednesday that the TSA is moving in the right direction but argues that the machines still need to be used only for secondary screening.
"It's an improvement but it doesn't solve the problem," Chaffetz said. "There are ways to beat the machine, some of that I can't talk about publicly. Some of that is classified. [But] the machine itself is not as secure as it necessarily reports it to be."
Chaffetz has advocated that airports use metal detectors to find potential weapons and enlist trained police dogs to sniff out explosives or chemicals.