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An End to ‘Virtual Strip Searches’ with Whole-Body Scanning?

Photonics.com
Jul 2011
Jul. 29, 2011 — Sometimes less transparency can be a good thing. At least, the Transportation Security Administration is hoping it is.

The TSA endured a bit of a firestorm last year after implementing whole-body scanners utilizing millimeter wave and backscatter x-ray technologies in airport security lines across the U.S. Travelers and privacy groups alike expressed concern because the scanners – especially the backscatter x-ray scanners — revealed precise anatomical details, amounting to “virtual strip searches,” they said (they were little comforted by the fact that they could opt to undergo “enhanced pat-downs” instead).

Making matters considerably worse: While the TSA emphasized that it did not store images of passengers, procurement specifications noted that, in test mode, the scanners must “allow exporting of image date in real time” and facilitate “high-speed transfer of image data” over the network.

In response to the outcry, the TSA announced last week that it was taking steps to ensure passenger privacy. In the coming months, the agency said, it will begin to install new software on its millimeter wave Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines. The software automatically detects potential threats but here indicates their location on a generic, computer-generated outline of a person — rather than on a detailed scan of the passenger’s body. If it identifies a potential threat, the passenger will undergo additional screening. Otherwise, an “OK” will appear on a monitor attached to the AIT unit and he or she is free to go.

The TSA will install the software on all millimeter wave units currently deployed in airports, and says it will test similar software for backscatter x-ray units in the fall. At present, some 500 imaging technology units are in in use in 78 airports across the country. The agency plans to deploy more units later in the year.

The agency hopes this will put to rest any privacy concerns surrounding the scanners. It’s not likely that it will, though. It’s not clear, for example, that it has addressed issues concerning the possible storage and export of the original scans — one of the primary concerns with using whole-body scanners in airports.


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