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TSA Tests Less Invasive Body Scanner Software

During the “Don’t Touch My Junk” brouhaha, many observed that the technology already existed for scans that produced essentially a stick figure instead of a precise snapshot of the body. At the time, I recall TSA saying such software was months if not years away. A couple months later, they’re testing it out.

As the uproar over the government’s use of pat-downs and full-body scanners at airports ebbs, new technology is being tested that is designed to allay privacy concerns over the grainy nude images produced by the machines.

Scanners being tested in three U.S. airports starting this week will display for screeners a generic stick figure, and any suspicious object on a passenger’s body will be flagged for inspection by a pale red box on the drawing. A passenger cleared to go will see the screen flash green and read “OK.”

To make sure everyone know they weren’t being bullied, TSA combined this with reams of data showing that complaints about the scanners and pat-downs were relatively low and trivial.

This does not address two additional concerns about the scanners. First, it has nothing to do with the radiation exposure in the backscatter scanners, which some have shown concern over. TSA maintains, and shows studies to prove, that you would have to pass through a scanner 5,000 times to achieve the amount of radiation in one X-Ray. Second, it does not make the scanners themselves work any better. Tests have revealed several vulnerabilities with them, including the ability to pass through with a weapon concealed by a pancake. Not to mention the fact that a determined attacker could simply detonate his device in line and cause mass casualties.

“They don’t work” is a high hurdle to overcome, but the privacy issue is being addressed, and much faster than TSA said was possible. The new software will be tested in Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Reagan National in Washington.

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David Dayen

David Dayen