Those airport scanners that leave nothing to the imagination are being scrapped by the Transportation Security Administration.
The agency is ending a contract with Rapiscan Systems, which manufactures the scanners which produce a naked image of travelers who pass through them. Privacy rights activists have complained that the scanners, first rolled out in 2007, constitute a virtual strip search. The TSA plans to continue using a scanner that is considered less invasive, and which makes a generic image that has been likened to a cartoon, or stick figure, yet highlights potential foreign objects on the traveler's body.
"A TSA agent in another room will see an image of your body that could include a revealing look at your entire body, including breasts, genitals, buttocks, and external medical devices."
- American Civil Liberties Union
The TSA says the X-ray scanners will be gone by June because Rapiscan was not able to come up with a software fix to make the scanners comply with a Congressional mandate that the scanners better protect passenger privacy. Opponents of full-body scanners argue that strip searches without probable cause violate basic human rights. Governments do not have the right to make strip searches routine and mandatory, regardless of whether the strip search is done by physically removing clothes or by using technological means to remove the clothes.
“Due to its inability to deploy non-imaging Automated Target Recognition (ATR) software by the Congressionally-mandated June 2013 deadline, TSA has terminated its contract with Rapiscan," the agency said on its website. "By June 2013 travelers will only see machines which have ATR that allow for faster throughput. This means faster lanes for the traveler and enhanced security. As always, use of this technology is optional.”
In November, TSA officials told a Congressional committee the agency had spent $40 million on the nude-image Rapiscan machines and another $100 million on the less invasive model which will continue to be used. In all, the TSA has about 800 machines in operation at 200 airports.
Advocates say the naked body scanners machines are efficient at spotting threats and are much faster than administering strip searches. But they have also generated complaints from critics who say the X-ray exposure they subject passengers to could be a health risk. The European Union last year banned the use of backscatter scanners at European airports over health concerns.
"While TSA has told the public that the amount of radiation emitted from these machines is small, passengers and some scientific experts have raised questions about the impact of repeated exposure to this radiation," said Sen. Susan Collins (r-Maine), last month.
The TSA has 174 Rapiscan scanners in operation. Some 76 others were removed from airports including New York's LaGuardia and JFK, Chicago O'Hare, Los Angeles, Boston, Charlotte and Orlando last year. But the decision to get rid of the rest was based on privacy concerns, not fears of radiation exposure.
The agency had tried to address the privacy issue by monitoring the nude images remotely, from private rooms. Any issues that raised alarm bells were then relayed back to the checkpoint. But that procedure not only added time to the process, it also did little to allay the concerns of travelers who feared they were being ogled from afar.
When they were first introduced, the full-body scanners triggered fears that TSA workers might preserve the nude images they produce. But the agency insisted that images from the so-called "backscatter" machines "cannot be stored, transmitted or printed, and is deleted immediately once viewed. In fact, the machines have zero storage capability and there is a privacy filter applied to blur all images."
But last month, an anonymous blogger who claims to be a former TSA agent answered a reader's e-mail asking "What really happens in the TSA screening room?" Critics said the answer proved them right.
"Personally, in the I.O. room, I witnessed light sexual play among officers, a lot of e-cigarette vaping, and a whole lot of officers laughing and clowning in regard to some of your nude images, dear passengers," the blogger wrote in a post that was widely circulated throughout the media.
TSA officials sought to downplay the fervor created by the blog, with a spokesman saying, "We expect all TSA officers to conduct themselves in a professional manner. Where violations of professionalism occur, appropriate corrective action is taken."
The American Civil Liberties Union has been a longtime critic of the machines, and has been skeptical of claims that images are not saved.
"Although TSA says that the capability to store and transmit images of passengers' bodies will not normally be activated, the agency requires this functionality in all the airport scanners it purchases," the organization advises travelers on its website. "A TSA agent in another room will see an image of your body that could include a revealing look at your entire body, including breasts, genitals, buttocks, and external medical devices."