WASHINGTON – 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 only display for screeners a generic 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.”
The software being tested would replace the revealing images generated by millimeter wave scanners and currently viewed by a TSA agent in a separate room. The new computer program identifies hidden foreign objects and indicates to TSA searchers where to look on the person’s body during a pat-down.
The brief public outcry over the new measures during the holiday travel season did not produce a significant surge in complaints. While 100 million fliers have passed through airport checkpoints since Nov. 1, the Transportation Security Administration has received fewer than 5,500 complaints about the procedures.
And fewer than 800 complaints about the pat-downs and 300 complaints about the full-body scans were lodged by actual travelers, TSA officials said.
While the new software could address privacy concerns, it does not answer complaints about the radiation from another type of scanner, called backscatter, that works using low-dose X-rays. Studies have shown passengers would have to pass through a backscatter machine 5,000 times before being exposed to the same amount of radiation as a single chest X-ray.
There are currently 486 body scanners in use in 88 airports, according to TSA, up from 365 in 68 airports in November.
Testing of the new software, which currently works only on the millimeter wave scanners, will begin this week at three airports: Ronald Reagan Washington National in Washington, D.C.; McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas; and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International.
If the testing meets a “high detection standard,” it would be inexpensive to install the new software on the millimeter wave body scanners already in place, said TSA administrator John Pistole. A similar software upgrade is being developed for the backscatter scanners.