Airport scanners upgraded
Less intrusive technology used in several major cities
CHICAGO – The federal government is quietly removing full-body X-ray scanners from seven major airports and replacing them with a different type of machine that produces a cartoon-like outline instead of the naked images that have been compared to a virtual strip search.
The Transportation Security Administration says it is making the switch in technology to speed up lines at crowded airports, not to ease passenger privacy concerns. But civil liberties groups hope the change signals that the equipment will eventually go to the scrap heap.
“Hopefully this represents the beginning of a phase-out of the X-ray-type scanners, which are more privacy intrusive and continue to be surrounded by health questions,” said Jay Stanley, a privacy expert at the American Civil Liberties Union.
The machines will not be retired. They are being moved to smaller airports while Congress presses the TSA to adopt stronger privacy safeguards on all of its imaging equipment.
In the two years since they first appeared at the nation’s busiest airports, the “backscatter” model of scanner has been the focus of protests and lawsuits because it uses X-rays to peer beneath travelers’ clothing.
The machines are being pulled out of New York’s LaGuardia and Kennedy airports, Chicago’s O’Hare, Los Angeles International and Boston Logan, as well as airports in Charlotte, N.C., and Orlando, Fla.
The TSA would not comment on whether it planned to remove machines from any other locations.
Some of the backscatter scanners have gone to airports in Mesa, Ariz., Key West, Fla., and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The TSA is still deciding where to send others.
The switch is being made as the TSA is under political pressure. Legislation approved in February gave the agency until June to get rid of the X-ray scanners or upgrade them with software that produces only a generic outline of the human form, not a blurry naked image. The agency, however, has the authority to grant itself extensions, and the current deadline is now May 31.
So far, the upgrades have been made only to the TSA’s other type of scanner. Called millimeter-wave scanners, they resemble a large glass phone booth and use radio frequencies instead of X-rays to detect objects concealed beneath clothing.
The scan is processed by software instead of an airport security worker. If the software identifies a potential threat, a mannequin-like image is presented to the operator showing yellow boxes over areas requiring further inspection..
Besides eliminating privacy concerns, the machine requires fewer people to operate, takes up less space and completes a scan in less than two seconds, allowing screening lines to move faster.
“It’s all done automatically to look for threats, so you don’t have anybody in a back room that has to look at the imaging,” said Doug McMakin, who led the team that developed the millimeter-wave technology at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
In addition to speed and space advantages, the millimeter-wave technology does not produce the ionizing radiation that has led to safety concerns with the X-ray machines.
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