The Transportation Security Administration plans a software upgrade for full- body scanner machines at 40 airports including Raleigh-Durham International, to eliminate the bare-skin video images that have sparked concerns about personal privacy.
RDU scanners use millimeter wave technology that creates a silvery image of the traveler's body with intimate, sex-specific details. TSA says the picture is seen only by a security officer isolated in a nearby room, but many travelers have objected. Some say they'd rather undergo intimate body pat-downs than submit to the body scanners.
The new software will instead show a generic, cookie-cutter outline of a human body, marked to show the location of anything that warrants a closer look by a TSA agent. That could be something in the traveler's pocket or hidden under clothing.
And while the intimate images now are hidden from public view, the new generic body image will be displayed on a monitor at the security checkpoint - where the traveler can see it, too - if there is an indication of something that needs to be checked. If no potential security threats are detected in the body scan, the video monitor says "OK" without a body outline, and the passenger is cleared.
"Our top priority is the safety of the traveling public, and TSA constantly strives to explore and implement new technologies that enhance security and strengthen privacy protections for the traveling public," TSA Administrator John Pistole said Wednesday in a news release.
A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, which had criticized the original imagery as an invasion of privacy, welcomed the change.
"We've always been concerned that this was in essence a virtual strip-search, where you were taking in essence a naked image of someone and showing it to a TSA officer," said Chris Calabrese, ACLU's legislative counsel. "Anything that changes that is a substantial improvement."
A job freed up
Besides addressing travelers' concerns about privacy, TSA said, the software change will eliminate the need for an extra agent to view the video image in an isolated room. That should free more TSA employees to work directly with travelers at the airport security checkpoint.
The software change will be installed in coming weeks at 40 airports that use millimeter wave imaging, including RDU. These scanners bounce electromagnetic waves off the body to create an image.
Scanners at other airports in North Carolina are based on backscatter technology, which uses low-level X-ray beams. TSA says it will start testing the new software this fall for possible use at airports with backscatter scanners.