When the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began using full-body scanners in airports, the now-iconic “naked” images spurred a public debate over privacy and security. As a result, TSA has started implementing new software in its Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines, removing all anatomical detail and automatically targeting concealed objects on a generic outline.
“We believe it addresses the privacy issues that have been raised,” TSA Administrator John Pistole told The Washington Post. “It’s basically a software modification to existing equipment, so there’s very little cost.”
$2.7 million to be exact.
AIT machines in airports and other locations use either millimeter wave or backscatter technology. Both operate on the similar principle of firing tiny waves of energy to create a detailed relief replica of the body’s exterior, including anything on it. Since the debate over these images began, however, a number of companies have worked on software that produces a less detailed (though no less effective) image.
With the new TSA software, if a passenger’s scan presents no anomalies, no image is shown. If something is detected, the outline of a generic body is shown with a box highlighting where the unknown item is held. This gives TSA screeners a simpler, less revealing image. Earlier this year, the new software was tested in select airports, and it is currently being rolled out to 241 machines at 40 airports. TSA plans to eventually implement the new software in capable AIT machines.
This technology will have at least two notable ramifications. First, the airport security infrastructure footprint should shrink. With the old software, images were displayed and monitored in a room separate from the security checkpoint. With the new software, the image is viewed at the checkpoint by both the TSA agent and the passenger. This eliminates the need for a separate screening room, giving airports valuable additional space for operations or commerce. It has the added benefit of speeding screening efforts.
The second ramification from this new software is a change in the debate over full body scanners. Since they were introduced, opponents have been vocal in warning against the machines’ health risks and threats to privacy. Among the most vocal opponents is the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).
“This software doesn’t resolve privacy issues unless the underlying ability to store and transfer images is negated,” said Ginger McCall, Assistant Director for EPIC’s Open Government Project. “[TSA] may say it has discontinued the storage/transfer capability … If the agency wants the American public to trust its statements, it needs to be more transparent.”
The new software is not enough to satisfy EPIC, but the absence of “naked” images will surely quell some public outcry. While the software may offer a more palatable screening experience, it does not address the inherent flaw in these machines. That is, no matter the software, they can only detect the body’s exterior.
Since millimeter waves penetrate to skin depth, anything beneath that will be invisible to the machines. A passenger dedicated to secreting a dangerous item onto an airplane can hide it in their body and pass a security checkpoint without detection, if screeners rely solely on the technology to detect threats. Concealing items within the body has already been used in an attempted assassination of Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. What is more, with the drug war along American’s southern border, Customs and Border and Drug Enforcement agents are always on the lookout for signs that an individual is hiding illicit items inside their body. This is not a new tactic, and it would take little for America’s enemies to replicate and employ it.
AIT machines are largely stars in security theater, giving the illusion that passengers are threat free because they have passed a series of technological tests. While no piece of technology can offer a perfect solution, layering multiple security tactics can increase the chances of catching would-be evildoers. Technology that respects public modesty is important. Yet, even as TSA looks to appease public criticism, it must also incorporate the kind of risk-based security strategy that enhances, rather than relies on, technological capabilities.