TSA Pulls Plug on “Porno Scanners”

January 21, 2013

I have written several times about the ongoing controversy over the US Transportation Safety Administration’s [TSA] use of full-body scanners (which the TSA calls “Advanced Imaging Technology”[AIT]) as part of its security protocol for screening air travelers.   The machines began to be introduced in the fall of 2010, and immediately created controversy.  One criticism, voiced by many security professionals, was that the effectiveness of the machines was questionable.  Another issue was the very detailed anatomical images produced by the devices, which led some privacy advocates to dub them “Porno Scanners”.  There was also a safety concern with one type of scanner, which uses backscatter X-ray technology, since it would expose the passenger to a small dose of ionizing radiation.  (A second type of scanner, which uses millimeter-wavelength radio waves, does not involve radiation exposure.)

Last summer, there were also developments in a court case, brought by a group of plaintiffs led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center [EPIC], challenging the use of the AIT devices, and asking the court to force the TSA to follow the normal review process for new government regulations.  On July 15, 2011, the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia had ruled that the TSA had to follow the normal procedure for issuing new regulations, as specified in the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946.  The TSA has now begun to comply with the review process, and has commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to look at the question of radiation exposure from the X-ray devices. It has also, as ordered by Congress, moved to replace the “anatomically correct” scan images with generic body images generated by software.

Now, according to an article at the Washington Post, the TSA has decided to remove 174 of the backscatter X-ray scanners from airports, because the vendor has not managed to equip them with the new generic-imaging software.

The Transportation Security Administration will remove 174 full-body scanners from airport security checkpoints, ending a $40 million contract for the machines, which caused a uproar because they revealed spectral naked forms of passengers.

TSA Administrator John S. Pistole issued the order this week after concluding that new software that made the machines less intrusive could not be developed by a June 1 deadline mandated by Congress.

The new software has apparently been successfully developed for the millimeter-wave scanners, which will continue to be used, and which will replace most of the X-ray machines that are being removed.

I have felt all along that the most disturbing part of this story was not the “porno” images, or even the safety questions, but the TSA’s apparent attitude that, because the machines were being used to “prevent terrorism”, it could just ignore inconvenient laws and regulations.  So this climb-down is a good thing, though it will doubtless be “spun” as something else.

There are also brief articles on this story at Ars Technica and Wired.

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