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TSA Scanners Start Moving From Naked Bodies to Stick-Figure Outlines

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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July 20, 2011

The TSA announced today that it will be rolling out new software on its millimeter wave bodyscanners, which replaces the nude images created by the current machines with generic outlines of the human form. Instead of a human security screener scrutinizing an image of your nude body, a computer will process that image and highlight areas of the body where any “anomalies” are found. Here is an image provided by the TSA:

This technology represents a significant improvement for privacy over the scanners that reveal naked images to human screeners. That is a very good thing. It shows that the outcry against these scanners by the public, and by the ACLU and our allies, has had an effect, and that the TSA has been forced to respond and implement a less invasive system – one that they should have deployed at the outset, rather than wasting an enormous amount of energy deploying and defending the full naked scanners. But it’s a good thing that they finally did respond.

If you sent a letter or email or filed a complaint, stop for a moment and pat yourself on the back. Hundreds of thousands of people took action on this issue and it made a difference. That is no small thing.

That said, the system does not “eliminate” privacy concerns as the TSA stated today. For example:

  • This system remains an intrusive search underneath individuals’ clothing. Privacy concerns especially remain for those who have “anomalies” that must be investigated, such as people with adult diapers, prosthetic breasts following mastectomies, colostomy appliances, catheter tubes – even just lumps on their body.
  • This software would do nothing about the TSA’s extremely intrusive and offensive pat-down policy. And if the software has the effect of increasing the scanner “alarm” rate compared to more discerning human screeners, it could actually lead to more pat-downs.
  • A further question is whether the raw nude images remain in any way accessible to operators, which would mean one of the privacy threats posed by these machines – the “leakage” of images into the public domain – would remain. The machines are designed to store the images, even if they don’t show them. That is a problem that needs to be addressed, and effective oversight measures need to be in place to prevent abuse.
  • It is also worth noting that the new software is being installed only in millimeter wave machines, and not in scanners that use backscatter x-ray technology, which constitute about half of the scanners in service. The TSA says it is working on similar software for the backscatter machines. Note that health questions have also been raised concerning the backscatter x-ray machines (which look like a wall that you stand against, as opposed to the millimeter wave machines which are a glass booth you step inside).

We applaud TSA for modifying their scanners to improve privacy protections and we urge them to listen sooner and more carefully to public concerns, address these remaining problems, and develop new programs and technologies that do not intrude on privacy.

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