TSA to bolster body scanner privacy

A man is given a full body pat-down by a TSA agent during the busiest travel weekend of the year at Denver International Airport, Wednesday Nov. 24, 2010. AP Photo/Barry Gutierrez

In a move to perhaps counteract recent criticism that it was violating air traveler privacy, the Transportation Security Administration Wednesday announced it was installing new software to its scanning machines that would eliminate the need for security workers to view images of passengers' naked bodies.

According to a press release, the agency will implement Automated Target Recognition that can automatically spot items that could pose a possible threat by using a generic outline of a person for all travelers. If no threat is indicated, an 'OK' is indicated on the monitor, and the passenger is cleared; however, if a risk is present, a passenger will then require additional screening.

The agency also said that a separate TSA officer will not be required to see the image in a remote viewing room.

This upgrade will be installed on all its millimeter wave Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines at airports nationwide in the next couple of months. About roughly 500 of the millimeter wave machines will get the new software.

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"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," John Pistole, TSA administrator, said in a statement. "This software upgrade enables us to continue providing a high level of security through advanced imaging technology screening, while improving the passenger experience at checkpoints."

The agency also uses backscatter units. (Backscatter is a different kind of technology that yields similar results). TSA expects to begin testing similar software in those units this fall. If that is successful, then all of the backscatter units will get the change as well.

The announcement follows recent complaints regarding that the full-body machines, which shows a passenger's naked body, as well as previous controversial TSA screening procedures that some have described as invasive.

In one case, a Michigan bladder cancer survivor said that his urostomy bag, which contained urine, spilled during a rough patdown by a TSA agent. This came after the man opted to be searched through the airport's new full body scanner. And in another case, a woman complained that TSA agents made her take off her underwear during a patdown in a private room after her artificial knee set off alarms.

The TSA, however, recently revised its procedures when it comes to screening children. Airport security personnel are now instructed to screen children without using invasive patdowns. This came after a video showed a 6-year-old undergoing an intense pat-down by an agent. That incident sparked outrage among civil rights advocates.

Speaking to CBS Evening News last year, TSA head Pistole referenced the threat of terrorism in reference to the procedures.

"We are dealing with the current threat environment," he said, "that we're aware of that we face a determined and innovative terrorist group in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has proven adept at concealment and design of bombs that can bring down both passenger airlines and cargo airlines. So we're trying to provide the best possible security while balancing the privacy issues that are equally important and how we do that in a blended fashion."

In February, the Senate approved 98-0 an amendment to a pending aviation bill that would punish people who misused body scanner images, such as disseminating them from personal cameras and cell phones.

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