By David Kravets
The Transportation Security Administration is pulling the plug on its nude body scanner program, a decision announced Friday that closes the door to a tumultuous privacy battle with the public scoring a rare victory.
Travelers will continue to go through one of two types of scanners already deployed, but images of naked bodies will no longer be produced. Instead, software will instead show a generic outline of a person.
First tested in 2007, the advanced imaging technology scanners became the object of intense media and public scrutiny around Thanksgiving in 2010. In addition to privacy concerns, some experts maintained the scanners’ safety was unproven, and that the technology was ineffective in detecting smuggled weapons and explosives. Travelers are permitted to opt-out of the scan, but are then subjected to an aggressive pat-down procedure.
The government said Friday it is abandoning its deployment of so-called backscatter technology machines produced by Rapiscan because the company could not meet deadlines to switch to generic imaging with so-called Automated Target Recognition software, the TSA said. Instead, the TSA will continue to use and deploy more millimeter wave technology scanners produced by L-3 Communications, which has adopted the generic-outline standard.
“Due to its inability to deploy non-imaging Automated Target Recognition (ATR) software by the Congressionally-mandated June 2013 deadline, TSA has terminated part of its contract with Rapiscan,” the TSA said in a statement to Wired. “By June 2013 travelers will only see machines which have ATR that allow for faster throughput.”
The announcement comes three months after Rapiscan came under suspicion for possibly manipulating tests on the privacy software designed to prevent the machines from producing graphic body images. The TSA sent a letter in November to the parent company of Rapiscan, the maker of the so-called backscatter machines, requesting information about the testing of the software to determine if there was malfeasance.
The government has spent about $90 million replacing traditional magnetometers with the controversial body-scanning machines at airports nationwide.
Rapiscan had a contract to produce 500 machines for the TSA at a cost of about $180,000 each. The company could be fined and barred from participating in government contracts, or employees could face prison terms if it is found to have defrauded the government. In all, the 250 Rapiscan machines already deployed are to be phased out of airports nationwide and will be replaced with machines produced by L-3 Communications.
The move away from Rapiscan machines is more than a boost to privacy.
Unlike the competing millimeter-wave technology produced by L-3 Communications that employ radio waves to detect metallic and non-metallic substances, the Rapiscan machines expose travelers to a small X-ray dose. The TSA and Rapiscan maintained the machines are safe, despite some academics telling the White House (.pdf) that the government did not adequately study the backscatter X-ray devices.
The TSA’s announcement ironically comes after its December decision to commission the National Academy of Sciences — a private non-profit filled with engineering and science scholars — ”to estimate radiation exposure resulting from backscatter X-ray advanced imaging technology.”
Both companies’ machines were the subject of a lawsuit brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which charged that the machines were ineffective, unsafe and were an unconstitutional privacy breach. A federal appeals court said the TSA breached federal law in 2009 when it formally adopted the airport scanners as the “primary” method of screening. The judges said the TSA violated the Administrative Procedures Act for failing to have a 90-day public comment period, and ordered the agency to undertake one, which is scheduled for this spring.