TSA may have a solution for virtual-striptease body scans

Privacy concerns regarding full-body scanners in airports may be put to rest, if a new technology now being tested proves effective.

The Transportation Security Agency may have found a solution to the privacy issues raised by its planned use of full-body scanners that reveal near-naked images of passengers as they go through airport sectury.

Instead of the actual bodies, screeners will see an avatar representing a generic human figure. L-3 Communications Holdings and OSI Systems’ Rapiscan, providers of full-body scanners to U.S. airports, will be upgrading their software to accommodate this change, according to a report in Bloomberg.

The scanners can show concealed weapons, explosives or other contraband, but only by also showing the passenger's body under clothing. Many privacy advocates objected, and fears that screeners would be ogling -- or ridiculing -- the bodies of travelers came to dominate the debate. 

A Unisys report found that a majority of travelers didn’t mind a full-body scan, but privacy advocacy group The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed suit against the government on April 21 seeking to halt the program.

“TSA continues to explore additional privacy protections for imaging technology,” said Greg Soule, a spokesman for the security agency, in the Bloomberg article. “Testing [of the software] is currently under way.”

Use of an avatar should address most privacy concerns, Peter Kant, a Rapiscan executive vice president, said in an interview with Bloomberg. The avatar will look “like a guy wearing a baseball cap,” he said. Concealed objects will still be evident.

Three Republican senators requested the technology in airports April 12 after returning from a trip to the Netherlands, where the technology was installed at Amesterdam’s Schiphol International Airport. 

TSA has full-body scanners at 51 airports, with an additional 28 airports getting the technology by the end of the year, Bloomberg reported. TSA has plans to install 1,000 full-body scanners at airports by the end of next year, covering more than than half the security lanes at major U.S. airports.

L-3’s technology, which has one of its revised scanners in use at Schiphol Airport, is currently being reviewed in a federal laboratory, according to Bloomberg's story. Rapiscan’s software will be submitted for review this month.

Months will be spent testing the technology, said Jeffrey Sural, an attorney for Alston & Bird LLP in Washington and a former assistant administrator at the security agency, the story said.

Currently, full-body scanning is voluntary, although TSA employees may frisk passengers who refuse to be scanned. Over 98 percent of passengers chose full-body scanning over alternative screening procedures, said TSA.

Images from the scanners are reviewed by TSA employees in a separate room to address privacy concerns – such as passengers being able to see pictures of fellow passengers naked. With an avatar, the need for a separate room with additional employees would be eliminated, reducing personnel costs.

TSA had increased the number of full-body scanners to be deployed at airports, as well as the timeline for installing them, in response to a December 2009 attempted terrorist attack.

However, the software upgrade does not resolve privacy issues, as these images may someday be recorded or linked to traveler names, said Marc Rotenberg, president of EPIC, in the Bloomberg report.